Monday, May 9, 2011

Messi: Next in the Line of Great Ball Artists


          "He is the best player in the world by some distance. He's a PlayStation. He can take advantage of every mistake we make."
          Those words were all Arsène Wenger could offer when he was repeatedly hounded about the man who had just added the entire Arsenal cast into another personal highlight reel.  But out of them, one word stuck to the imagination of fans, journalists, and coaches everywhere: "Playstation".  It was a rather odd choice of word, and it was odder hearing it come out of Wenger's precise lips.  Frankly, it was not a particularly poetic tribute to Messi's wizardry, though it captured the feeling of despondency which overcomes oppositions who must face him: "Playstation".  At best it was a comparison someone might muster after being burned by an opponent in a pick-up game, critical thinking being lost in the heat of frustration.  Perhaps Wenger was so flabbergasted that he lost the ability to produce a more clever turn of phrase, but one year later one cannot help but feel that the reason "Playstation" stormed the headlines was because it was so apt considering the circumstances.  In his four goal masterclass, Messi had exhausted every synonym in the word bank until Wenger could only fall on "Playstation".  In a sense, with his performance Messi had reached ineffability. 
          Aside from confirming the English language's defeat to the Argentine maestro, there was little else the word "Playstation" was good for.  While the first three goals may have been something I could recreate with my little black console (given a decent number of opportunities), the last one was simply unachievable.  The way he changed pace and direction twice, first to leave one defender and then two wrong-footed, was outside the boundaries of a video game.  The defenders were completely lost as to when Messi would take his next touch on the ball, and with his close control it was impossible to dispossess him even though he had only five touches in the entire run.  Rarely is such skill and precision so easily captured in nature, let alone a video game.  In fact if Messi had been on a Playstation, I'd accuse him of cheating!
Credit: scramonline
Or perhaps this is a better explanation
        In that quarterfinal leg Messi put on such a spectacle that on its merit alone he might have won the Player of the Year award.  While there were other fantastic displays by footballers during the year, none were so single handedly masterful.  Even for the second goal, Messi started the entire move with the pass through to Keita out-wide before the ball was returned to him for the finish.  Not only was Messi responsible for the entire attack, he handled it with unsurpassed variety and creativity.  Chips, volleys, and nutmegs were all on display as they had been since the beginning of his still green career.  The fans in the stadium could only bow in gratitude.  
         But aside from the communal genuflection from the Camp Nou masses, that night prompted several former legends and players to reiterate their belief that Messi would be remembered as one the greatest players in the game's history.  Some upheld that argument with his goal and medal tallies.  Ossie Ardiles believes that Messi's greatness is a testament that, "Sport has improved, all sports.  Tennis, boxing, athletics, sportsmen move on, and in football the modern game helps goalscorers and the ball players."  While that statement is obviously true, certainly Messi will  be remembered among the old greats because he belongs with them not because he is a model of the new breed of player.  In fact, if anything Messi is a stark departure in the trend of modern footballers who have become increasingly massive and bulky.  Avram Grant explains that, "With footballers getting larger, more mobile and more athletic, there's a premium on space.  To create chances, you need room.  Because of Messi's control, quickness and agility, he needs less room than others."
        Not only does his diminutive advantage afford him more goal chances, it allows him to control and maneuver ball at whim, and it is that quality which separates him from the other great players of his generation and places him alongside the greatest players in history.  With Ronaldo, one can always expect a thundering header should the ball meet him the air or a thunderous curler should he be afforded even five yards of space, but with Messi you can rarely predict the exact path he'll take to a goal or the exact moment he'll shift direction, even when you're watching from your arm chair!  There is just no limit to number of options he has at his disposal.
          In that sense Messi brings back the originality and improvisation which cemented football as the world's most popular sport.  Jonathan Wilson writes, "In both Argentina and Uruguay the story is told of a player skipping through the opposition to score a goal of outrageous quality, and then erasing his footsteps in the dust as he returned to his own half so that no one should ever copy his trick."  On the public stage there are no such romantic opportunities to safeguard one's intellectual secrets, but the appreciation for craft and copyright remains.  Whether it be Le Tissier's spectacular juggling act, Bergkamp's phantom twist, or Zico's scorpion goal the great players in history have always had their own personal moments of ball magic.  They are moments of self-authentication, and it is almost as if at least one such moment is mandatory for a player to acquire legendary status.  It is not uncommon for players and fans to argue over who's goals were more original or imaginative, and even the ownership of more common moves like the rabona and the bicycle kick are disputed.  While some may not take ball artistry all that seriously, those who do, take it very seriously indeed.

Credit: Unknown
Giovanni Roccotelli is sometimes credited with the invention of the  rabona ("crossed kick"), although there is clear footage of Pelé performing it more than a decade earlier.

Credit: Fabio Messina
The over head kick or bicycle kick.  Known as bicicleta in Brazil, chilena in Chile, rovesciata in Italy, and chalaca in Peru.
         So which defining moment(s) will win Messi the right into the pantheon of ball artists?  

         As tempting as it is to answer that question with another: "What moments won't win him the right?", it is still difficult to sieve through all of the highlights to pin that distinct maneuver which defines his football imagination, particularly because most of the time he is not required to aim for the extravagant.  His movements are much too fluid, and he would generally only be hampered if set his mind on executing certain "tricks" or "moves".  (In fact when Messi does perform a certain "trick" it is generally because the situation demands it.)  Still it is certain that Messi has an appreciation and understanding for the lineage of ball wizards he belongs to, having replicated Maradona's two most famous goals in only his third season.  The Goal of the Century, or as it was famously christened by Víctor Hugo Morales, Barrilete Cósmico ("The Cosmic Kite"), was reincarnated against Getafe, while La Mano de Dios ("The Hand of God") took form once more against Espanyol.
Credit: Unknown
Messi's Barrilete Cósmico
Credit: AP Images
La Mano de Dios
        Upon even closer examination, in his dribbling style you will find homages to past greats sprinkled everywhere.  I remember seeing a Champions League match where Messi simply ran at a player, leaving the ball untouched behind him; but the defender in anticipation and anxiety had fallen for it, being desperate not to lose footing with Messi.  It was nearly identical to the feints Garrincha had done years before him, leaving foreign defenders looking foolish in Mexico 70.  The only difference was that Messi's feet were even quicker than Garrincha's, and Messi had already taken off with the ball before the defender knew what had happened.  While Garrincha frequently returned to fallen defenders after outwitting them, even helping them up as if they were assistants to his magic tricks, Messi is too quick to bother to toy with the opposition with such theatrics, although he will beat a defender twice need be.

Credit: Unknown (youtube)
Garrincha leaves a defender dancing to the samba
        Specifically, because Messi is such a non-theatric player it is difficult to identify a personal maneuver from a single glance.  As I've said, his movements are just too simple and fluid, almost too flawless.  From a quick glance, it's almost as if he's only performing the same maneuver over and over: slipping the ball to the side and accelerating past a defender, but to nail his dribbling to only that analysis is a disservice.  There is much more nuance behind it, and that nuance is what allows him to so consistently beat defenders.  Sometimes he'll turn past a defender pushing the ball directly in front of him but outside of the defender's reach; other times he pushes the ball in one direction and runs in the other to recollect the ball behind the defender.  Anyone watching a run only once is likely to miss the many delicate moves which comprise it, but perhaps it is in those fleeting moments where Messi's uniqueness is to be found.

        One of those moments came in another match which I am also sadly lost on the full details and context, but I remember seeing Messi receive an aerial ball and controlling it with his thigh. Only the ball still carried a sizable bounce, so to bring it back down he casually summoned the underside of his chin.  It a was revelatory moment because I couldn't help but think to myself: "Gosh, if he can juggle a ball between his thigh and his chin, why doesn't he do that all the time?  There would be no way defenses would be able to stop him!"  It is unfortunate that moments like those will not likely be as well recorded and replayed as his great goals, but sometimes it is in those simple moments where you learn most about a player.
         Luckily even among the sea of ridiculously simple but still jaw-dropping goals, Messi has no dearth of spectacular goals to prove his ingenuity either.  In this season alone, one astonishing gem comes to mind.  It happened in the small island of Mallorca after another long passing move by Barcelona.  Keita looped the ball up in the air for Messi to meet it in the penalty area, but instead of bringing it down to his feet first time, Messi opted to let it bounce before juggling off it his chest and then dinking it over the keeper with his head.  It was clever as the entire defense was expecting such a renowned dribbler to use his feet to finish the goal, and it was unbelievable in that with his 5'6" frame he managed to score using his chest and head.  Moments after the match the Spanish media pronounced it as the "Sombrero de Messi" ("sombrero" roughly translates to rainbow flick, but more generally to any flick which brings the ball above head height).
Credit: ESPN/ La Liga Feed
Que Sombrero de Messi!
Credit: ESPN/ La Liga Feed
There's no stopping the smallest man on the pitch
       Perhaps such intense examination is not required to realize that Messi is one of the greatest there has ever been, but fans and players can be obstinate to accept a new player in to the ring of greats who have left their mark in the game.  It is a timeless question which spreads across all sports and all fields.  Is someone merely the best among their peers, or have they truly contributed to their art in a way which is irreplaceable?  As the years roll, medal counts and goal tallies fade to merely being numbers, and one has to stress harder to remember and resolve what distinguished a player as being great.  That is why so many are pleading for patience before verdicts are set on Messi's legacy, not merely because he is only twenty three years old.  
      Still, at twenty three years he's already scored a variety of goals in matches (here's another unique one against Real Sociedad where he opts to go around the entire defense instead of cutting through it) and even in warm-ups.  He has even earned his own nickname, La Pulga, an apt one because just like a fly you never know where he's going to move next but you can bet you won't be able to catch him.  Perhaps one generally does require the eyes of history to verify and proclaim legends, but Messi seems to have reached legendary status even before arriving to the height of his career.  Perhaps, just like the demi-gods of antiquity who were destined to feats of greatness, Messi belongs more to the realm of myth than of legend.


  1. Another great post! Love the compilation of wonderful goals, as well. Including that of Bergkamp who I loved at Arsenal.

  2. Thanks. I can't actually believe that all my posts have been about Barcelona so far.

    I am a deep-rooted Liverpool fan, but I guess Barca being the focus of my writing is just a sign of the times.

  3. You are a Liverpool fan?! And all along I thought you were a fellow cule. I don't come from a footballing country so although Barca has been my favorite, I admired many teams because of a certain player or the way they play. I liked Celtic when Larrsen was there, the Arsenal of Bergkamp, Henry and Viera, and Liverpool in '05, among others. I think I went crazy watching the finals against Milan. That was an amazing night. Or rather early morning where I was then. I was screaming at 3 to 4am. Haha. And I like Liverpool now with Suarez and Daglish. Hope the team vies for the EPL title next season :D

  4. I didn't start following club football heavily until recently, but I've always been a fan of international football and the sport in general. My first strong memories are of Korea/Japan 2002, and my father telling me about the "consistent" Germans and "overconfident" English. From that moment on I never stopped being entertained by football's endless history and colorful characters.

    '05 was definitely a very funny but spectacular year for Liverpool. Just how we managed to win with players like Traore ( I'll never know. But we did!

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