Sporting Life: When it matters most, magical Messi proves elusive

Argentina captain Lionel Messi scoring his team's third goal under pressure from Ecuador's Robert Arboleda (No. 3) and Jefferson Intriago in their 3-1 win at the Olimpico Atahualpa stadium in Quito, Ecuador on Oct 10, 2017.
Argentina captain Lionel Messi scoring his team's third goal under pressure from Ecuador's Robert Arboleda (No. 3) and Jefferson Intriago in their 3-1 win at the Olimpico Atahualpa stadium in Quito, Ecuador on Oct 10, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

A day before he scores I know he will score. I don't read tea leaves or own a degree in voodoo, but this is Lionel Messi. Professional reassurer. Remarkable rescuer. Club liberator. Nation saviour. Of course he'll score against Ecuador.

I haven't seen a single World Cup qualifier lately, but this one, Wednesday morning, Singapore time, 7.25am, I have to. Because Argentina have to beat Ecuador in Quito at the Estadio Olimpico Atahualpa - where they haven't won since 2001 - to qualify for the World Cup which means this: Messi has been provoked. Someone has stepped on the tail of a genius.

Did I mention I missed the match?

People say Messi needs to win a World Cup to equal Maradona but at this level skill is just an opinion. It's as hard to separate them as Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison. Anyway if World Cups are the measure then Pele leads Maradona 3-1 and does Johan Cruyff the beautiful become irrelevant because he has none? This argument has no end and the game has altered. The Champions League, stuffed with talent from many nations, is a newer and testing examination that Messi has passed four times and Maradona never sat for.

Zico once said "I saw Maradona do things that God himself would doubt were possible" and Gary Lineker tweeted yesterday "He's only gone and scored a hat-trick. If Messi is not the GOAT then I'm a *&^%ing chicken". Every time we watch them they remind us that we have not seen everything in football. Because they do not play, you see, they invent.

I don't have Singtel TV so I wake up at 6am and - as arranged on Tuesday night - travel to my friend David's house in Bishan carrying four eggs and four tea bags (a guy shows me Messi, he's entitled to a free breakfast). David is half-asleep and I sit down at 7.20am, flick on the TV, find the channel, only to be greeted by this:

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You've got to be *&^%$ kidding me.

"Dave, you don't have Mio sport!"

"Oh hell", he says.

People say Messi needs to win a World Cup to equal Maradona but at this level skill is just an opinion. It's as hard to separate them as Mick Jagger and Jim Morrison. Anyway if World Cups are the measure then Pele leads Maradona 3-1 and does Johan Cruyff the beautiful become irrelevant because he has none?

I've known David since my teens and this is one of those moments when you appreciate the sturdy bonds of long friendship. I simmer, hail a taxi, head for office, unaware that Ecuador have already scored.

Faith. This is what I have in Messi. I do not see him as some higher power but only as an owner of one. It's not that Messi hasn't ever failed but he seems committed to succeed and if there is no limit to the faith people have in him it is because he sees no limit to what he can do.

Genius is defined by a capacity to do unspeakably wonderful things with disarming regularity. Last weekend, the All Blacks trail South Africa 15-17 in a rugby Test but squeak home 25-24. In 1988, on the platform, Greg Louganis requires 85.56 points on his final dive for an Olympic gold medal and earns a mighty 86.70. At the worst times they summon their best selves. With a mere press of a button.

Though in my case this is not happening.

It's now just before 8am, I am in The Straits Times sports desk which has two TVs, both have Singtel TV, the correct channel is found, the OK button is pressed:

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I know I don't go to church but should the penalty be so harsh? Meanwhile, David is religiously texting me to say Messi has scored twice already. Thank you, friend.

Great athletes will always remain foreign to us because we can never know what it is like for nations to speak our names like a prayer. As Cesar Luis Menotti, the former coach, told a website a day before the match: "To have Messi in the team is to have someone who can save you."

What we also cannot tell is the athlete's rage, his expectation of himself, his love of challenge, his need to prove his powers have not adulterated. Cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, as modest an athlete as I have met, told me once after an event, "I decided to win the tournament for India".

By now it is past 8am and I am not watching the game but reading it on the BBC website. Footage is rapidly loaded onto YouTube, some of which confirms that perhaps only judokas get taken down more often than Messi. But the clips are unfulfilling for it is akin to watching highlights of Beethoven at work or Frank Gehry sketching.

Even Messi has a quota of astonishing moments and at 30 they will become rarer. Which makes these ones even more precious. And so I will watch replays of his third goal at least 20 times, the way he takes the ball and glides and is able to chip the ball so precisely over a goalkeeper even as an Ecuadorian defender is pushing him off balance.

The World Cup is safe, the world's finest player will be there. Of course if he does not win it all, he will be a failure. The more Messi does, the more we ask. But on this day he did enough and in the end I don't feel too bad that I couldn't catch him. For neither could Ecuador.