How do you quantify someone like Lionel Messi?
Popular culture has a very frequent tendency of reducing people to numbers. You reading this piece right now are probably your age, your height, your weight, your financial status, the number of social connections you can make and retain yearly and your chances of extending your family line. You are the number of your followers on Instagram and Twitter and the number of likes you get every time you post or share a meme on Facebook.
The statistics are boring…
Don’t blame me for sounding cold. Economists, data scientists and number crunching algorithms that determine the present world order do exactly that.
In a similar and under a common umbrella and line of thinking, we often reduce sportsmen to statistics. Forwards are the sum of the goals and assists per 90, midfielders are how much xG they contribute to and how many balls they recover, defenders are the average of their interceptions, blocks and successful tackles made and for goalkeepers it is quite obviously clean sheets kept and shots saved per goal conceded.
How do you then try to fit Lionel Messi into the same model and expect it to do justice to his calibre? I mean, don’t get me wrong he still leads every bar graph, every chart plot and every objective data analytic model that he has been put into.
And by a distance as great as the one between his home planet and the planet where he plays football in.
The poetry flows…
But how do you then go beyond and above and put a value on Messi’s innate ability in taking away people’s frustrations, the pain of the mistreatment they went through in their offices, the misery of the commute they bore before getting home and switching on the telly to catch Barcelona vs Sevilla?
And then a few mispasses, a couple of incisive runs darting at the Sevilla defence and with the guilt of a loss of the ball that led to Sevilla taking the lead on the counter later, Lionel Messi happened. Like he has often happened for so long now that we’ve taken this happening for granted and made it the standard of judgement exclusive to him and only him.
On the 26th minute, the roof of the net behind the goal shook like a leaf caught in the maelstrom as the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan collectively raised their hands up to their heads- in disbelief, in wonder, in despair. Lionel Messi met Rakitic’s cushioned floated delivery with a touch so sweet it could sing you to sleep and so powerful it could have been a firecracker exploding in a starry night. If you ignored the screaming of Ray Hudson, you could actually hear how loud the shush was that had befallen the home end of the Sanchez Pizjuan and how the away fans seemed like they were present in every nook and corner celebrating what they had just seen. The local TV director went back to showing the highlight clip every time the ball went out of the field of play, in slow motion, with a wide camera angle so much so that he must’ve personally fallen in love with the sight of the strike. And so did we and I dare to say, many Sevilla fans as well.
Sevilla would go up again, this time through Messi’s countryman Gabriel Mercado after half time. It was coming. Barcelona had been very poor and much unlike their social media branding, looked colourless in the month of February. Ernesto Valverde threw in Ousmane Dembele and Sergi Roberto into the mix revitalise the right channel and the young Frenchman would find his idol waiting at the edge of the box with a square pass.
Lionel Messi embraced the ball bound towards him with a deft touch of his left leg, putting it in the course of his right leg to connect venomously and even with a dropping body, his feet didn’t betray him. It generated enough curl and power on it to jangle the top of the roof and had enough mettle on it to make the ‘but Messi cannot use his right foot’ statement look foolish yet again.
Messi would get his hattrick a few minutes later and put Barcelona ahead. Of course, you know it was coming to pass every time you saw him getting the ball on that lazy Seville afternoon and flirting and teasing it with his nimble feet.
If his first goal was precision and power, if his second was brute and brutal, Messi’s hattrick goal was elegant and enigmatic.
A young Carles Alena defied the expectations of his age and had the audacity to take a shot from the edge of the box instead of looking for Messi like everyone else would’ve. His courage was rewarded with a kind deflection that eventually rolled into Messi’s path and left him one on one with Vaclik so that he could put the Czech goalkeeper out of his misery, once and for all.
With a touch as poised as van Gogh’s brushstroke and as sharp as Charles Bukowski on his typewriter, Messi became art once again. And it was fitting that it was in Seville that Messi preached magic. Resembling the dexterity of the distinctive Mudejar workmanship that has inspired much of the culture, art and architecture in the capital of Andalusia, Messi wedged his left foot in between the ball and the green swathes of grass and lifted it over a helpless, diving Vaclik to cushion it into the back of the net.
Lionel Messi then took it personally to avoid any chances of a Sevilla comeback late in the game and helped his amigo Luis Suarez in his purple patch with a chipped ball that inspired the Uruguayan to emulate something similar against the goalkeeper and divert it into the top right corner of the goal.
Messi’s football inspires those who follow him, as good art should…
In a match Barcelona had no business being on level pegging, let alone winning, they won. In a torrid and woeful February, Barcelona suddenly looks like they are the favourites in the Clasico week that is about to follow and against Lyon in the Champions League. Even with gaping holes in midfield, lack of inspiration in attack and a shaky defence, they put 4 past a boisterous Sevilla. Ben Yedder, one of Sevilla’s best performers tweeted that in a world where Messi did not exist, they’d have won the game. But it was their misfortune and misery that they were up against an alien, the best to ever grace the game.
What number or value do you put on the impact Messi has on a football pitch? What statistic do you demarcate on his ability to wow fans and opposition alike or on his tenacity to make the coldness and drudgery of everyday living worth it for the millions that have the privilege of watching him kick a football?
You don’t. You don’t even think about it, let alone try.
You sit back on your easy chair, chug your beer and try to appreciate him. With your friends, with your partners, with your family. In my case, I try writing about him because I don’t know any other way around it.
In a world of numbers, Lionel Messi is an eloquent Neruda poem that erases the distinction between reality and romanticism.