The Stars Align for Leo – An Irishman’s Diary about the world’s greatest footballer and the French revolutionary month of Messidor
Russian dolls of Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal and Lionel Messi of Argentina in a souvenir shop in Moscow. Photograph: Ryan Pierse/Getty Images
In the French revolutionary calendar, which was inspired by nature and agriculture and is still observed by a small hardcore of romantics, we are now approaching the end of Prairial, the “meadow” month. But next Monday marks the start of Messidor, named from the Latin messis, meaning “harvest”.
The significance of this will not be lost on fans of a certain latin football star, who plays for Barcelona and Argentina and who this weekend embarks on his last attempt to win the one great prize that has eluded him.
Leo Messi was of course born in Messidor – he turns 31 during the Russia tournament, on what most calendars insist is June 24th. And if this time of year seems a bit early for a harvest month, a World Cup win in Messidor 226 (that’s the current year, by the way) would come very late in Messi’s career.
He was probably at his peak four years ago, when Argentina lost the final in extra-time to Germany.
Now he’s past his very best and playing in front of midfielders and defenders who, most experts agree, are too old or slow, or both, to win a big tournament.
But logic doesn’t always dictate the outcome of World Cups. Luck plays a big part too – sometimes teams just seem fated to win. For the nearly-man of international football, this might finally be Argentina’s turn. And barring a victory for some rank outsider, most romantics, including this one, would welcome it.
It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that, as a football fan, I love Leo Messi. I love him partly because he’s not Cristiano Ronaldo. This is unfair to the Portuguese player, I know. His and Messi’s has been one of the great sporting rivalries, like Ali v Frazier, Borg v McEnroe, or Senna v Prost. They seem to have driven each other to ever more dizzy heights, and on statistics alone are hard to separate.
But Ronaldo looks like a Greek god, and clearly noticed this at an early age. As a committed self-admirer, he rarely misses an opportunity to expose his sculpted torso to the adoring pitch-side cameras. And in general, he seems to have a god-like certainty in his own talent, so that nothing he does surprises him.
Whereas Messi’s deficiencies on the Greek god scale are well known. Having reached the height of 4 feet 2 by age 10, he needed growth hormone treatment, as a result of which he eventually topped out at 5 feet 7. Compared with the swan-like Ronaldo, he remains more of a duck.
For this and other reasons, there can be a slightly comic element to some of the brilliant things he does. And even at 31, he still seems almost as surprised by them as we are. I think this is what the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano meant when he said: “I like Messi because he doesn’t think he’s Messi.”
Apart from that existentialist problem, Messi’s other ongoing struggle is that he’s not Maradona. This is all the more remiss of him because, way back in 2007, he scored a famous goal for Barcelona, dribbling half the length of the pitch, that bore an uncanny resemblance to Maradona’s classic against England in 1986.
Placed side-by-side, in sync, they became a YouTube hit and suggested that the teenager, as he still was then, would follow Maradona’s footsteps in every way.
But a decade of dazzling club success later he still hasn’t delivered the ultimate prize for his country. And Maradona is among the many reasons.
In the 2010 tournament in South Africa, his chaotic management contributed to Argentina crashing out 4-0 in the quarter-finals.
Maradona crashed out of the job soon afterwards, but if he’s right about his latest successor in the role, managerial incompetence may again deprive them in Russia. “It’s clear the boy doesn’t know anything,” he has said of Jorge Sampaoli, who took over last year.
So apart from the French republican calendar, the omens are not good that Messi will lift the World Cup on 27 Messidor, or July 15th if you prefer.
Which reminds me that, despite being established in 1792, the revolutionary calendar does not make much of Bastille Day.
In keeping with its general scheme, the date in question is dedicated to a plant – in that case, the modest sage.
Whereas the date of the World Cup Final will celebrate a culinary heavyweight – garlic.
Maybe, all things considered, I’ll have a small bet on France.