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.