Messi explains his artistry: 'I play like a child'

By Paul Gardner

Watching Lionel Messi play soccer gives me an intense delight. The only other player who comes close to creating the free-spirited aura of enjoyment that Messi displays is Cristiano Ronaldo. But Messi is really in a class of his own.

I’m tempted, every time I write about Messi, to make artistic comparisons, because, as I see it, it is the artistry in Messi’s play that gives it a special quality.

So Messi is the Mozart of soccer? Not a bad comparison, that. Mozart was famously on the receiving end of a notorious criticism from Emperor Joseph II -- “Too many notes, Mozart,” -- and you will often hear Messi accused of taking too many touches on the ball, of over-elaborating. True? Who knows? When imaginative genius is turned on, is there any stopping it? Should it be curtailed, reined in to satisfy the mundane notions of lesser mortals?

A disciplined Mozart, a disciplined Messi ... does any of that sound right to you? Disciplined by whom? Frankly, when I watch Messi, I find myself regretting that there aren’t more touches from this enchanting little master.

Enchanting, then. Yes, I believe that’s the word to describe Messi, for he leaves me spellbound. Not just me, not just the other spectators, but -- surely -- he is also casting a magical spell over his opponents, who can be seen, time and time again, shaking their heads at the wonder of what Messi has just done, no doubt in awe at the thought that there seems to be nothing they can do to stem this inspired force.

There is a further, lovely, link between Mozart and Messi. That of the boy genius. Mozart wrote his first opera when he was 12 years old -- his musical genius was already overflowing his small body. If you’ve seen those shaky videos of the young, tiny Messi scoring goals at will, you know that a joyful flowing stream of Mozart notes, too many of them of course, is the music that should go with the boyish impishness that was Messi in those not-so-far-off days (Messi was 12 years old as recently as 1999).

Such is the overwhelming sense of artistry that Messi conveys, that it’s quite natural to talk of the poetry in his play. And the voice that comes to my mind is that of another young genius, John Keats, most sensual of poets, and with him comes a reminder of the sheer beauty of Messi’s play.

There is great beauty in the way that Messi glides and moves on a soccer field, athletic and balletic, the qualities that make soccer such an appealing sport. It was Keats who told us that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty -- that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

In displaying the beauty that soccer can bring, Messi also reveals the truth -- too often hidden in this era -- that beauty lies at the heart of this sport. That is the real truth of soccer. Those who like to boast of playing ugly -- oh yes, there are plenty of them -- are committing a dark crime against their own sport.

Both Keats and Mozart lived in times when death often struck early; Mozart was dead at 35, Keats at 25. Their art never lost its boyishness, it never had the time to become old. We shall have Messi for a good many years yet ... can we hope that the boyishness that lights up his game will never diminish?

Yes, it seems we can. Messi -- in a short, simple, elegant statement given to Italy’s “Sette” magazine -- has let us know what playing soccer means to him. As Keats would want it, it is so beautifully described, it can only be the truth. Hear ye:

“I do everything through instinct, I play like a child ... I think about myself on a small field, or in the street, I see myself with the ball in the same way as I am now. I have not changed at all. You must remember soccer is a game to have fun and you play for that. I don't plan or anticipate my play."

A superb cri de coeur from a 23-year-old who believes, who feels that the right way to play soccer is as a boy, with all the boyish enthusiasms and delights -- and the naivete too, of course.

From Mozart and Keats to Karl Marx is quite a leap, but Messi, in those sharp, shining sentences has -- unwittingly, no doubt -- written a Manifesto for today’s players, revealing to them that they play this game far too often under the shadow of the mind-controllers, the joy-destroyers, the coaches.

How much more subversive of modern coaching theories can you get than to proclaim that you do everything by instinct? That you still play the way you did as a boy, that you haven’t changed at all? That you play for fun? That you don’t anticipate or plan anything?

Players of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your tactical chains! No, of course not, Messi is not looking to start a revolution, at least not with his words. If changes come to soccer from Messi, they will come because of the extraordinary things he does on the field.

When you’ve been watching Messi at his majestic best, it is sometimes very difficult indeed to turn to a so-so game and see what a supposedly well-coached and well-organized team expects you to enjoy.

Messi has the conclusive argument here. His soccer is not just ornamental. It scores goals, plenty of them, breath-taking goals, and it wins games. He has told us, in just 64 sturdily beautiful, everyday words, how his genius thrives. And he has shown us, with his far-from ordinary skills, just how dazzling a game soccer can be.

No doubt our highly trained coaches will dismiss Messi’s truth as the misleading simplicities of a player who has never had to think about the game. And so -- quite by chance, I trust -- FIFA President Sepp Blatter has chosen this moment to announce the formation of a star-studded, 22-member Task Force that will, among other aims, seek to “improve the attractiveness of soccer.”

Should the members of this group (in true FIFA tradition, it is heavily stocked with Europeans -- 13 of them -- and has just two South Americans) really want to improve the game, they should be required to start their deliberations by swearing to make Messi’s happily inspiring 64-word credo their key guideline.

9 comments about "Messi explains his artistry: 'I play like a child'".
  1. tim francis, April 15, 2011 at 6:51 a.m.

    Cheers for Paul's appeal to joyful abandon and allowing the power of creativity to shape genius in play. But maybe there is some balance of discipline and childish joy driving the mastery of Mozart and Messi. If history is correct, Mozart had an overly stern domineering father that undoubtedly helped steer both Mozart's fundamental skill development, but also his insistence/ rebellion toward on joyful freedom of play. Messi may not have had this kind of father, but did have at least the discipline of a soccer loving culture/neighborhood that reinforced and modeled hours of creative 'street' play every day, without the distractions of electronics and pressures to succeed in school. The task of US coaches is thus to somehow instill this joy/creativity AND skill development despite the poor odds faced with these distractions. No wonder there are so many crazy frustrated coaches and failing US efforts!

  2. Emile Jordan, April 15, 2011 at 7:16 a.m.

    Messi is no doubt special, but keep in mind we are all to a great extent products of our environment. Barcelona is clearly an awesome team and Argentina/South America the homeland of creativity. I coach youth soccer and have been entertained by my players every time they play. Practice has been more fun than games, but as parents learn to allow their kids to think for themselves and have fun in games the magical moments become more and more the focus and source of great joy for all. I love all sports, but soccer is the ultimate players game of all team sports.

  3. Kent James, April 15, 2011 at 8:08 a.m.

    Of course, Messi is special (child prodigy, genius, etc.). And yes, PG's paean to creative soccer is appropriate. But discipline on the soccer field is not evil. There is a difference between offense and defense. My college coach boiled soccer down to two things; the offense should try to be as unpredictable as possible (Messi), and the defense should attempt to make the offense as predictable as possible in order to stop it. Excellent soccer games have good offense and good defense, with good defense forcing the offense to be that much better. Good defense requires reading the game (trying to anticipate a creative offense), tactical understanding, teamwork, and discipline. The lack of those qualities is what makes pick-up soccer ultimately not as entertaining to watch as a good competitive game. An interesting theoretical question would be if your team had 11 creative players like Messi, how successful would it be? My guess is that the opponents would have to score off the kick-off, because if they didn't, they probably wouldn't touch the ball again until they were picking it out of the back of the net...

  4. lorenzo murillo, April 15, 2011 at 8:30 a.m.

    In the words of Galeano, who wrote Futbol de Sol a Sombra, Messi is a player "that never became a professional, for he plays like a kid".

    The problem with modern soccer is the obsession of coaches with speed and power. Trying to make an athlete into a soccer player is a mistake, developing a soccer player to be faster and stronger is the correct method.

  5. Robert Garcia, April 15, 2011 at 9:40 a.m.

    Excellent article. I couldn't agree more. I played in the minor divisions of Velez Sarsfield in Buenos Aires, with the likes of Simeone and Bassedas, and at a college prep high school in Mountain View, California, as well as freshman soccer at Berkeley. In Buenos Aires we would train for at least 3 hours every day but had fun doing it. We had at least 1 hour of freedom to play soccer the way we wanted by scrimaging. In high school in California, practices were boring and repressive of any creativity. I remember my coaches getting mad at me for smiling in the pitch. I eventually quit after one of my practices at Berkeley. I remember that during practice I had had a sudden realization, which was that I no longer enjoyed playing, that practices had become a chore. I don't think the same would have happened in Argentina. Even though the players and coaches that I played with in Argentina had much more to lose -- their futures depended on it -- they had more fun doing it. Ironically, in the US, where there was no future in soccer at the time (as there was no professional soccer league), we were demanded to always have our "game face on" and to focus. With that sort of mentality, soccer in the US will never develop players with any creativity or flair.

  6. Rick Figueiredo, April 15, 2011 at 11:07 a.m.

    Quite simply I call Lionel Messi "The Little Magician."

  7. Rick Figueiredo, April 15, 2011 at 11:19 a.m.

    A further note on the subject. After watching Messi play recently I went back into my video archives (of which I have 3,000 games) and watched Ronaldinho, Cruyff, De-Stefano, Maradona, Christiano Ronald, Zico and that magnificient Hungarian. But when I reached Pele, I stopped and absolutely had to take a deep breath. Pele is and for many more years will remain the greatest Magician on the futebol field of all times. Bar none. Absolute Genius!!! He did what all of the above futebol players did in one game.

  8. Robert Garcia, April 15, 2011 at 12:03 p.m.

    Rick you named almost all of my favorite players. Zico is one of my all time favorites and the Brazilian 1982 national team is, in my opinion (at least prior to the current Barcelona team), the best team I've ever seen. And I say that as an Argentine. On whether Pele was the greatest, I think that sort of statement disregards the vast differences between Pele's futebol, and Messi's futbol. Plus it doesn't do justice to the different strengths of each of those players in your list. There is no greatest all time. There can never be one. Although it cannot be denied that Pele was the greatest of his time. Nor can it be denied that Maradona was the greatest of his time. Messi has been the greatest in the last 3 years. At the same pace, he will be surely be the greatest of his time. One last note and my only objection: I would not put Cristiano Ronaldo in that list. I would put the Brazilian Ronaldo and Ronaldhino, as well as Zidane, Platini and Sivori.

  9. ferdie Adoboe, April 15, 2011 at 1:18 p.m.

    Keep banging on the nail Paul, it's for the good of the game.

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