Commentary

Going to Barcelona just to ignore Lionel Messi

Last week I was sitting at home watching Rangers FC of Glasgow play Sporting Braga of Portugal in the Europa League, marveling at the goal scored by the Scottish team's newest signing, Ianis Hagi. It was the start of the classic comeback  -- from 0-2 down to a 3-2 victory in front of a manic, eventually joyous crowd. It also had me purring at the memory of watching Hagi's sublime father, Georghe, play for Galatasaray Istanbul against Grasshopper of Zürich in the Champions League several years ago. Right in front of my seat close to the touchline, Hagi ghosted past an opponent with an apparently miraculous feint I'm still struggling to comprehend over two decades later.

Most soccer fans like to set themselves up as something more than mere supporters of a particular club. We are also connoisseurs who lapse into laudatory tales of the individuals we've been privileged to see in the flesh. As well as Hagi in Zürich, I've been in awe of Stoichkov and Beckham at RFK, Gascoigne at Tottenham, Kenny Dalglish for Liverpool, Giggs for Manchester United tearing apart QPR, Jay Jay Okocha slaloming through Bundesliga backlines, Robert Prosinecki managing the midfield for Dinamo Zagreb, Dzsenifer Maroszan dictating play for FFC Frankfurt -- all players with a certain gift for making you focus on them, rather than the game. I still resent my wife for having once seen Johan Cruyff play for the Washington Dips.

Yet this weekend just gone I was in Barcelona, and I passed up the chance to watch Lionel Messi. I have no excuses. I was free, and both the woman who once witnessed Cruyff (but can't remember who the Dips were playing against, or what the score was, despite me interrogating her several times over the years) and the people we were staying with said it was absolutely fine for me to spend my Saturday afternoon in the Camp Nou.

The opponent was SD Eibar, so there would be no run on tickets. I had the chance to jump on a metro train to experience a game that some people would be flying around the world for at a cost of several thousand dollars.

I can't completely explain it myself, but I have some ideas. Those soccer tourists, for example. When I was in Manchester last month as writer-in-residence at The Grey Horse Inn I encountered several groups of Scandinavian fans who flew regularly to the city just to drink copious amounts of beer and watch what they consider to be their teams -- City and United. I wanted to hear their stories and their motivation, but none of them wanted to talk. Their focus was one 100 percent beer and soccer, and although there's nothing at all wrong with that, I was hoping to probe for some extra depth born of displaced geography and cultural alienation. What are the mental mechanics behind the life of a fan in Stavanger, say, being so profoundly devoted to a team in northwest England?

This made me suspicious of my own motives for going to watch Messi, indisputably one of the two greatest players of the current generation. I didn't, however, need to pay €49 ($53) to have that fact confirmed. Like everyone else, I've seen him on television hundreds of times. Perhaps I would only be going in order to serve my own vanity. As though broadcasting my story of having seen Messi play at the Camp Nou would reflect impressively on me as a well-traveled, urbane man of great taste. Like I was regaling you with tales of how I'd just sampled some excellent wines at the Château Pape Clément.

The more fundamental reason, I think, is this: I don't much like Lionel Messi. Absurd as it sounds, he's just too good. The Argentine inhabits such a unique class of his own that there barely seems any merit in his ability to skip past lunging defenders. That closeness of touch, the deceptive dips of the shoulder, the sugar-sweet shimmies, the nonchalant but deadly finishing, the consistent, meta-human accuracy of almost every pass. It's unreasonable. No one else stands a chance. Who wants to see a slanted contest deprived of tension, with an outcome as certain as Jürgen Klopp's sulky reaction to defeat?

Barcelona beat SD Eibar 5-0. Messi scored four goals, each one an archetypal example of some aspect of his genius. I know, because I watched the highlights later. I wasn't there, but at least I can say I was close by.

9 comments about "Going to Barcelona just to ignore Lionel Messi".
  1. Bob Ashpole, February 26, 2020 at 3:15 p.m.

    Great article, Ian. I think how you watch matches what about the game you like. 


    I am a midfielder at heart. I love watching great team play rather than great individual performances. (I do enjoy and watch the highlight clips of great players on Youtube occassionally. Not the clips of endless goals, but ones like the clips of Zandane's incredible magic touches with the ball.)

    What really moved me was watching the great teams like Barca of 10 years ago. I also love watching the famous matches of the great teams. 

  2. Kent James, February 26, 2020 at 3:17 p.m.

    Your description of Messi is absolutely spot on.  He's not "impressive" like Ronaldo (powerful, fast, fancy stepovers, cannon for a shot); he's almost unreal, ethereal.  I think he operates in a slightly different time dimension than everyone else.  He touches the ball just before the defender does, and just moves it around them.  He looks (and is) quick to us, because we operate in a slower time dimension.  He gets the shot off so quickly, and so accurately, that you don't even recognize how fast the shot is, it's just in he goal before you know it.


    As for your motivations to not see Messi, I think you're underestimating yourself.  You're not trying to impress us with your "urbane great taste" by name dropping that you've seen Messi; you've taken that one better.  You had the opporunity to see Messi, and couldn't be bothered to do it...:-)

  3. Bob Ashpole replied, February 26, 2020 at 3:36 p.m.

    I agree, Kent. Messi basicly sprints with the ball through traffic with amazing close control. It is like watching a world record sprinter run a race.

    Watching Zidane on the ball is like watching Gene Kelly dance.

  4. Kevin Leahy, February 26, 2020 at 5:30 p.m.

    Can't imagine passing up the oppurtunity to see him play in person! There is something different about seeing greatness first hand. Before Pele came to play in the NASL, Santos toured and played in Baltimore. Will never forget how magical it was to see him play live!! He scored 3 goals and played goalie in the second half. 

  5. R2 Dad, February 27, 2020 at 11:16 a.m.

    I think a visit to the Camp Nou and la Masia would be a great soccer cultural experience, seeing as how we have only the beginnings of one here in the US. Seeing Messi IRL would be icing on the cake. But you're still getting the cake. That, and the Boqueria, are the important spots to visit. Watching matches in a pub or restaurant, surrounded by locals, would rate higher for me than watching LM in person.

  6. Derek Armstrong, February 27, 2020 at 1:19 p.m.

    Great insightful story. Yes we take Messi for granted ,it will not last forever ,it will start to disintegrate as all things do. For those who catch a "good day" that memory stays with them for a lifetime. Maybe you were just too lazy that day
    Great writing

  7. frank schoon, February 28, 2020 at 9:40 a.m.

    Ian,if  you want to like Messi than watch him play for the Argentinian National team....
    I find Messi, to be  a limited player like Maradona who could only use his rightfoot to stand on. I remember watching an Italian game where Maradona was about 2meters from the open goal with the ball on his right foot, but feeling so awkward he had to switch the ball to his left in order to shoot. Messi has improved a little more with right but is still very limited. The problem is that leftfooted players are more leftfooted than rightfooted players are rightfooted.. It is just the nature of the animal. The nature of a left footed is that they are a touch more creative than a rightfooted player. There is something about leftfooted players who are worth there weight in gold.

    When you watch Messi with Barcelona, then you watch a team that is made around for Messi to perform his best. THis is why Barcelona got rid of Zlatan for you know Zlatan has to at the end of the funnel unlike Messi who is more of a team player and creates more options,offensively for he doesn't necessarily have to receive the 'end' pass. Messi is a flop or rather a disappointment when you compare Messi with the Argentinan NT and playing with Barcelona. One of the main reasons Messi became successful is that he had the "Greatest" midfielder in the world, at that time, playing behind him, XAVI, giving and feeding him some incredible passes....The difference between Messi and Maradona is that Maradona is 'the' Maradona no matter what team he plays for, and definitely would have been just as great playing with the current Argentinian National team, that Messi was disappointment with....

    Messi, to me, is a specialist, he is the best at what he does, for a limited player. Remember 'Der Bomber' of Germany who was nothing technically and extremely limited but he was the best in scoring goals. He had a nose and knew exactly where the ball would be next and  positioned himself to score. 
    Messi, for an Argentinian, rarely or rather doesn't employ the outside of his left foot to pass, which is unusual for a South American, especially from a country that produces great technical players. His passes, medium range, going from left to right are so predictable and slow making it easier for the opponent's right back to be able to see his man and the ball at the same time.  NEXT POST.







  8. frank schoon replied, February 28, 2020 at 10:22 a.m.

    Meant to say in the 3rd paragraph, medium range pass from right to left..

  9. frank schoon, February 28, 2020 at 10:20 a.m.

    There are 3 aspects that makes Messi so good. One is TIMING. Cruyff once stated that "if you try timing me than I've beaten you". Timing is what players do when the opponent comes at you, for you use that element to anticipate what the attacker will or can do next...For example, I use a move that I teach , called a 'shovel' move. I approach an opponent the leftback coming at an diagonal directly towards him, lets say from the right side of the field as a Right Wing. I dribble employing the inside of my leftfoot. My cadence would be, leftfooted push the ball, step rightfoot, leftfoot push the ball, step right foot. I make sure my defender reads me well and therefore he times me. After a couple of dribbles, I change to a new cadence  all of a sudden which would be leftfoot ,push the ball, now instead of taking a step with my rightfoot,I immediatly push the ball with outside of my rightfoot. In other words cadence is leftfoot push the ball, rightfoot push the ball. I skipped my step, thus throwing my opponent's timing off.

    Messi does that timing change while dribbling employing either switching his direction or this is the real secret of his dribble, he's able to dribble within the dribble an extra time. In a distance of 3-4 meters Messi has the ability touch the ball more than any other player. He is able to change direction or speed in this intermediate step. He doesn't outrun the opponent, for he has small legs and takes small steps but he's able to direction and cadence.

    The other thing is that Messi is leftfooted and there are so few leftfooted players , making it more difficult for rightfooted players who are used to playing against rightfooted players for they know their flow of play but leftfooted players are opposite in their motions and read. 
    Furthermore, Messi is good in small spaces, he moves in crowds and therefore defenders don't attempt to tackle but watch, thinking the other guy will do something.

    Left footed player are so important to have, especially there should at least one-leftfooted player on the left flank, either a lefthalf or leftwing, preferable the former....It gives the team a more attacking balance and faster ball movement,  left to right to a breaking diagonal run from the  right flank downfield. Furthermore for the 'aesthethic' fans how rare is it when you see goal scored when a medium range diagonal pass from the right side to a leftfooted halfback or leftwing kicking the ball as hard as possible employing the outside of the leftfoot making the ball 'swerve' spinning counterclockwise  away from the goalie to the goalie's right in the upper corner...TOUCHE...

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