Sporting Life

Why we need Lionel Messi

Mary Lou Retton lived in the spotlight, so she put her Olympic medals in the shade. For a while all five of them lay under her bed in a bread bag. Retton, the 1984 all-around gymnastics champ, didn't need to see her medals because she knew what she had done to win them. As she once said: "A trophy carries dust. Memories last forever."

Lionel Messi, by the way, has won 29 trophies with Barcelona but it is the memories he leaves which illuminate his legend. Hours after his Sunday night ode to football against Real Madrid, a highlight video appeared on YouTube which was dedicated to him. As if the cameras were following only him. Of course, football is not a one-man show, but great players are illusionists. At one point, a player kicks air as Messi goes past him; the defender thought he saw something but Messi had come and gone. Ghost in boots.

Messi requires only two seconds to stop the world, which is the time he takes to score his first goal. Left foot touches ball, right foot pulls the ball, left foot slides ball into goal. Its simplicity is its genius, its ease is its wonder. It's like the story Darren Clarke, the golfer, tells the TV reporter David Feherty. Tiger Woods, in his prime, is practising and after 30 minutes of hitting every club a stunned Clarke notices that he "didn't take one divot and flushed every shot... it was incredible".

Sport at its best, like poetry or music or cinema, has the wondrous ability to elevate us as a species. It offers us entertainment, and art, and excellence, and a vivid glimpse into humankind's urge to create. When Messi choreographs his way past defenders, he suspends reality and momentarily lets us forget life's uglier parts. In a sense, he is saving us, sometimes from the very silliness that infects sports itself.

The sports pages, after all, have lately been rife with rudeness and anarchy. A male tennis champ called a woman player a "f*****g bitch" and needs to be escorted from the sport. Ilie Nastase is 70 but thinks he's in the '70s when male chauvinism was routine and boorishness laughed away. The battle for dignity and decency, we need to remember, does not end with equal prize money.

Nastase, Romania's Fed Cup captain, made Johanna Konta, 25, cry and leave the court, which resulted in Romanian player Sorana Cirstea claiming the Brit "exaggerated". Cirstea stated that she has, through the years, been called most things from "gypsy to bitch to a**hole to idiot ... I never cried and left the court, I stay there and I played." She was arguably not without a point but clearly without compassion. Perhaps, like in so much else, nationalism was blinding decency.

Sport at its best, like poetry or music or cinema, has the wondrous ability to elevate us as a species. It offers us entertainment, and art, and excellence, and a vivid glimpse into humankind's urge to create. When Messi choreographs his way past defenders, he suspends reality and momentarily lets us forget life's uglier parts.

Elsewhere, players objected to Maria Sharapova's wild card at this week's Porsche Grand Prix. First event back from a ban, you get a gift? It seems appalling but we're presuming that sport is a moral place, not a profitable one. Drawcards will always get wild cards.

The Russian has never viewed the tour as a friendship society and wears her iciness with stylish aplomb. Nevertheless her agent, Max Eisenbud, felt the need to respond by referring to two of her critics, Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki, as "journeymen".

Journeywomen are, in fact, competent players who make a decent living and Radwanska and Wozniacki, both Grand Slam finalists, are far finer than that. But Eisenbud knew that. He was just being churlish and thus unmemorable.

Not much should be remembered from this FAS election either. In a superb trick, Singapore football has managed to discuss everything for weeks but football itself. I hold no case for any side, but only for those who play the game. Administrators will fence and fight, but they must never forget - in their hands lie the dreams of the young.

Let's send a team to Iceland to research how a country of 329,100, where James Bond comes to film, can reach the quarters of the Euro. Let's discuss radical ways to get kids to stay in football and how to technically improve them. Let's attack the Fifa rankings with a scientific approach. Yet instead of inventive ideas we find ourselves having no choice but to discuss gambling machines and donations.

It is all quite dreary. And it is why we need Messi. He is a singularly uninteresting man with his boots off, but at play he brings a worthiness to sport. He makes it joyous and fun, gives it meaning and value, and infuses it with a certain lightness. A simple dribble can be watched six times as if it were a moving painting.

Messi is goaded to greatness by a Portuguese, by flying elbows that made him bleed on Sunday, by idle talk that his skills are fading. But mostly he may be driven by his own memories, of extraordinary moments which he wishes to replicate or even better. His face gaunt and bearded, he resembles an unsatisfied artist in search of his finest, unforgettable work. Messi wants to escape the mortal. And with him we escape the mundane.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2017, with the headline 'Why we need Messi, especially in an antagonistic week like this'. Print Edition | Subscribe