A glimpse at a simpler world
Sometimes I regret that so many great sporting moments took place before my time.
I'm not old enough to remember the Brazil 1970 team, to have seen Christy Ring play or watched the 1971 British Lions. I'm just old enough to have seen the try scored by Gareth Edwards for the Barbarians against the All Blacks in 1973, Ali beating Foreman in Kinshasa and the Dubs winning the 1977 All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry, but I'm sure there are readers of this column for whom these events are part of history rather than memory.
Not to worry. The well never runs dry. After all, on Tuesday night we were lucky enough to see what I think was the greatest individual performance ever given by a footballer and one which confirmed that Lionel Messi is the game's Mozart, its Shakespeare, its Michelangelo. It is a privilege to be able to watch him.
Messi's four-goal haul against Arsenal brought his total to 39 goals in 43 games this season, an extraordinary total for a man who
is not exactly an out-and-out striker. And the goals themselves almost seemed designed to show particular facets of his genius. There was the awesome power of his drive from outside the box for the first one, his quickness to swoop on a loose ball and the calmness of his finish for the second, the audacious chip over Manuel Almunia for the third and the way he weaved through the Arsenal defence for the final one.
It beggars belief that in recent weeks the British media have been speculating as to whether Wayne Rooney is better than Messi. Rooney is a very good player as are the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Xavi and Didier Drogba. But Messi's talent is of an altogether different order. They are Salieris to his Mozart.
The only apposite comparison is with Maradona from 1985 to 1988 and Pele from 1958 to 1965. Yet Pele's peak years at Santos are known to us only by repute while the magnificent football Maradona played with Napoli in Serie A only came to us in highlights. Thanks to the enormous increase in the amount of football on television, we can watch Messi almost every week.
What we see is a player who looks as though he's cracked some code which gives him access to the secret of how exactly the game is played. Football is a language which Messi speaks more fluently than anyone else. And perhaps the most special thing about him is that he conforms to our most innocent ideas of what being a good footballer is all about.
When we're kids kicking our first ball around the yard, the garden or the field, we imagine ourselves dribbling past player after player and scoring spectacular goals because that's the part of the game which first catches our eye and makes us want to be footballers and to watch football. And this is precisely how Messi plays the game, his third goal on Tuesday for example was pure schoolyard in its cheek and effrontery. It's impossible to keep a smile off your face when you're watching him. Like all great artists, his work seems to spring from the expression of his personality. Messi is all exuberance and we react to that.
We react to it because, no matter how often the television pundits tell us that games are won by tracking back or making the simple passes or marking up at set-pieces or all the other utilitarian considerations which make those who constantly insist on their importance sound like peculiarly cheerless Dickensian schoolmasters, our hearts tell us something different. To love football is to remain in touch with the decent childish part of your nature, the one which tells you that the game is won by talented players doing spectacular and outrageous deeds. Messi gives you a glimpse at a simpler world where the good guys always win and sport is about beauty and nothing else, a world bereft of cynicism and calculation.
What's great about this is that we could have another ten years looking at the little man. Messi is only 22. At that age, Maradona had endured severe disappointment in the 1982 World Cup and his truly great years were ahead of him. It is almost impossible to imagine how much better Messi could be but chances are that we'll find out. The advantage he has over Pele and Maradona is that referees these days give little latitude to the type of hatchet men who kicked the Brazilian out of the 1966 World Cup and dogged Maradona's steps in the 1980s.
In recent years a cult of denigration has sprung up with regard to footballers. It's considered quite the thing to sneer at their supposed intellectual defects, their wives and girlfriends, their enormous wages which are apparently an obscenity even though the men who own their clubs are much richer and don't have to cope with the same jealous comments.
But that is to miss the point. Lampooning a footballer for not being an intellectual is a bit like criticising John Banville's heading ability or wondering why Don DeLillo can't hit a crossfield pass. Because the best footballers do what they do much better than most of us can do anything.
And when they play in a game like the one on Tuesday night they are doing us the service of creating a bit of beauty in the world that was not there previously. I am not a confessional writer and I don't believe in confessional writing, but personal reasons meant that this week I was in the kind of form which made Samuel Beckett's most depressing plays look like a KC and the Sunshine Band concert by comparison.
But on Tuesday night I was able to watch Lionel Messi doing his thing and for 90 minutes nothing else mattered. Nothing else, not books nor music nor art, could have had the same visceral effect that those four goals did. They were things which made the spirit soar and, for a brief spell, made all other considerations seem unimportant. And a man who can do that for people is a member of society to be cherished.
There will come a day when your grandkids ask if Lionel Messi was really that good. And you'll say to them, "You have no idea," and smile because the thought of one of those goals has just popped into your head. As his team-mate Gerard Pique said this week, Messi has us spoiled.