Monday 22 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Keeping beauty in the game

'There is celebration but there’s also a kind of disbelief at what they’ve witnessed, a kind of joyous disorientation at the effrontery of it all'
'There is celebration but there’s also a kind of disbelief at what they’ve witnessed, a kind of joyous disorientation at the effrontery of it all'

Eamonn Sweeney

Sometimes we put up with a lot in the name of football. And sometimes we wonder if it's worth all the time we dedicate to it when we could be reading the collected works of Shakespeare or worrying about the political state of the country or teaching the dog a couple of tricks. The incessant hype, the diving, the sleazy billionaires who own so many of the big teams, the even sleazier bureaucrats who run the game, the mean-spiritedness on and off the pitch, the fear-filled scoreless draws. There are times when you have a hard job justifying the hold the game has on you, not just to others but to yourself.

And then Lionel Messi gets on the ball just outside the Bayern Munich penalty area, drops the shoulder and glides into the penalty box, so much intent oozing from him you can practically hear the shark theme from Jaws starting up. Jerome Boateng, an outstanding defender, confronts him and Messi sways first one way, then the next, like an Olympic skier making his way through the slalom poles. The German topples over like the bewitched victim of a sorcerer, which is exactly what he is.

Now Messi is at an angle to the goal, faced with the best goalkeeper in the world, Manuel Neuer, who has already shown his extraordinary ability in one-on-one situations by denying Luis Suarez and Dani Alves. He dismisses Neuer with a playground nonchalance, drifting a delicate chip over the 'keeper's body which falls into the far corner of the net. And in that moment big-time football is justified. Because a game which can produce something like Messi's second goal against Bayern is worth dedicating time and effort to. A goal like that turns The Beautiful Game from a cliché into the best description possible.

Football is not all about moments like this and we are forever being enjoined to remember that negative play is also part of its rich tapestry. But moments like this are balm for the soul and inspiration for the spirit in a way that the 'well-drilled defensive display' never will be. They represent football in the truest sense. Because as John Keats wrote, "beauty is truth, truth beauty - that is all/Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know." The beautiful stuff is no less authentic than the grim stuff.

Messi's goal was one of those moments that hit you viscerally. I wanted to leave the house that second, to talk to people about it, to hear what they thought of it, to proclaim with them the genius of the little man from Rosario. Look at the expressions on the faces of the Barcelona fans in the crowd after the goal goes in, there is celebration there but there's also a kind of disbelief at what they've just witnessed, a kind of joyous disorientation at the effrontery of it all. In that instant analysis was superfluous.

What made the goal so special was that it came in not just an important match but in a classic one. Both managers directed their teams to contest possession deep in the opposition's half of the field and the result was that the pace of the game never let up. There was no breathing space for defenders, no chance to slacken the tempo by knocking the ball around among themselves. But after they'd played themselves out of trouble, which they usually did given the high level of technical excellence on show, there was space galore for midfielders and attackers at the other end of the field. The packed defence was conspicuous by its absence.

Pep Guardiola may well be lambasted for his 'naivete' in adopting a positive approach but his gamble came much closer to succeeding than the 3-0 scoreline suggests. At times in the second half the momentum seemed to have swung the way of the visitors and with just 13 minutes left the sides were still level.

That was when Messi made his first intervention, urgently demanding the ball after Boateng was caught in possession on the left wing, making space on the edge of the box and then rifling a shot past Neuer. There was something special about this goal too. It seems almost unthinkable that the world's best 'keeper was beaten on his near post but Messi caused this to happen in two ways, first by shaping as though he was going for the far post before pulling the shot back across his body and second by striking the ball with such vicious pace Neuer simply couldn't react quickly enough to it. The shot bore a striking resemblance to the one which beat Edwin van der Sar in the 2011 Champions League final, it wasn't that far away from the 'keeper but its sheer speed made this fact pretty irrelevant.

When asked before the game how he planned to stop Barcelona's star player, Guardiola commented that you can't stop Messi, you can only try to keep the ball away from him. And the irony is that although Bayern had kept Messi quiet up to the last 15 minutes, it ended up as one of the player's finest hours.

There is something remorseless about the man; since the 2008-2009 season his tally for Barcelona stands at 365 goals from 366 games. That was the season he won his first World Player of the Year Award. The four he's won constitutes an all-time record and he has finished in the top two every season since 2007. This really is the age of Messi.

And also of Cristiano Ronaldo, a man with a goalscoring record every bit as extraordinary as Messi's, 306 goals in 296 games since joining Real Madrid at the start of the 2009-2010 season. In almost any other era Ronaldo would stand head and shoulders above the opposition. After all, 10 years ago Ronaldinho was picking up his second successive World Player of the Year award. The Brazilian was a great player then, as were Ronaldo, Figo, Zidane, Van Basten, Baggio and other cynosures of the post-Maradona era in their day. But none of them seemed touched by the extraordinary in the same way that Ronaldo II and Messi are.

If Messi seems slightly superior it is perhaps because of the greater aesthetic joy he offers and because of the way his gift seems intrinsic to the game of football. Ronaldo is a superb athlete with the looks of a movie star who you could easily imagine excelling in another sport or walk of life. Messi, on the other hand, is the apotheosis of the little kid running rings round the big lads in the playground, the tricky winger who turns up on every junior soccer team in the world raised to the nth power.

He is also a credit to the game at a time when the idea that a player should be a credit to the game has gone out of fashion. His matter-of-fact reaction to the first goal was typical Messi. I'm going about my business, it seemed to say, I owe an honest night's work here. It stood in stark contrast to the antics of Neymar, who has similar gifts to Messi but may be held back by a far less equable temperament. The Argentinian, on the other hand, bears out the wise words of the great French novelist André Malraux, "The most effective weapon for any man is to have reduced his share of histrionics to a minimum."

We're perpetually reminded that football is a results business. But it is much more than that. Messi shows that it can also be an art, a form of self-expression. And that is why so many people all over the world love it. Most of the people who watched Wednesday night's match were not supporters of either team. We had no dog in the fight. If the result was all that mattered the only people who'd watch games are the supporters of the teams involved.

Instead we say with Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer who died recently and whose book Football In Sun and Shadow is the best ever written on this beautiful game, "Years have gone by and I've finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good football . . . And when good football happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don't give a damn which team or country performs it."

Gracias Lionel.

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