Wednesday 24 January 2018

James Lawton: Legendary city awaits Messi's crowning glory

'All the portents point to a potentially climactic moment in a career already touching the football heavens'
'All the portents point to a potentially climactic moment in a career already touching the football heavens'
James Lawton

James Lawton

It is 79 years since a demi-god of sport was first enshrined in the Berlin Olympic Stadium which so many are convinced might have been leased to Lionel Messi for another explosion of extraordinary personal expression in tomorrow night's Champions League final.

In 1936 the brilliant sprinter Jesse Owens was the man whose reward, apart from Olympic gold, was to run against horses in a Barnum and Bailey-style attempt to cash in on his fame. No such obligation will face Messi in the wake of another sublime eruption.

Owens, one of 10 children of slave ancestry in Alabama, ran in the hope of a richer life. Messi merely plays for a firmer hold on football eternity.

All the portents point to a potentially climactic moment in a career already touching the football heavens - and which even in the homeland of opponents Juventus has led to his being recognised as Il Dio del Calcio, the God of football.

Already he has performed beautifully in two finals - the defeats of Manchester United in Rome in 2009 and at Wembley two years later. Yet if Messi was effective in Rome and London, he was maybe still short of deification. That hurdle, if not removed, is now all but beaten to the ground.

The fine old Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi was among those conferring on him God-like status after his dismantling of Bayern Munich in the semi-final and now a doyen of Spanish football, Champions League, European Championship and World Cup winner Vincente del Bosque, has signed up as a card-carrying apostle.

However, Del Bosque adds a touch of spice to the latest expression of homage. Yes, he says, Messi is a god of football but to the vast encouragement of tomorrow's night opponents, he also points out that he is facing a team of exceptional nerve and superb defensive technique.

It is, perhaps, a football statesman's way of saying that if there is to be a coronation in the big old gaunt stadium in Berlin it will only follow a ferocious lack of ceremony. Or, put another way, if Messi produces something of the order of his bewildering goal against Bilbao to carry the Spanish Cup final, his crown will be composed of utterly authentic gold.

Here is Del Bosque weighing of a game which he plainly believes might just be an ultimate test of Messi's astonishing capacity to embrace any football challenge:

"Though Messi's game is unique, you can also say that it comes from the street. I thought Real Madrid would reach the final, but make no mistake Juve deserve to be in Berlin.

"As a Spaniard, as a coach of Spain, I would have liked to see a 'Clasico' European final but who could deny Juve their right to be there? The fact that both Barcelona and Juventus are playing for a treble success in itself makes it a great final.

"Juventus won the Serie A title with never a doubt but then you know that in Italian football no-one ever gives you anything for nothing.

"Even so, you had to think that they were dead when Real scored early in the second leg at the Bernabeu.

"But then football can always surprise you and to their credit Juventus did not lose their heads. They scored and then they defended well under so much pressure."

The picture being painted by the man from Salamanca, a Castilian fortress of Spanish tradition, could hardly be more intriguing.

It is of a contest of potentially exquisite balance. On the one side there is the spring of Messi's genius, and the frequently searing efficiency of his forward partners Luis Suarez and Neymar, and on the other the vice-like rigour of Juventus defence.

Of course the bookmakers favour Messi Incorporated.

Yet the odds are much less prohibitive in the event of Juve holding out for 90 minutes. Then the Italians are 11/5 to proclaim themselves both champions of Europe and the destroyers of legend.

If it happens, Del Bosque will not be among those reach for an old Spanish cognac to brace himself against the shock.

He says: "Juve have a lot of strengths. They have a great ability to stay strong and calm and decisive when faced with great difficulty, as we saw at the Bernabeu.

"I was impressed with their confidence and maybe most of all the extent of their ambition.

"They are not content with a few trophies, being champions and Cup winners of Italy. They want more, they want to win everything.

"Of course, Barcelona are better stacked in attack. We have seen they can do anything. We know that Messi is unique and that Suarez and Neymar are exceptional players of great finishing powers.

"Yes, it is a lot for Juventus to withstand but if they win, I will not be shocked."

No doubt much of the rest of the football world will recoil at the possibility. Especially the legend and myth makers.

There might also be deflation for those who have seen the miraculous form of Messi as a great consolation, if not an antidote, amid the waves of disgust that have come with the exposure of the world football authority as a storehouse of willy-nilly graft and conspiracy.

That has been the unbroken theme of a week or more of undiluted football horror but at the end of it, it has been pretty to think, there has been the sure-fire expectation of another Messi tour-de-force.

Something, indeed, to remind us that football has an essence too strong, too fulfilling, to be destroyed by even the most elaborate betrayals and criminality.

This, though, is a proposition that holds whatever tomorrow night's outcome in Berlin. Maybe Messi will paint the sky in personal glory once more. Perhaps he will be pressed and harassed into mere mortality.

However, none of this nudges the central and luminous point. It is that Messi has merely come to define the enduring beauty of football. No-one, surely, could claim that he had come to own it.

Irish Independent

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