COMMENTARY

Messi: Flop or not? No: By lifting us with his artistry, he brings romance back to sport

You can call the best player in the world a choker and find no irony in it. You can insist his legacy is tainted and claim that Maradona's toenails were more talented than he is and you'll find enough people in furious agreement. You can snigger at his penalty kick in yesterday morning's Copa America final which landed on a nearby planet and mock his tears that followed his national team missteps because, hey, it's a free world.

You can dismiss Lionel Messi as overrated and dub him a flop, though my Argentinian colleague Rodolfo will tell you gently that "before Messi's era Argentina had problems even to reach the semi-finals of major international competitions". You can even call him a failure and insist that eight league trophies, three club World Cups, four Champions League titles, four Copa del Rey wins, six Spanish Super Cups and three European Super Cups is, well, unconvincing evidence without any national titles.

You can do all that and I won't argue, except to say Lionel Messi almost never fails me. Well, maybe only when he dived yesterday.

Of course he is flawed and imperfect but Messi - even yesterday for brief snatches of seconds - takes me to a place of pure pleasure that most athletes don't even know exist. Maybe rugby's All Blacks some days, like last weekend, when they're exchanging passes like a congregation of graceful mind readers.

In a world obsessed with handing out titles, someone's also got to be responsible for offering us art, for showing us the beauty in the smallest pass, for adding something to sport which can't be measured by numbers.


PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

In modern times, sport seems to lean towards athletes of power (Serena Williams, LeBron James) and precise repetition (Novak Djokovic), all of them formidable and yet there's nothing exquisitely artistic to them as there is to Messi. He doesn't play to dazzle, it's just that his play does dazzle.

When Messi started work yesterday I was awake, which I would not necessarily be if England were playing. Or Croatia. Much of European football is high-strategy and low-imagination (there are exceptions like Spain), football turned into cautious science, methodical and technical and as inspiring as a lab experiment. Winning has become so important that often victory is a deeply boring business.

A colleague told me I was being a romantic and I was bemused: Isn't that what sport is for? The place where we express ourselves? Or have we stolen all the fun from it and made football too important to the planet?

Of course Messi wants to win and needs to win and plays to win and mostly does win, but I see winning every week. It's how he plays which is rarer. When he gets the ball, possibility awakens. Will he shimmy or dummy? Will he make defenders believe in ghosts by not being where they thought he should be? If Superman changes in a telephone booth, Messi works magic in spaces the same size. Who else does this stuff?

Part of the allure of sport is not the act itself but the promise of it, the anticipation that something otherworldly is in the offing. With Messi we think anything is possible which of course is entirely untrue but then he does things which make you think it could be true. Like that free kick against the Americans in the semi-finals, which was not a centimetre too high, or a kmh too slow, or a rotation too many, but just perfect. The ball fitted into a gap which was the size of a ball.

Yesterday, too, almost anything seemed possible as he dribbled down the wing when no space existed and accelerated like a bearded monk desperately chasing nirvana. He took on three defenders, dived, got a yellow card, mispassed and then mis-backheeled. He was inexact, always one dribble or a pass short, and yet still he was fun.

As a writer I enjoy all athletes, for variety enlivens sport and we need the thinker and the grinder, the muscled and the meticulous. Yet, in modern times, sport seems to lean towards athletes of power (Serena Williams, LeBron James) and precise repetition (Novak Djokovic), all of them formidable and yet there's nothing exquisitely artistic to them as there is to Messi. He doesn't play to dazzle, it's just that his play does dazzle.

Messi wasn't great enough yesterday and so he must wear the criticism, but let's not be narcissistic enough to lecture a five-time player of the year about pressure. His international retirement seems emotionally driven and he should reconsider for he has elevated the game too much to let it grind him down. Artists anyway don't really quit.

Great athletes are imperfect heroes but we can't seem to bear it. Sachin Tendulkar, for some, never won enough cricket matches for India. Roger Federer's defeats by Rafael Nadal left his career looking like a poem of unfinished stanzas. Now Messi may be forever shadowed by his own talking point. It makes him nicely human though clearly in sport it's only gods we want.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2016, with the headline 'No: By lifting us with his artistry, he brings romance back to sport'. Print Edition | Subscribe