Messi makes the difference when it matters
At 18, most of us are asked to plot our lives.
Do we go to college? If so, which one? What do we study? Where will we be in 10 years? Twenty? Will we live to old age?
It's that time when the slate is generally clear and we're allowed to dream.
In the fall of 2005, Barcelona sat down with Lionel Messi for the first adult contract talks. He was 18 years old, and this was his first full season with the first team. The previous year, he had made his Champions League and La Liga debuts and scored his first goal. That summer he made his debut for Argentina. Despite being two years younger than most of the competition, he led the Albiceleste to the Under-20 World Cup title as the tournament's top goal scorer and best player.
Both parties wanted a long-term deal. Messi's father, Jorge, insisted on one that ended in 2013. Barcelona pushed for an extra season, 2014, and eventually got their way. (Since then, Messi has had contract extensions galore.)
The tale, recounted in Guillem Balague's biography of Messi, is telling. Why the emphasis on 2013? Because Messi and his family knew very well what was coming up in 2014: the World Cup. And not just any World Cup, but one that would, at age 27, see Messi at the peak of his power. If something went wrong -- if injury, personal disputes or whatever meant that his time at Barcelona wasn't going to work out -- he would retain the option of becoming a free agent in June 2013 and choose a club where he could get playing time and arrive fully prepared for the 2014 World Cup.
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While he never needed that escape clause -- growing into the best player in the world at Barcelona, where playing time hasn't been an issue, to say the least -- he nevertheless arrived at this World Cup physically -- and possibly psychologically -- beaten up.
That quote doing the rounds attributed to Jorge -- "He is very tired; it felt as if his legs weighed 100 kilograms" -- is apparently apocryphal or, at least, has been denied by Messi's camp. But the fact remains that it's entirely plausible, and that's what matters.
The Messi we've seen on the pitch is some kind of alterna-Messi. A shadow Messi walking around the pitch, looking smaller than usual as he watches the game unfold elsewhere. There are numbers that bear this out.
Messi has covered an average of 8.15 kilometers (5.06 miles) per 90 minutes in this World Cup, which is about 15 to 20 percent less than the average outfield player. Based on 90 minutes, it's worse even than the much-maligned Fred. A sign of laziness? Lack of stamina? Possibly neither. Compare to a similar set of games, the group stage of the 2012-13 Champions League. In six matches, Messi scored five goals and delivered three assists, all while covering 8.22 kilometers per 90 minutes.
The more worrying number isn't the ground he covers because, truth be told, he doesn't usually cover that much for Barcelona either. Rather, it's his pace. According to FIFA's numbers, Messi achieved a top speed of 29.6 km/h (18.4 mph) at this World Cup. Now, that number comes with plenty of caveats. We're not talking speed over the first few steps; top speed is achieved over longer distances, and shorter players will be penalized. And where Messi is nigh untouchable is his speed running with the ball, which isn't measured. But it's still somewhat jarring to see Messi clock in at a full 2 km/h less than Mario Yepes, who is more than a decade older. There is not a single forward among the four semifinalists who reached a lower top speed.
Messi isn't the type to complain. He's so private and publicity shy that, even if he did, we wouldn't know about it. Nor does Argentina talk about it. If anything, they try to avoid the subject, almost as if by doing so they can make it go away.
You can't call it cruel. Cruelty is something else. Cruelty is not even being allowed to pursue dreams or happiness. Or having them snatched away from you. Besides, for all the difficulty, Argentina and Messi are where they want to be, 90 minutes from winning their third World Cup title.
The dream isn't dead. It's just that in his mind he probably didn't expect to arrive in these conditions.
But here is what sets him apart. Right now, he can't do what he wants for 90 minutes. So he paces himself. It's a bit like those video games where your energy goes down and, for whatever reason, takes ages to get back up. What do you do? When it does peak, you make it count.
And that's what Messi has done in this tournament. Little glimpses, momentary flashes when shadow Messi becomes flesh-and-blood Messi and, occasionally, divine Messi. Against Bosnia-Herzegovina, he did little and scored a goal-of-the-tournament contender. In Game 2, against Iran, he notched the icebreaker with a gem in injury time. Nigeria? He got two, one a stunning free kick, the other an errant ball that he pounced on and smashed into the net. Against Switzerland, he had the wherewithal to set up Angel di Maria's winner in the 118th minute, with the spectre of penalty kicks looming. And in the quarterfinal versus Belgium, he was involved in the buildup to Gonzalo Higuain's goal.
That is what you call making a difference when it matters. Those are the types of things that make you believe that Messi is, in fact, saving himself. Or willing his body to go beyond his limits at crucial times.
Another example was a goal that never was, late in the Dutch semifinal. He picked up the ball on the center-right, beat Ron Vlaar, ghosted to the flank, left Dirk Kuyt for dead, danced to the end line, beat Vlaar again for good measure and then crossed it for Maxi Rodriguez, whose finish was uncoordinated.
It was the kind of move that made you wonder: Why is Messi waiting until the 119th minute to do this? The fact is, we don't know. We only know what we see. Maybe this is where you put your faith in a superb athlete's ability to know his body and what it can do.
Messi has waited for this moment for more than a decade. Maybe his battle-worn body has spoken to him:
"You can either have me at 70 percent for the whole game or you can have me at 30 percent for most of the game and then, a couple of times each match, you can push me to 100 percent."
He has been choosing the latter, and it has made all the difference for this Argentina team. It's as good an explanation as any for what we're seeing.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.