The allure of Leo Messi’s genius

Words By Musa Okwonga
April 26, 2017
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I didn’t want to write about Leo Messi this week – I had too much else on. I didn’t even want to watch him. But he made me, and here I am. I have just had as busy a few days as I can remember, and as a result of that I had decided not to watch El Clasico, but instead to wander down to my favourite local restaurant to eat a plate of schnitzel, that traditional German meal of meat with breadcrumbs that I found instantly addictive upon moving here. I left the house very late, since I had been resting most of the day, and so it was shortly after 9pm when I approached the area where I normally go out, a cluster of streets with endlessly busy nightspots. And that’s when I saw Messi.

He’d just scored against Real Madrid, and his goal – a typically spectacular dribble past a flurry of desperately outstretched legs – was being replayed in a bar across the road from me. There he was, in slow motion – well, not all that slow, since even at this speed he seems unnervingly quick – slipping through that Madrid defence like a steak knife through sinew. He swaggered past a baffled Luka Modric, then bewildered poor Dani Carvajal before skimming beneath the dive of Keylor Navas.

“Messi… Messi… Messi…”

And suddenly there I was in the street, my need for a meal briefly forgotten. Because that’s what greatness does – it stops you, whatever you’re doing, and demands your attention. That’s not to say that genius is needy – it doesn’t poke you in the ribs every couple of minutes, demanding that you acknowledge it. It merely announces itself, and the second it does so you are transfixed.

It’s funny how genius works, and how it sometimes coincides. Messi visited a fresh round of pain upon Madrid a few days after Kendrick Lamar released his latest LP, “DAMN.”, which is a pretty good summary of Messi’s outing at the Bernabeu. Like Kendrick, what Messi does is beyond imitation. You can’t copy Kendrick’s blend of triple-time delivery and scathing social commentary any more than you can mimic Messi’s startling shift of speed and direction, an F1 car made flesh. All you can do is watch.

And so that’s what I did. I didn’t want to watch Barcelona against Real Madrid, because I had too much work to get on with and too many missed meals to catch up on. But that didn’t matter, since once you know Messi is in the mood you have to see him in action whenever you can. So I gulped down that schnitzel with indecent haste, and found myself a seat at a nearby watering hole to witness the last half-hour of the match. And Messi did – well, you know what he did. He did what Messi does: in the biggest club game of them all, he went missing.

For every other footballer on the planet, when you say that they disappear in big games, it means that they produced an appalling performance. In Messi’s case, though, it means that his play has reached its greatest heights. Messi actually disappeared twice in that second half against Madrid. The first time was when Toni Kroos made a lacklustre effort to tackle him; when he lunged in, Messi pivoted on his heel and in an instant he was nowhere to be seen. If anything, that should have served as a warning; because the next time Messi disappeared, it decided the match.

You’ve all seen the goal by now, from the final minute of one of the best Clasicos in recent memory. Sergio Busquets plays a pass of exquisite weight into the path of the galloping Sergi Roberto, who sways past one challenge then another on a run that takes him some sixty yards. Roberto lays the ball off for Andre Gomes, who spies Jordi Alba, that Catalan comet, searing the turf to his immediate left. Alba receives a ball of such pace and precision that he doesn’t need to decelerate; rushing onto it, he looks up and then cuts it back across the top of the box.

Meanwhile, Messi has gone missing. He must have done – because in a stadium filled with nearly a hundred thousand people, most of whom are sitting or now standing shoulder to anxious shoulder, he has more room around him than anyone. And as the ball rolls into his path, you see him lower his head over it, open his body for the strike, those who know Messi best have already begun their celebration.

It’s very easy to say he should have been better supervised, but you’d have better luck stopping a ghost going through Customs. As Messi tore off towards the corner flag, pursued by his similarly euphoric team-mates, I understood for the second time that evening what makes him great: that when he is at his best, he is utterly compelling, making it impossible to look away or talk about anything else. Messi reminds me of the times when I come home and find that Apocalypse Now is on one of the Sky Movie channels – no matter what point the film is at, I have to watch it all the way to the end. And no matter how much else work I have on, I will try to watch Messi as often as I can, all the way to the end of his career; because, as Madrid found once more to devastating cost, he is undeniable.

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