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Deconstructing Messi

It would never occur to me to say that Messi is more than Di Stéfano, Pelé, Cruyff or Maradona. But nor is he less

Messi celebrates his second goal against United.
Messi celebrates his second goal against United.Manu Fernandez (AP)
Jorge Valdano

In soccer, we use the word “genius” to refer to anything that doesn’t fit into a pattern, and that integrates things that appear to be magic into normality, to the point of transmitting a relaxed sense of ease when they achieve the impossible. In other words, Messi.

All of a sudden, during a play that appears unstructured, difficult, and even ugly, he fixes it with a touch that brings harmony to all of that mess. To achieve this you need a panoramic sense of space, unparalleled peripheral vision, a mathematician’s ability to calculate results, the coordination of a tightrope walker, the craftiness of a poor man and a technique that the ball obeys without question and even with joy. He dazzles the world with strength, inspiration and grace. And he wins it over.

Messi is perhaps the most timely player in the history of soccer. Just to be clear, timing measured in tenths of a second

He might be surrounded by rivals who think that they have him cornered, but thanks to sensors that, from the nervous system, send out perfect reflex actions, the genius accelerates, stops dead or feigns, in order to find a ball-sized space. It’s enough to open up a new aspect of the game. A better one. In soccer, that species of god with human dimensions, bestowed from birth with knowledge that will be perfected thanks to practice, is the genius.

He passes the ball deep, and the spectators ask themselves, will they pass it back to him? When? Where? How? Before you can even ask all of these questions, Messi has already answered them and has taken action. To reach such levels of perfection you need to be able to use the future-seeing skills that are stored in the black box of instinct, which has a partly genetic foundation and another that is cultural.

Each genius is unique and requires their own metaphors. For Maradona, for example, the ball was like a musical instrument, from which he extracted artistic responses. For Messi the ball is a tool with no more pretensions than its efficiency. It is not the carpenter’s handsaw nor the gardener's hoe; the millimetric perfection of his game is more comparable to the tools of a precious metalworker. He arrives on the scene that only he has in his head walking, jogging or sprinting. There is even a fourth possibility: running backwards. Because unmarking yourself is all about finding an empty space, not going forward. It’s about arriving at the ball, or the ball arriving at you, in the right place at the right time. From that point of view of the game, Messi is perhaps the most timely player in the history of soccer. Just to be clear, timing measured in tenths of a second.

Going to the origins of the phenomenon

The right sperm fertilizes the correct ovary so that a destined one is born; that’s to say, a child with an exaggerated natural advantage to play soccer. One among thousands of millions of competitors. And I am talking as much about sperm cells as I am about candidates for genius the world over. Who wouldn’t want to be Messi? A good part of the universal knowledge of soccer was instilled in him at that instant – or, to put it better, a good part of the instruments needed to manage the game at his will. It’s strange for a miracle to come as standard, but there’s no other way of looking at it. However, even miracles need the right conditions to prosper.

Rosario deserved a Messi

Growth has to take place in an environment that appreciates that specific talent. Footballing genius is the beneficiary of its own era and of an environment in which soccer must have a cultural density. No one said it better than Menotti: “We all know that a Japanese Maradona would be impossible.” In the same way that we can say that Messi has been Messi since he was born, we have to say that Messi was born in Rosario because Rosario deserved a Messi. The whole city is impregnated with soccer and to demonstrate that it’s enough to name the children of the city and its zone of influence: Menotti himself, Mascherano, Bielsa, Pochetino, Berizzo, El Tata Martino, Batistuta, Banegas, Garay, Di María, Lo Celso… and so on and so on. It was within the realm of possibilities for the city to give birth to a genius. We now have the “natural lottery” and the “social lottery.” In both cases, the big prize went to Lionel Messi.

Perhaps in a moment of weakness he asked himself if all of this was worth the effort, or, perhaps, he had doubts about his professional future

The passion of the child honored the advantage with which he was born. No doubt because he perceived that superiority very early, having a joyous encounter with the ball, the toy that would prevail among all others. That’s the start of a relationship of love, and, without exaggerating, with the main object of pleasure in soccer. With the ball, he enjoys never-ending sessions of mastery to show it how to obey any order. The genius develops the feeling with the ball, his dominance, and thus improves his muscular coordination. His imagination also begins to develop. Not everything can be about soccer, but it’s very likely that when he was in school he would be thinking about the ball and when he slept he would be dreaming about the ball.

Knowledge of the game is learned bit by bit, thanks to specialization exercises (control, passing, shots, headers…) that, like pieces of a machine, will later have to be fitted together. Not all of the players know how to unite the pieces that they trained separately. For the genius, this is something that they know right from the day that the sperm cell made one of the best runs of all time to arrive in the right place.

That is how practice, the conscious and even the subconscious start to charge that storeroom of information that we call instinct with fiendish content, for when the magic moment of inspiration arrives.

A friendly laboratory

All of that knowledge has to be fed into the friendly, almost festive laboratory that are playground games. Trial and error to make adjustments between vision, technique, courage… Here the ball is already shared, in a way that means that individuality has to be accountable to the collective. If the feeling with the ball has already been developed, the moment arrives when vision must be strengthened in order to evaluate the others, to interact with our own team, to understand spaces and to measure the multiple speeds (those of the ball, the rivals, the teammates…) with the precision of a Swiss watch. Messi also passes this test without studying, with the intelligent and even pleasurable efforts of practice.

No doubt the first applause starts to be heard and a few insults are bandied about. He likes the former and is not afraid of the latter. In fact, when they foul him he avoids falling so that he never has to give away the ball. It might appear to be an act of honesty, but long before that it’s the love for the ball that he will never lose. He is still a child and he is playing for fun, but he already can see, with concealed happiness, the aristocratic evidence of his own power. Messi is already the Messi who we know, at least in the essential aspects. It’s enough to see a video of his childhood to recognize his creative pattern. He is seen choosing the best option between all of those possible, and he makes us ask, as he does now: How many ideas would he have rejected in his head before he chose this one? How can he have such marksmanship to pick the best option? At what speed do those cerebral connections work to find a solution in a reflexive action? This creative adventure is fascinating and we can see it in the soccer played by Messi in those images from his childhood, as well as in any game he plays these days.

That was how the informal learning phase came to an end during the manufacture of the timeliest player in the history of soccer. The street, the main stage for his training in those years, had the advantage of strengthening his bravery, without modifying the originality of his resources, and of giving him self-confidence even though his physical attributes had not yet developed. La pulga feels powerful in the midst of those battles because they can’t get catch a hold of him even with their hands. Nor can they bring him down. He already has super powers, ones that just need to be professionalized.

A change of habits

The genius is still in Rosario, he is barely 12 years old and he is invisible to the world. The day arrives when he has to leave his home, the neighborhood, the city and the country in search of a dream that is far away, in Barcelona. He arrives without the body he needs, but with a mind that has an algorithmic logic, with his telescopic precision and a dribble that leaves other players in his wake.

While he discovers the new world he has to deal with his growth problems, with injections that he himself has to administer. His family is split in two during the time that he completes his education in another part of the world. Perhaps in a moment of weakness he asks himself if all of this was worth the effort, or, perhaps, he has doubts about his professional future, just like any adolescent who is going through an apprenticeship. But the pride and the character of the genius don’t just shine on the pitch, and his problems are nothing more than the tests of manhood that life presents even for the predestined. At this point, the important thing is to know that no one, in any area and even if they are highly gifted, reaches the top via a red carpet. Sacrifices? No. Maybe challenges, because very quickly Leo would have discovered that dreams and reality can go hand in hand.

His long and impeccable career path managed to turn him, without a doubt, into the most important player in the history of Barça

In Barcelona, many substantial things happen in terms of his training, spanning both the conditions of his life as well as his relationship with soccer. The change in habits that he is facing consists of adapting his street training to an academic one. This step from a cultural group to which he belonged by origin to another that he chose through necessity, forces him to socialize his soccer in another way, and he no doubt molds himself to it, once more, with the ease that is fitting for the chosen ones. During this phase his new habits compete with his learning in the wild. The routines that he found at Barça begin to format Leo’s game to a new and singular style. Habits that would adapt him to a context that would end up being unmovable throughout his professional career and that did him so much good at Barça as it would do him harm on the Argentina national team. He grew in the image and similarity of Barça, even as his teammates got to know him. It was soccer that would end up being dazzling under the management of Guardiola and which Messi illuminated with beauty and elevated with efficiency as Pelé did at Santos, Di Stéfano did at Real Madrid, and Cruyff did at Ajax. Of course, he did this at the side of teammates with whom he established a lasting, fertile, professional and human complicity.

The end of the road

As the process of adaptation to the Barça style took place during the most important time in formative terms (from the ages of 12 to 17), the effort transformed him in the best way as a soccer player and as a team player. The reasons are very simple: all cultural mixtures are enriching and even a phenomenon needs to evolve. Leo did so in an environment that was coherent with his natural conditions. La Pulga started to grow in confidence, in tactical resources, in muscular power and above all in his precision at speed because his ingenuity crystallizes in accuracy ahead of imagination. Something different was on its way. The soccer genius began to dream.

And Messi, who had finally reached adolescence, got to the end of the road, the one that left him at the Nou Camp ready to show the world what he was capable of. It was nothing more than the beginning of a new road on the long journey toward glory with relevant stops and names: Barça, La Masía, the national team, Busquets, Xabi, Iniesta, Ronaldinho, Tito Villanova, Guardiola, Luis Suárez, Jordi Alba, his goalscoring, his consecration as a global hero, his dozens of titles, his wife, his children, his maturity…

Each one of these milestones, episodes and characters passed through his life to leave him with some kind of influence and to work on the reputation and global fame with which, by the way, he has a very relaxed relationship. Another miracle! Only this one is not now relevant. His long and impeccable career path managed to turn him, without a doubt, into the most important player in the history of Barça. In terms of his global soccer status, he will rightfully find his place among the greatest players in the history of the sport. I would never say that Messi is more than Di Stéfano, Pelé, Cruyff or Maradona. But nor is he less.

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