Mexico 0 Argentina 3 (Heinze ’45, Messi ’61, Riquelme ’65)
11th July 2007, Estadio Olimpico
Great athletes in team sports are different from the rest of us in many ways, but perhaps one of them stands out above all: the ability to make everyone else feel as if they are merely characters in the script that the great athlete is directing. In 2007, in Argentina’s Copa America semi-final against Mexico, Leo Messi wrote and acted yet another such screenplay.
It was a short film, lasting only a few agonising seconds, and took place just after the hour mark. It was perhaps a self-indulgent time to think about creating a masterpiece, given that Argentina were leading by only a goal to nil, but then again that’s what great athletes do; whether it’s Serena Williams conjuring a magnificent drop-shot during the tensest of tie-breaks, or LeBron James summoning a no-look pass as the shot-clock evaporates, they create their very best art to bring order to the surrounding chaos.
And that’s what Messi does here. Receiving a pass in the inside-right position, his toes on the edge of the penalty area, he brings the ball with him as he gathers speed, a pupil grabbing his bag as he runs out the door to school. Sensing peril, two defenders move across to stop his advance – but one of them, quite unaware, is only destined to become a member of Messi’s supporting cast. Seeing this centre-back step into his path, Messi uses him, since he’s just the decoy he needs; and, shielded by his presence, Messi decides to do what no other footballer presently breathing would decide to do to the goalkeeper ahead of him. He decides to chip him.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider who Messi is attempting to chip here. He is looking to float the ball over none other than Oswaldo Sanchez, whom Wikipedia helpfully tells us is “highly regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in Mexican football history”. He was seven times voted his country’s best goalkeeper and twice voted its best player. He was capped 99 times for Mexico, stopping tragically short of a century. He was also six foot one.
But Messi doesn’t care. This is a football career during which he will chip Manuel Neuer and Iker Casillas and leave Gianluigi Buffon as a helpless spectator. And so Messi chips him.
Let’s think about the difficulty of the chip. It requires you to stab your foot underneath the ball, creating a backspin so furious that the ball loops sharply up and then down in a matter of metres. It’s a technique so tough that you probably can’t attempt it unless the ball is rolling slowly across your path and you are standing still. Got that? Right. Well, in this match, Messi does it on the run, and while the ball is off the floor.
That’s right. Faced by an elite goalkeeper who has unwisely strayed a few feet from his line, Messi slashes the instep of his left boot beneath the bouncing ball, so that it rises at startling speed – so swiftly that, before it even reaches him, Sanchez maybe feels that he is already beaten. His dive into the net, flailing after the ball with the utmost futility, feels almost choreographed. As Messi celebrates, it is fitting that the first team-mate to reach him is Juan Sebastian Veron, probably one of the few other players in existence who could briefly have considered such a finish at such a moment – and then, out of respect for its sheer impossibility, declined to shoot.
Watching Thor: Ragnarok recently, Taika Waititi’s gloriously bonkers addition to the Marvel Universe, I was struck by how much of the dialogue had been made up on the spot. Waititi stated in an interview with Australian media that he regarded his scripts as a suggestion, from which his actors could depart whenever the creative mood took them. Watching Messi feels similar to watching a film directed by Waititi; one where the action is rumbling along excitingly enough, and then the protagonist, seized by inspiration, comes up with something entirely unexpected, and joyously memorable.