By Paul Gardner
Let's see now, I think a few well-chosen words on the Barcelona vs. Arsenal game would be in order. Something like this:
Messi Messi Messi Messi Messi Messi, Messi Messi Messi Messi Messi Messi -- Messi. Messi, Messi Messi Messi Messi Messi; Messi -- Messi Messi -- Messi. Messi, Messi Messi Messi Messi Messi; Messi Messi Messi, Messi Messi, Messi Messi Messi Messi Messi; Messi Messi Messi -- Messi. Messi, Messi Messi Messi Messi Messi!!
I’ve read through that paragraph again, carefully checking the grammar and the syntax and the spelling and the punctuation and the meaning, and it all seems fine to me. No exaggerations, no purple prose, just the plain facts.
The game took place in the shadows of a blinding light called Messi. The light got more and more dazzling as play proceeded until in the end it eclipsed everything. I don’t want to hear -- though, of course, I shall be forced to put up with -- all the silly-clever comments from our beloved technical experts, who will downplay Messi and point out that the key figure in the game was really Barca’s goalkeeper, or something equally barmy. You can be sure that
The hell with the experts, let them shut up for once, let them keep their coach-speaking twaddle to themselves for a change, and let the rest of us wallow in the sheer luxury and beauty of a superb performance from a wonderful player. If only ...
So anti-individual, so anti-star has the sport become that it is now virtually impossible to praise an exceptional player without almost apologizing for doing so. When praise is grudgingly given it must always be wrapped up in a qualifying cocoon of ifs and buts and whys and wherefores and maybes all designed to dumb down the player’s brilliance.
We'll start with the opposing coach last night, Arsene Wenger: "Messi can make a difference at any moment in a game. He can take advantage of any mistakes you make ..." which already diminishes what Messi can do. He doesn't create anything, he simply pounces on errors. Furthermore, "he has the team to help him. Barca is more than Messi."
OK, OK -- Wenger has just seen his team slaughtered, and Messi has been the chief executioner. Maybe he genuinely finds it difficult to heap unqualified praise on the Argentine. But I think there's more to it than that. Wenger is a leading member of the species Coachus modernus (a species that, in true Darwinian fashion, is slowly driving Coachus anticus to extinction). As such he feels, possibly subconsciously, that great soccer cannot be attributed solely to the players, and certainly not to just one player -- the coach has to be in there, playing an important, probably key, role. After all, isn’t that what he’s paid plenty of money to do?
Hence the post-game, or post-loss, autopilot switches on, and we’re immediately made to feel that our praise of Messi should be reined in.
If I found Wenger’s remarks too party-pooping, what am I to say when another Coachus modernus turns up and makes matters even worse? None other than Pep Guardiola, Messi’s very own coach, who talked of “behind the scenes” work” (i.e. coaching) and pointed out that “There are many players who know they will not be in the headlines but play out of position sometimes for the good of the team ... If we don’t play well, Messi might not do so well.”
Remember: this was a night when -- in an era of soccer in which defenses dominate and goalscoring is mighty difficult, in the quarterfinal of the world’s toughest club competition, against one of the world’s top teams -- a remarkable player scored four wonderful goals. I for one do not want to hear, for the umpteenth tedious time, all that pedantic coaching jazz.
Of course Messi needs his teammates -- we all know that, just as we all know that soccer is a team game. We do not need to be repeatedly lectured on this point by people who -- to judge from their breathless wide-eyed enthusiasm -- have only just worked it out.
For once, it would have been nice to hear the coaches go to the microphone and straight away, without evasions or apologies, simply praise Messi. This was Messi’s night, why not give him all the praise he deserves for making it such a memorable one for the entire sport of soccer?
Yet it was not a coach, but a goalkeeper, Arsenal’s Manuel Almunia, who got it right: “He is a brilliant player. He was fantastic, he was great tonight. I think he is the best player I have ever played against and is the best in the world.”
Of course, Guardiola did praise Messi. Mixed in among his qualifiers was this: “There is no way to describe Messi’s performance. There are no words ...”
No, that’s not true. There are words, and here they are: Messi Messi Messi Messi Messi Messi, Messi Messi, Messi Messi -- Messi Messi Messi. And Messi. If you appreciate the beauty of this sport, you will understand those words.
Thank you, Lionel.