Messi's Magical Mystery ...

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.

17 comments about "Messi's Magical Mystery ...".
  1. George Hoyt, October 17, 2011 at 5:37 a.m.

    Here, here!
    Messi exhibits the rare ability to think around his opponents and the skills to match the speed of his thought. I don't know how often I've been awe struck at his uncanny awareness and anticipation of how people respond to his body and ball movement in every part of the field. He seems to be able to set up an action/reaction scenario at will.
    One of the keys to his effectiveness is how consistantly he tries his trade. For every highlight reel there are perhaps a dozen touches and initiations that don't quite pan out. Even here, he seems to know when to pass on any particular move (pun intended).
    What stikes me about this particular incident is the combination between Messi and Iniesta. Messi's initial pass measured Iniesta's direction and pace perfectly. Iniesta holds the ball ever so timely. Then the magic between the two unfolds and Iniesta seems to anticipate Messi's intent with the subtle flick of the right foot. The rest is all Messi. Both passes leading up to the goal thread two or three defenders with speed of play and suprise. Messi enjoys the support and understanding of his peers on the field and that could be subject to equal scrutinizing as well.

  2. Chris Ogle, October 17, 2011 at 6:58 a.m.

    Although I never witnessed Pele's games week in and week out, number one Pele never played in the world's strongest leagues his whole carreer the way Maradona or especially Messi have had to. Number two,there are valid claims that Pele was not the best player of his era (especially DiStefano)and at twenty-four Messi has already surpassed Pele in every category except winning the WC.On top of that,Pele is an ego bloated idiot.

  3. Kent James, October 17, 2011 at 8:04 a.m.

    The beauty of Messi's play is the simplicity. None of the moves are technically difficult, he just operates in a different space-time continuum than the rest of us. He deftly gets the ball out of the way just prior to the defender's making contact. I'd bet that more defenders think they're going to touch the ball and then fail to against Messi than any other player ever. Messi's movement off the ball is also incredible, and he seems to know where both his opponents and teammates are going before they do. My hope for his longevity is that he seems pretty adept at avoiding (or not resisting) hard challenges as well. Finally, another very attractive characteristic to Messi's play is his desire to play, as expressed in his unwillingness to go down, and when he is fouled, his willingness to simply get up and get on with it as quickly as possible. He is simply a joy to watch.

  4. Brad Partridge, October 17, 2011 at 8:40 a.m.

    It starts with mastering fundamentals at an early age and progresses to "Mushin" playing without having to think about it. This only happens with thousands of hours of touches on the ball. Without this foundation the magic will never appear. Simple but true.

  5. R2 Dad, October 17, 2011 at 9:21 a.m.

    To all USMNT fans, please note: Messi is short, and not particularly fast. He's not necessarily the most fit of players. His primary qualities are vision, quickness w the ball and patience. So stop looking for "our best athletes" and all that bunk. Another player in this mold is Maradona--so maybe you should start looking for the SHORTEST players you can find to provide the magic we are missing!

  6. F. Kirk Malloy, October 17, 2011 at 9:34 a.m.

    Great comments from all, particularly from George and Kent. Little to add with one minor observation of Messi's genius at work to expand on Kent's comment. In the first goal against Santandar, notice his first touch on the clever pass from Iniesta. In a crowd, at speed, on a pass from close quarters, rather than touch the ball deftly on the ground to his right foot (which would have been highly impressive albeit unsucessful given the closing defender's intervening foot), Messi senses the defender and touches it OVER the intended intervening foot, but gently so he can quickly control it and proceed on his merry way to goal. That first touch blows me away. Simple, subtle, brilliant AND at speed. Sick. Great to watch genius at play.

  7. Tom Symonds, October 17, 2011 at 10:02 a.m.

    Messi is a one-hit wonder; as long as he wears a Barca shirt he's great, but put him in the albiceleste and his performance is spectacularly inconsistent even though he's surrounded by some of the best players in the world. If you reply that the system and support at Barca fit him perfectly, then you agree with me. He's perfectly suited for Barca because he has Iniesta, Xavi, and more whose manner of play complements and supplements his. But if you're talking "World's Best", then he needs to show that quality on all stages - if not for other clubs than at least for his national team. Maradona's greatness, for example, transcended the teams he played on: Boca, Barca, Napoli, Argentina - he displayed his greatness wherever and with whomever he played. Cruyff, Van Basten, Zico, and others all consistently excelled with different clubs and for their country. (Pele was a one-team player, but he excelled beyond any measure on his national team - he was Brazil.) In spite of the video games and shoe ads, Messi has yet to perform in a "World's Best" manner for his country. He's comfortable at Barca, but could he be as magical at Bolton? I'm convinced Maradona could.

  8. Walt Pericciuoli, October 17, 2011 at 10:32 a.m.

    What he has cannot be taught. No more than teaching Michelangelo how to paint or Mozart how to write music.It is a gift he has. We should sit back and enjoy, thankful that he has come along in our lifetime. To Tom, do you still think the World Cup is the highest level? You are thinking of times past.In time, Messi will prove himself on the world stage as well.It still takes a team to win. Cruyff never won a WC and Brazil would have won their WC's with or without Pele.

  9. Brian Something, October 17, 2011 at 12:11 p.m.

    The most amazing player I’ve ever seen (although Zidane, a very different player, is not that far behind). What strikes me is that he would never have made it through the US youth system because some neanderthal coach would’ve deemed him ‘too small’ or ‘not athletic enough’ to get results or would’ve dropped him to defensive mid or something to pound balls to the corners for the track stars. Even if he’d had the miracle of several consecutive enlightened coaches, he would’ve been harmed by referees following the English model of never blowing the whistle in the absence of broken bones. He would never have evolved through our dysfunctional system. It’s no coincidence we produce Bocanegras and Marvelle Wynnes by the boatload but we’d never produce someone even remotely like Messi (or even Nasri or David Pizarro).

  10. Steven Jeremenko, October 17, 2011 at 1:03 p.m.

    We should be thankful that there even exists teams such as Barcelona in todays game. Messi's brilliance is even enjoyable to watch when things don't work out for him. The initial pass to Iniesta was more beautiful than the goal. Alright the goal was magical too! Brian F you couldn't be more correct. Paul, in his Shakespeare reference, revealed in the following words what is wrong with a lot of the players that the United States is producing: "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." The inability to choose exactly the right word at exactly the right place and time is excrutiatingly evident whenever the U.S.takes the field. We have poets in this country, maybe not geniuses like Messi, but poets just the same - lots of them. An arena needs to be created where their words can flourish. The present system and ideaology seems to be taking their pens away before they can even write a word.

  11. Karl Ortmertl, October 17, 2011 at 4:19 p.m.

    Messi's most effective attribute is his quickness. Defenders just can't keep up with his moves. If that were his only attribute, he wouldn't be much, but added to all of the skills mentioned above, especially the great control at that speed, it makes him unstoppable. I don't agree with the Barca makes him, he doesn't make Barca comment. It obviously helps to have great players around him who elevate his game just by the intricate interaction of all of them. But, when Messi has to do it alone, he does.

  12. Walt Pericciuoli, October 18, 2011 at 10:19 a.m.

    Brian F, I agree with what you say, however, at one time we did produce a couple of players that had those qualities. Where are the new Tab Ramos's and Claudio Reyna's?

  13. BC BC, October 18, 2011 at 10:36 a.m.

    "I also think that Messi is flat-footed. It seems to me that he runs flat footedly."

    Well, in that case, you can just wait for the inevitable bunions to bring an end to his career!

    (Trust me -- my lack of arches and my 30 years of soccer destroyed my feet...)

  14. ndo ndo, October 18, 2011 at 12:58 p.m.

    This summer I watched the US u14 boys team play the U15 Arsenal in Carson California. The US u14 boys won that game by 3-0 and I was very impressed by the way the young national team played. Lots of good players with great technique, but one particular player caught my eye. He wore shirt #65. All the attributes that you guys are all talking about here, this kid had them. He was also a left footed player who played out at the right side. For once I thought I was watching Messi, he was that good. I forgot his name it was an exotic one. So, maybe kids like that need to be nurtured or sent to foreign academies like the Barca academy by the US soccer. Just a comment.

  15. beautiful game, October 19, 2011 at 11:46 a.m.

    How can anyone compare a Ramos or Reyna with the best?...solid players, but not in the category of a Seedorf, Iniesta or Xavi et al...even Giuseppe Rossi is hands down better than Ramos/Reyna at there best...Messi has that special gift of technicality, field vision and the genius of super-quick analysis to probe the spaces that he sees and others don't...what about his constant ability to execute? Trying to diminish Messi's genius because he does not fit well with other squads has no bearing, it's that these squads don't fit well with him.

  16. Walt Pericciuoli, October 20, 2011 at 11:22 a.m.

    I W, I never meant to day Ramos and Reyna were at the same level as Messi,he is on a level all alone. I just said they had those kind of qualities of ball control and vision. The point I was trying to make, except for Dempsey and Donovan,they are the kind of players we are no longer producing in our current youth system.

  17. beautiful game, October 20, 2011 at 2:54 p.m.

    Touche' Walt P...i stand corrected. We can and sometimes do produce quality players like LD or Dempsey, but the coaching system appears to be flawed. Comfort on the ball and instinctive recognition are some key elements which coaches tend to suffocate and instill a 'panic' mode into players, i.e.,look at MLS defensemen, few if any can handle pressure, few if any, play simple, instead they pound the ball upfield and possession is all starts with the coaching system which developps the players.

Next story loading loading..

Discover Our Publications