Michael Walker: Messi remains as sweet a force of nature as ever

Modern football is one long racket, Messi is the whisper of history heard above it

 

“Art belongs to everybody and nobody. Art belongs to all time and no time. Art belongs to those who create it and those who savour it . . . art is the whisper of history, heard above the noise of time.” – Julian Barnes, The Noise Of Time

Lionel Messi forces you into this. He makes you fall, makes you slip into lyrical reflection to express appreciation, so that a passage in a novel about a fearful Dmitri Shostakovich in the Soviet Union connects to an Argentine footballer on a Tuesday night in Barcelona.

This is not a complaint. It is one piece of the awesome joy of Lionel Messi. He makes the people happy.

Modern football is one long racket, a constant noise, usually deafening, often discordant. Messi is the whisper of history heard above it.

We have said it before, many times, that Messi is a member of that exclusive group of seven or eight players who, even most of an argumentative planet agree, are the best of all time: Puskas, Di Stefano, Pele, Best, Cruyff, Maradona and Zidane.

There are plenty of other contenders - Franz Beckenbauer can hardly be dismissed - and then there are the pre-TV heroes, the Pathe news men. Unquestionably there was serious talent then, it’s just that you had to be there to see Hughie Gallacher to fully comprehend his ability and significance.

But Messi is there. However good Alex James or Peter Doherty were, it is hard to conceive of them being better than Messi.

Privilege

Each talent stands in its own time, in its own circumstance. Messi is the talent of this time and our privilege is that he is here and now and that television means a global audience can fall for every hipsway and swoon at every clean detail he accumulates in the course of 90 minutes.

It is a kind of helpless happiness we feel in response to yet another chord of Messi music. Perhaps even Gianluigi Buffon will come to experience the same when he looks back at the second goal Messi scored against Juventus on Tuesday night.

Messi has scored more elaborate goals on more dramatic occasions, but that is what made Tuesday so special. If a game between Barcelona and Juventus can ever be described as routine, this was it, the first match of a Champions League group both will expect to progress from.

Lionel Messi celebrates scoring against Juventus. Photograph: Alex Caparros/Getty Images
Lionel Messi celebrates scoring against Juventus. Photograph: Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Messi turned it into a moment. His second goal - Barca’s third - was not one of his sweeping dribbles. It was a 10-yard shuffle past a couple of defenders followed by an arrow into the bottom right corner of the goal while he looked at the bottom left. Hence Buffon began diving the wrong way.

Yet Buffon, even midway through his dive, knew that he had been outdone. His hopeful dive became a knowing collapse.

Grandest stage

It was the type of brilliance sometimes heard from players on their way back from training, a piece of skill that made all pause at its accomplishment. Messi, however, has produced this relentlessly on the grandest stages over a decade.

It is seven years since he scored four against Arsenal, when there was an audible gasp from the Nou Camp at the audacity of Messi’s third, a running chip over Manuel Almunia. His first goal had almost broken the net. It was one of those nights when Messi was playing every instrument.

He was 23 then, 30 now. It is an age that invites circumspection in football, yet if we were told Messi is 27 it would hardly be disputed. His demeanour remains coltish.

Even if he had just returned from another underwhelming spell with Argentina, Messi did not carry disappointment with him. His flow was uninterrupted and he has seven goals in his last three Barca appearances.

But it feels wrong to reduce Messi to stats, it’s like auditing music. There is nothing wrong with counting, and there are times when an audit can bring fresh emphasis to a thought already forming, times when it can be revealing.

But too much of football is reduced to bare data. We are told how far a player runs as if that is the be-all and end-all. We are not told why he runs, why he doesn’t run. Was the run a good one? Or would he, like Messi so often, have been better standing still to create space while others run?

Messi is a sweet force of nature, a rebuttal to data, not its confirmation. Statistics without context are statistics without context, and he is above the noise. His ‘win ratio’ might be this or it might be that, but it is not the point. He may not have won the World Cup but that might not be his responsibility entirely, you know.

Messi has done enough at Barcelona anyway. Messi is art, history. He takes his audience to another place, where we watch him and we smile and we feel wondrous.

The curious case of De Boer and the Palace

Frank de Boer didn’t deserve the shoddy treatment he received at Crystal Palace.
Frank de Boer didn’t deserve the shoddy treatment he received at Crystal Palace.

In the semi-final of Euro 2000 Frank de Boer missed a penalty kick for the Netherlands against Italy in the first half, then another one in the penalty shoot-out, which the Dutch lost. So Frank de Boer has had bad days before.

Even so, as he walked away from Turf Moor last Sunday, De Boer must have felt the game’s cruelty afresh. His new Crystal Palace team had dominated the hosts, Burnley, created chance upon chance and, most agreed, deserved to win.

But Palace lost, due to a sloppy pass from Lee Chung-Yong that teed up Chris Wood. De Boer was asked difficult questions and gave uncertain answers.

It was Palace’s fourth consecutive loss and as the season is only four games old, that was considered absolute failure.

Yet it was not absolute failure. There was enough in Palace’s performance to give encouragement that the next match, at home to Southampton, could be won. If so, then De Boer, under pressure despite signing a three-year contract at the end of June, could begin to ease himself into the club properly.

But within 24 hours De Boer was gone, his brief tenure forever to be described as an epic failure.

Quickly there was unflattering gossip about his approach and attitude, which he did not deserve, and then, arriving with a smile and his bank details, Roy Hodgson.

Hodgson’s job is take Palace from the trap-door to the suburbs of the Premier League. Some say he is uniquely suited to this.

Meanwhile, Frank de Boer is back in Amsterdam, wealthier, unfortunate and perplexed. He was a superb footballer, but football has given him some curious memories.

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