Saturday 20 January 2018

Tommy Conlon: What's another goal when naughty boys can have a bit of fun?

The Couch

'Messi is an equal opportunities destroyer' Photo: Reuters
'Messi is an equal opportunities destroyer' Photo: Reuters

Tommy Conlon

Verily he is the god of small things but, as Monty Python taught us all those years ago, the difference between a benevolent saviour and a cheeky rascal can be very slim indeed.

So those who look upon Messi as the Messiah may have had mixed feelings last Sunday when he stepped up to take that penalty against Celta Vigo. The maestro shaped to kick the ball but promptly nudged it sideways to the inrushing Luis Suarez, who slammed it past a thoroughly befuddled goalkeeper.

Some of Lionel Messi's many worshippers must have felt like the multitudes who flocked to the ersatz redeemer's house to touch the hem of his cloak in Python's classic comic film Life of Brian. There they are confronted by his fishwife of a mother, who famously berates them for their hysteria. "He's not the Messiah!" she shouts. "He's a very naughty boy!"

Similarly, Messi's status as godhead of the kingdom of football lost a little pre-eminence when he indulged in this showmanship at the expense of his already bewildered opponents. He had made them look foolish; he had undermined their dignity; he had disrespected the protocols of the game. And therefore his divine purity had been tarnished.

Even his mother might likewise concede that her son had perhaps been a tad impudent - and on a Sunday too, of all days. Barcelona were 3-1 up with ten minutes to play at the Camp Nou. Their opponents had been brave and resilient. But they were running out of steam when Messi twisted the left-back into knots on the byline and goaded him into a panicked foul just inside the box.

"They are punch drunk, poor old Celta Vigo," remarked Rob Palmer on commentary for Sky Sports, "they don't know where to turn."

What happened next reminded us of that famous line from the greatest commentator of them all, the late and legendary Mr Will Shakespeare. "As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods," he wrote in King Lear. "They kill us for their sport." Viewed in the harshest light, Lionel and Luis were indeed like wanton boys, pulling the wings off trapped flies for their own amusement.

Palmer reacted brilliantly to a moment that might have flummoxed many another match caller. He summed it up instantly. "It's testimonial football! And that's something I've only ever seen before in an end-of-season friendly game. This is a La Liga match and it is completely outrageous."

Palmer sounded ambivalent. "Outrageous" can mean thoroughly unacceptable, or exceptionally brilliant. He didn't know whether to celebrate it or condemn it. So he immediately added, not wanting to be judgemental, "Outrageously entertaining".

A lot of people were in two minds. But most people enjoy seeing someone thumb his nose at convention. This was irresponsible, and therefore it was charming. And you couldn't but enjoy the obvious enjoyment that Messi and Suarez were feeling too. Their trick had come off, the little scheme they'd hatched had worked a dream. They were happy as sandboys in that moment.

The third prong in Barca's devastating trident of South American forwards is the Brazilian Neymar. He claimed afterwards that the pass was meant for him, not Suarez. He didn't seem put out: the trio celebrated together, less like hardened professionals, more like schoolyard scamps who've just fooled the headmaster without getting caught.

It was a moment that confirmed what everyone knew anyway: that they are loving each other's company on the pitch. They are on the same genius wavelength, speaking the same intuitive language of skill and imagination. They are wearing their extravagant gifts lightly; they are not men at work but men at play.

Neymar joined Messi at Barcelona in the summer of 2013; Suarez signed up in the summer of 2014. Last season the trident ran amok, helping each other to a feast of goals and assists on their way to a clean sweep of league, cup and European titles.

This season the champions have racked up 105 goals combined in all three competitions. The fabled triumvirate has scored 76 of those goals. Neymar in addition has 13 goal assists, Messi 11, Suarez 10. In other words they are sharing the spoils; no one is hogging the limelight. They are quite obviously having the most fantastic time together.

We think the penalty was conceived in this spirit too. It would have brought Messi another landmark in his ongoing plunder of the record books - his 300th La Liga goal. But what's another goal when you can have a bit of fun instead? And what's another goal today when you know you're going to get a few more tomorrow? The little Mozart duly racked up his 300th and 301st goals against Sporting Gijon on Wednesday night. He is the first player in Spanish history to reach 300 league goals.

So, the penalty-improv on Sunday was nothing personal against the Vigo players. They know it. He is an equal opportunities destroyer. No opponent is safe from looking foolish when he is teasing them with the ball.

And when you have scored and created goals in just about every conceivable way known to man, then any true original artist will always want to find a new way of doing it. In finding new ways to entertain themselves, Messi, Suarez and Neymar are finding new ways to entertain everyone else who cares to watch.

They are all indeed very naughty boys.

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