By Paul Gardner
Inevitably, I find myself wondering: is Lionel Messi simply too good to last? I’m not saying "too good to be true" -- I’ve seen enough of him and I trust my own eyes.
But surely this can’t go on, can it? In game after game after game, Messi comes up with something that staggers the mind, that leaves me marveling yet again, greedily waiting for the replay to see just how it was done, just what sort of foot and body movement had gone into a mesmerizing moment.
I’m not sure that the replays help. Actually, I’m quite certain that they don’t help to explain anything. Especially the slow-motion versions, which make everything look easy and studied, and drain all the magic away.
Which is not at all what I want. I want to be mesmerized, I want Messi’s artistry to be full of magic. Analyzing magic is too much like writing about sex -- however well-chosen the words, the key part of the whole activity gets lost.
Having said all that, I now have to admit that I do ponder the Messi magic, and that I do come up with explanations. Rather arcane ones, admittedly. Well, they’re not really explanations at all, they’re sort of study notes, things that I’ve noticed, or think that I’ve noticed, that just might have something to do with the extraordinary creative powers of this soccer genius.
First of all, he’s left-footed. OK, everyone knows that, but it’s worth considering that a good left-footed player will present more problems to opponents than a good right-footed player. A matter of familiarity, I imagine -- the vast majority of players are right-footed. When a left-footed genius arrives -- with his left-footed control, his left-sided body movement, that has to be slightly unsettling from the start.
I also think that Messi is flat-footed. It seems to me that he runs flat footedly. And how does that help him? I’ve no idea (I repeat, this is magic I’m trying to pin down), but it seems worth mentioning.
Talking of Messi’s running, maybe it would be interesting to know the length of his running step. Quite possibly some researcher has already done this, conducting a massive testing of all his physiological powers. It has been done with Cristiano Ronaldo in a film entitled “Ronaldo Tested to the Limit” -- in which the player becomes a guinea pig, submitting to all sorts of laboratory testing.
Ronaldo’s running steps would surely be greater -- maybe be twice as large -- as Messi’s. And it has to be those quick, flat-footed, darting little steps that make Messi’s dribbling so baffling to opponents -- with those little steps there seems to be not a second when the ball is not under the control of one foot or the other, with the result that the ball is virtually always likely to change direction, subtly or sharply, quickly or slowly. And the small, compact body changes direction too. Does the body movement come first? Or do the feet lead the way, and the body follows? I’m working on it.
Is it possible that Messi’s flat feet (what I consider to be his flat feet, that is) give him greater stability and balance? I think it’s quite possible that a player whose entire sole makes solid contact with the ground, rather than just the ball of his foot, would be more difficult to knock off balance. And there’s surely no doubt that Messi -- even when confronted with massively bigger defenders (which means almost all of his opponents) is mighty difficult to knock off the ball.
So two types of footedness then, left- and flat-, figure in my far from expert analysis. But the left-footed aspect should not be overdone. While Messi’s dribbling is almost exclusively a left-footed maneuver, his right foot can be relied upon to bring a dribble to its climax with a finely accurate shot on goal -- not with the power that Messi can amazingly generate with his left, but with the fine precision of the master craftsman.
We know he can head the ball -- we’ve seen him head the occasional goal (notably, in Barcelona’s 2009 Champions League final victory over ManU) but heading is not in any way crucial to Messi’s repertoire. Even if he never heads another ball, his genius will remain intact.
As the Messi legend grows, particularly the dribbling trickery and the goalscoring parts of it, you might expect his effectiveness to wane, as opponents learn what to expect, and how to deal with it. Nothing like that has happened -- Messi today, at merely 24 years -- is more effective, more astonishing, more magical than he has ever been.
And why would that be? Because the biggest part of Messi’s genius does not lie in the skills I’ve been trying to fathom. These are the physical skills, the skills that can be subjected laboratory tests. They amount to a player’s vocabulary -- dribbling, passing, feinting, shooting, special skills like bicycle kicking, chipping, lobbing and so on. Even without any noticeably exceptional heading ability, Messi probably has a larger soccer vocabulary than any other player.
Poets, for sure, have larger vocabularies than the rest of us. Shakespeare’s vocabulary is generally estimated to have been some 10,000 words larger than the average person’s. But it is not the number of words that makes the poet. It is the use of those words, the ability to choose the exactly right word, or combination of words, at exactly the right place that defines the poet and his poetry.
It is not fanciful to see Messi’s play as the poetry of soccer, and that vision clears things up, because his use of his vocabulary is what matters, and now we’re talking about cerebral matters. I’m hoping they never get around to sticking electrodes into Messi’s brain to reduce what makes him tick to a series of ugly charts and diagrams.
The beauty of Messi’s play comes from a wondrous soccer vocabulary -- surely bigger than any other current player’s -- combined with the poetic ability to call on that vocabulary to produce moments of smooth, finely fashioned artistry.
And Messi faces problems that neverbothered Shakespeare. Sure, Shakespeare undoubtedly had to write to meet deadlines but he never had to face the hazards that beset Messi -- that of creating instant art while an enemy is, so to speak, trying to knock the pen out of his hand!
All of Messi's soccer sorcery was there in the goal he scored on Saturday against Racing Santander. All accomplished in just four seconds and four touches of the ball. A left-footed touch that saw Messi burst between two defenders, then two more left-footed touches, the second to pull the ball sharply back and out of reach of the lunging goalkeeper, followed instantly by the right foot to roll the ball from a tight angle across the goal and just inside the far post.
Not many players today score goals like that. In fact, off-hand, I can’t think of any such goals that I’ve seen recently. Except from Messi, who does it regularly.
Too good to last? I think only serious injury can stop Messi from getting better and better, from following the progression we saw in Pele, from the early teen-age athleticism and goalscoring in the 1958 World Cup, to the wily midfield maestro in 1970.
For the present we can rejoice in the thought that almost every weekend, Messi will light up the soccer world - our world -- with a brilliant play or a remarkable goal. I shall go on hoping that this will last, that we shall be lucky and privileged enough to witness another six or seven years of Messi and the superlative majesty of his game.
Watch Messi’s goal vs. Racing Santander HERE.