Lionel Messi, religion and the meaning of watching sport

Lionel Messi, religion and the meaning of watching sport

Anyone that has followed football for the last 12 years is more than familiar with the miracles Lionel Messi is capable of. The mind of every fan in the world has stored an interminable collection of seemingly impossible plays in which Messi was able to use his body to perform actions normal human beings can’t even conceive of, let alone execute. And even if by any chance you’ve been living on another planet – maybe the one from where Messi originated before arriving at our own – and consequently unable to bear witness to the wonders Messi has operated in his career, you can easily find them on YouTube.

There is the montage of Messi called “best ball controls”; one of his “top 20 dribbles”; another on his “legendary body feint movements”; and one of him “destroying Bayern Munich”. Of course, there is the one superimposing his goal against Getafe in 2007 with Diego Maradona’s legendary one against England in 1986.

“He was playing like God, better than us all,” a childhood friend of Messi says in Álex de la Iglesia’s 2014 documentary Messi, recalling their days as 10-year-olds playing in Rosario for Argentine club Newell’s Old Boys. Messi and his career often evokes this kind of comparison. There are many athletes whose skills have been thought to require the language of the supernatural in order to be properly described, but it’s hard not to take these descriptions as flights of fancy or literary exaggerations. In the case of Messi, not just because of the way he plays but of who he is and where he’s come from, the recourse to the religious analogy is an apt one.

What Messi does, it has been argued, is impossible”: “It’s not possible to shoot more efficiently from outside the penalty area than many players shoot inside it. It’s not possible to lead the world in weak-kick goals and long-range goals. It’s not possible to score on unassisted plays as well as the best players in the world score on assisted ones. It’s not possible to lead the world’s forwards both in taking on defenders and in dishing the ball to others. And it’s certainly not possible to do most of these things by insanely wide margins. But Messi does all of this and more”.

When Barcelona went to Madrid to face Atlético for their third game in the 2015-16 La Liga season on September 12, however, there was a reasonable chance that nothing of the sort would take place. To the surprise of everyone, Barcelona’s head coach, Luis Enrique, chose to leave Messi out of his team’s starting line-up, seating him on the bench as a possible substitute for one of his teammates at some point during the 90 minutes.

Barcelona kicked off and the Atlético players instantly pressed them. After one minute, the home team had already taken its first shot at Barcelona’s goal. The Catalonian team had to wait another six minutes to finally have its own chance to score. Barcelona kept pushing, passing the ball trying to find somewhere to squeeze it into and break someone free from the opposing defence, but they kept crashing against the defensive wall erected by Atlético, whose players immediately set their sights on Barcelona’s goal, launching lightning-quick counter-attacks that caught Barcelona’s defence off-guard.

It was such an instance that Fernando Torres squandered in the 17th minute, only to make amends six minutes in the second half and put the home side ahead. Barcelona’s Neymar managed to score for his team against the run of play just a few minutes later, but Atlético were still very much in control of the game.

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Football is a game of movement, space and numbers: a team that is able to fill a space with more players than its opponent, regardless of whether it happens to have the ball or not, will often gain an upper hand. The journalist and historian Jonathan Wilson writes in Inverting The Pyramid that the game “… is not about players, or at least not just about players; it is about shape and about space, about the intelligent deployment of players, and their movement within that deployment”. A team, in a way, is an organism; a breathing, living system in which no single organ can live on its own, outside of its relation with the other parts of that same body.

The space a player enjoys and takes advantage of in order to score a goal that can decide a game, depends on the interrelated movement of his teammates. Without them, it’s easy for the opposing team to stifle even the most creative of players. And once the latter loses the ball, if his teammates are not soundly positioned or fail to recover into a balanced defensive formation, the former will likely mount a successful counter-attack.

Traditionally, Barcelona try to gain this upper hand in a very particular way, by fielding its players in a so-called 4-3-3 – four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards – horizontally spread across the field; it aims to control the ball has much as possible through a succession of short passes that minimise the risk of being dispossessed, and provoke the opponent into surging fruitlessly towards the Barcelona players, opening up space behind their back line that Barcelona can then exploit.

Another way to either open up space in an opposing defence is through a constant positional switch between players, something Barcelona do brilliantly – both vertically, when a defender goes up the field and the midfielder ahead of him covers his forward movement, or when a forward drops deep into the midfield in order to open up space for a run into the area by a midfielder or a defender; and horizontally, like when the three forwards rotate between their original positions, or when the two wing forwards drift inside to simultaneously overload the central area of the opponent’s defence and open up space on the wings for the vertical movement of the two full-backs.

As Simon Kuper explains: “Barcelona start pressing the instant they lose possession, [which] is the perfect time to press because the opposing player who has just won the ball is vulnerable. He has had to take his eyes off the game to make his tackle or interception and he has expended energy so he is unsighted and probably tired.” And if the area of the field where the play is taking place in the opponent’s midfield, Barcelona “can instantly win it back again, then the way to goal is often clear”.

Atlético approach the game in a very different way. The team is not as interested as Barcelona in actually having the ball, preferring instead to constrain the opponent’s movement, denying them the space they need to attack, and ensuring they always retain the numerical advantage in the vicinity of their goal. With two banks of four protecting the goal, Atlético elect to leave only an attacking midfield player slightly ahead of them and one striker furthest forward, leaning on Barcelona’s defenders, waiting for an opportunity to get behind them.

Atlético also deploy a frantic pressing system, but execute it much deeper, either in the middle of the field or sitting deep in front of their penalty area; as soon as they dispossess the opponent, Atlético jump on to the counter-attack, trying to take advantage of the space the other team has left behind. Against Barcelona, this tactic worked a treat.

Messi, however, operates on a different plane of existence. When playing against him, teams often assign two or three players to jump on Messi whenever he has the ball to try to contain him, but even when surrounded by opponents, he overcomes them by rendering mathematics and concepts like “numerical advantage” meaningless, and by moving through space where others would find no such thing, as if he was a non-corporeal entity capable of moving through all kinds of matter. Faced with someone like him, a team may well have a hold on the space-numbers relationship that decides whether you win, lose or draw a match, but find yourself defeated by Messi not being compelled by normality.

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Perhaps taking this into consideration, 59 minutes into the game, Luis Enrique decided to substitute Ivan Rakitić with Messi and his supernatural powers. The first time he touched the ball, Messi was fouled by the unfortunate human who found himself marking the Argentine. It was the most successful of all the Atlético’s players’ attempts to stop him for the rest of the game.

With Messi now on the pitch, Barcelona changed their shape to a 4-2-3-1. Rakitic had been one of the two more advanced midfielders – without him, the other one, Andrés Iniesta, moved back to a more defensive position alongside Sergio Busquets, who was already playing as the holding midfielder. Rafinha stayed on the right wing, Neymar stayed on the left, and Luis Suárez remained the striker, but right in the middle of the three was Messi, orchestrating Barcelona’s every move, deciding when to pass, when to slalom through the Atleti defence with the ball, when to run, or when to drift from his position to draw an opponent and open up space for a teammate.

Atlético responded by sitting even deeper than they had been before, and yet that tactical choice only seemed to invite Barcelona to pushing harder and harder for the second goal. Messi’s influence was changing the game, the atmosphere and the sense of calm that Atlético had previously shown.

The game had changed its character, not by some Darwinian evolutionary process, but due to the intelligent design of a diminutive creator. At the turn of the 76th minute, Messi was sitting just outside the left of the Atlético area, when Barcelona’s left-back Jordi Alba recovered possession and immediately passed the ball to the middle of the area where Suárez, with a deftly executed one-touch pass, directed it towards a now-moving Messi, who calmly flicked the ball to the far post, scoring Barcelona’s second.

There were still 14 minutes left to play in the game, but Messi made sure the game was already won. He genius transcended tactics, rigidity and the norm.

“He is not normal,” says César Luis Menotti, a revered tactician in Argentina for his spell with the national team, in Messi. The other talking heads offer alternative adjectives, but the gist is the same: Messi is not like the rest of us. The documentary brings together many legends of the game – Menotti, Jorge Valdano and Johan Cruyff among others – family members, friends, colleagues and fans into two edited-together restaurant dinners to share stories about Messi and discuss how great they find him to be.

His grandmother was the one who first took him to his neighbourhood club. Apparently the team was missing one player and Messi, sitting in the stands, too little to play with boys two years older than him, wanted to nevertheless. Desperate to field enough players, the team’s coach told him he could play. The video footage taken at the time shows Messi, a tiny kid in the middle of much taller, stronger children, taking the ball and dribbling past them on his way to scoring a goal, just like we have grown accustomed to see him do for Barcelona.

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“When he didn’t have a ball,” a childhood friend says, “he used to play with a bottle.” Even then he was already performing miracles, turning not water into wine but everyday objects into a ball. And the film portrays everything in Messi’s life as miraculous, from his effort in come-from-behind wins at Newell’s Old Boys to his move to Barcelona, and all the goals he has scored to fill countless highlights reels. But the greatest miracle must be the simple fact that he is playing football at all.

Messi’s origin story is well known: “When Messi was 9,” chronicles Wright Thompson, “he stopped growing.” He had been born into a middle-class, “stable and ordinary family” in Rosario and had begun playing in the youth ranks of Newell’s Old Boys, when he was diagnosed with a hormone deficiency that stunted his physical development. He needed hormone injections and Newell’s promised to help pay for them – until they reneged on their offer.

His father lost his job, so the bill became an even more insurmountable obstacle in little Leo’s path towards stardom. And so the young, tiny, shy Messi and his father would move to Barcelona, his mother staying behind with his two brothers and his younger sister. There, they would try to convince the club to add him to its stable of young players in the famous youth farm of La Masia, and shoulder the financial burden of his treatments. They succeeded, and the rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

In his 2006 article on a “spectator’s experience” of watching tennis player Roger Federer, David Foster Wallace argued: “If you’ve never seen the young man play live, and then do, in person, on the sacred grass of Wimbledon, through the literally withering heat and then wind and rain of the ’06 fortnight, then you are apt to have what one of the tournament’s press bus drivers describes as a ‘bloody near-religious experience’.”

Wallace, himself a former tennis player in his youth, goes full-man-crush on Federer, describing his play with the words and tone that a teenager would use to describe the looks and personality of the object of their affections. Federer’s forehand is “a great liquid whip” and he gives you a unique feeling of “Federer Moments” – ones that make you feel like you’re witnessing something special, not just another sportsperson. But although this is true, Wallace state: “None of it really explains anything or evokes the experience of watching Federer play, for a top athlete’s beauty is next to impossible to describe directly.”

In Wallace’s eye, Federer “is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws.” He compares him to sporting greats like Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. “His movements are lithe rather than athletic. Like Ali, Jordan, Maradona, and Gretzky, he seems both less and more substantial than the men he faces. Particularly in the all-white that Wimbledon enjoys getting away with still requiring, he looks like what he may well (I think) be: a creature whose body is both flesh and, somehow, light.”

Wallace titled his piece Roger Federer as Religious Experience. In an essay about Pelé, Brian Phillips criticised Wallace for his choice of metaphor. Athletes like Pelé and Federer do not strike Phillips so much “as a religious experience”, but as comedians: “Not as a stand-up comic or a satirist, but as the opposite of a tragedian, the author of the kind of classical comedy that always ends with a wedding, the kind that revels in turning the order of things upside down so that it can give you the giddy satisfaction of seeing them turned right-side up again.”

The consolation offered by “Federer Moments” is not, Phillips argues, a consummate, religious consolation; instead, it is an imperfect, fragile piece of momentary happiness, originated by a merely fleeting upheaval of the natural order of things.

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However, Phillips does rightly understand what Wallace meant to say with the religious experience metaphor: the kind of “ecstatic experience” in which human beings are lifted up out of their corporeal shapes into a higher plane of existence where they experience a radiant consciousness of the connectedness of all things. And Phillips believes that Pelé – not Federer – is the athlete that, more than any other, “traffics” in the kinds of performance – miracles, one might say – that ignite our innate sympathetic connection with other people’s bodies, and the thrill of seeing intention freely realised over and against all physical impediments.

By taking away “an essential physical tool – the hands – away from the player”, football, Philips notes, “emphasises the limits of the body and the difficulty of realising intention”, so when a player does something amazing, we see it not as a superhuman feat but as a human victory over what’s essentially an everyday difficulty. To watch Pelé play, Phillips argues, is not to watch him humanize himself; it is “to watch a player whose game is almost perfect”, an athlete who “makes acts that are extremely difficult to perform look easy”, and in the process just so happens to create moments of fantastic delight for the spectator.

Where both Phillips and Wallace are, I believe, mistaken, is in their belief that we watch sports – and look for this ecstatic connection with those we watch playing them – simply for , and in, the contemplation of greatness.

Consider when you first started watching sports, as a kid. What you were looking for was a somewhat mystical way of transposing yourself into what you were watching. You were looking, not for greatness, but to be great yourself.

When I was a kid, I watched football games and would picture myself among the players, dreaming myself into their midst and being able to do what I saw them do. While I played with my friends in the school playground, we made ourselves believe we were them, playing for Barcelona, for AC Milan, for Portugal or Holland. I know I cannot speak for the whole of humankind, but I would be amazed if this is not at least in some way relatable to the experience of everyone in the world who liked to both play and watch sports.

Some of that is carried over to our adult experience of watching sports: we obviously don’t dream of becoming Neymar or Lewis Hamilton when we grow up, but we still picture ourselves in the place of the players we watch: we’ve all raised our hands to catch an NFL ball, struck a full toss for four, volleyed a pinpoint cross into the top corner and smashed a backhand down the line.

The reason why sports do indeed occasion “religious experiences” is not that they allow us to see amazing things we could not do ourselves, and give us the chance to recreate that as our own piece of mastery. The reason why sports engender “religious experiences” is that the athletes performing those amazing things elicit both awe and identification. And that’s what religion does too.

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Christians of all persuasions – from catholics to all branches of protestantism – believe that Jesus was the Messiah who came to Earth once and will do so again to save us, but the idea that He walked – and will walk – amongst us as one of us is an equally important part of the creed. Christians believe He is our Lord and Saviour, but also that He is like us: Jesus is believed to be divine but also human, the Son of God but also the son of Mary, flesh, but also a Holy Spirit, a congruent synthesis of seemingly incompatible undiluted traits.

In his own way, Messi is that as a sportsman.

In another more recent essay, Phillips has argued the reason why fans “really, really love Messi” is that he couples “an improbable likeable personality” with his belonging to a type of player that comes out of nowhere: “There’s nothing about Messi that says ‘athlete,’” Phillips says, “But put him on the pitch and magic just breaks out.” On the other hand, if you look at Cristiano Ronaldo, Phillips writes that you say “Wow, dude looks like he was built to play soccer.” Ronaldo is one of those players that looks like he’s a footballer, an athlete.

Somehow, Phillips’s argument undersells its own point. Football fans “really, really love Messi” not only because he does not look like what we think a footballer should look like, but also, and above all else, because by not looking like what we think a footballer should look like, he makes them feel like they too could be stars.

The reason why we admire athletes like Cristiano Ronaldo, Katie Ledecky or Usain Bolt, is that they are obviously extraordinary – beyond what is normal for a human being to be. We admire them out of awe, for they do things that we know we would never be able to do. But we look up to Messi because he looks like we could climb up to his level and become as great as he is. He does not look like a freakishly tall, fast and strong superhuman. He looks like a normal, short, relatively skinny young man, and yet he does these amazing things with a ball. And this unconsciously makes us believe that maybe we – other normal, short, relatively skinny young men – could also be able to do such amazing things. Kids may dream of becoming Cristiano Ronaldo. But they aspire to turn into Messi. It somehow seems possible, if not plausible.

Messi is not an ordinary player. We are not Lionel Messi, and we can’t be. I may be short, skinny and shy just like Messi, but I would never be able to do what he does. He may not have been blessed with Ronaldo’s athleticism, but he was blessed with amazing agility, and extraordinary ability to twist his body in tight spaces, and the necessary skill to do such things while keeping the ball at his feet. He was blessed with a mind that helps him solve problems on a football pitch like few others can. Being left-footed may have blessed him with inverted brain hemisphere functions, which give [him] an extra dose of unpredictability.

Messi isn’t any less superhuman than Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s just so in a different way, a way that makes him both God and Man, both similar to yet beyond us all. In Roger Federer as Religious Experience, in the first of the footnotes with which he famously filled his essays, Wallace writes: “Rather like certain kinds of rare, peak-type sensuous epiphanies (“I’m so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!” etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important — they make up for a lot.”

In this media-drowned culture we live in, one simply cannot separate the experience of watching an athlete’s performance from the narrative that is built around him and his persona. One necessarily colours and informs the other. The performance frames the content of the narrative, and the narrative frames our interpretation of what we see. Messi may be “impossible”, but his narrative leads us to believe he is not, without diminishing his greatness in any way. Messi is uniquely able to be simultaneously transcendent and relatable.

His origins allow us to dream that we too can be – or could have been if we’re already too old to plausibly aspire to become a professional player – as good as he is. And because he allows us to dream in a way that no other person does, no athlete of this or any other age is better equipped to achieve this supernatural coalescence of otherworldliness and reachability than the Argentine. Not Federer, or Pelé, or Jordan, or Ali, or Gretzky, or Maradona. Only Lionel Messi.

By Bruno Alves  @ba_lifeofbruno

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