Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Messi for beginners

Over the weekend the greatest soccer player who ever lived played an exceptional game. Lionel Messi scored three goals. This is called, of course, a hat-trick, and while it's an impressive feat by any standard, it is not necessarily a particularly legendary feat. That part is all in how one does it.

Messi was playing with his team, Barcelona, in their opponents' stadium, with 54,000 people on hand cheering on their team Real Betis, and rooting against Barcelona. His first goal was from a free kick, a beautiful blast into an upper left corner of the net. It was a pure and lovely shot, making the perfectly sensible looking defensive set up appear to be 30 yards wide of where they all needed to be. But it was probably not a shot of quality beyond the capabilities of other good players having a great day.

His second goal was from an extraordinary backheeled pass to him from his teammate Luis Suarez, who was dazzlingly going the other way. With no time to collect the pass, or even really kick it, Messi sort of stabbed the ball with his reaching left foot, spearing it at an oblique angle into the net like a doomed fish. I'm not actually sure how many people make that goal, maybe some of the best, on a very, very good day?

But the third goal was different, and it's hard to explain. I was so excited about it I showed it to some non soccer fans and it didn't quite play right. It was like if I showed someone who had never seen golf a professional golfer clubbing a 350 yard drive down a fairway, perfectly straight and pure, touching down and rolling into the hole for a hole-in-one. "How's that!?" I ask, grinning.

"That was nice." They reply. "But isn't that sort of what they're supposed to do?"

Well, yeah, I guess so.

Messi gets the ball above the box. He dribbles out of reach of a couple players and pops it out quickly to a teammate, Rakitic, on the near wing. That person proceeds to drift a rolling ball back in from the side to Messi.

Messi does not have a shot.

So he shoots, at first touch, chipping the ball in a perfectly designed arc, looping just quickly and high enough to escape the leaping goalie, and just soft and spinning enough to drop down, dipping into the top goal bar to make use of every inch of height and bouncing into the goal. Hat-trick.

Isn't that just what you're supposed to do?

Well... yes.

But for those of us who have seen a few thousand goals this one is not familiar. We haven't quite seen one like this before. They don't normally work this way. Across soccerdom everyone spits out their tea. They laugh, delighted, or like "What the fuck." The most loquacious of the announcers can't find any new words for a bit. "Human art." One finally settles on. The reserved, take-no-sides English announcers just give it up. "Well, he's the greatest ever to play the game." They confess, no longer able to resist. The goalie rolls his eyes, defeated, but not feeling too bad about it. No one on earth will be holding him responsible. Some of the players put their heads in their hands. It's a "holy crap" moment for all involved, and something a little more. Winners and losers seems to recede for a moment. Disappointment bleeds out of the stadium. No matter who or where soccer fans are watching something more like wonder rides in. Messi celebrates in his traditional way. The team hugs. And then the crowd of Real Betis fans, all the tens of thousands in Seville in Spain, soccer aficionados all, having whistled at the Barcelona team for 85 minutes, rise to their feet, and cheer.


  1. What a beautifully written and joyous post. I will have to watch the replay of the goals now. "Messi sort of stabbed the ball with his reaching left foot, spearing it at an oblique angle into the net like a doomed fish." What a description!

  2. I just watched two videos: One covered the three goals and was deeply satisfying. That heel pass for second goal was incredible! The commentators' awe is neat! The second video is one of those clever YouTube things: It only focuses on the players' and fans' reactions to the last goal. Really cool and kind of funny how all the players on both sides are stunned, and how even the hard core opponent's fans are cheering.

    1. Yeah, I love that. The soccer nickname "the beautiful game" can sometimes seem like a lot of far away rhetoric, but sometimes it's right there.


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