In Good Conscience

Messi, CR7 and Ibra linked by fulfilling expectations

Face it: We are never going to experience the innermost feeling of being such a big star at a global level that every time we step out in a stadium, there are literally millions expecting an extraordinary performance.

Perhaps even billions.

In the past week, we have seen the joy of Lionel Messi returning to his game after 60 days of injury, pain and isolation.

We have witnessed Cristiano Ronaldo not as the superstar of his own cinema screen eulogy, but as a Real Madrid player demonstrating that he is as good as he says he is.

And we watched Zlatan Ibrahimovic pay for the privilege of returning home to Malmo for the first time in a competitive match since he left there when he was half the 34 years he is today.

Two things struck me about this lauded trio this week.

Despite every opponent trying to prevent them (Messi, Ronaldo and Ibrahimovic) scoring, and every team being organised with that in mind, they all did score and play pivotal roles in their victories.

One was that there was not a corrupt official in sight. This was just the players at their game, responding to the tune of the Champions League. And despite every opponent trying to prevent them scoring, and every team being organised with that in mind, they all did score and play pivotal roles in their victories.

Easy? When they are that good, maybe. But easy when they've done it hundreds of times, and when the win bonus cannot make a material difference to their life? I doubt that.

But, I said two things, and the second is possibly the greater of them. It is that the desire to play - and to prove themselves over and over again regardless of wealth, stardom or cynicism - still burns.

On Tuesday, Messi resumed his career. There's talk of the taxman in Spain hounding him and his father. There's even recent speculation about Messi having to leave Catalonia for Manchester United in a dreamland that would pay him a reported £800,000 (S$1.69 million) a week.

Who knows, and who cares whether such a salary is feasible in this indecently over-commercialised era of sport and so-called global branding?

What was evident at the Camp Nou was that, following Barca's 4-0 decimation of Real Madrid in the Bernabeu last Sunday, Barcelona was in the mood to take apart anybody.

From the tunnel before the game, Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez emerged laughing and joking - like three debutants thrilled to be in one another's company, primed and ready to play.

Really to play. Much has been said and written about Luis Enrique being a strict coach, one who incidentally failed when he was briefly tasked with raising Barcelona's opponents, A.S. Roma, a few years back.

Enrique is a demanding coach, especially regarding the defensive structure that Barca lacked before his time. But how, or why, would he rein in the three South Americans who between them have scored 120 goals in 2015?

How, or why, would he stop them laughing their way onto the field?

I suspect you might as well turn off the sun as try to suppress the expression of these three amigos.

Messi scored twice. Suarez scored twice. And Neymar, though he fluffed a penalty, was more than happy creating goals for the other two. It makes a change because in Messi's absence, Neymar had stepped up to be the defining player to almostfill Leo's boots.

In all, Barca "retired" after hitting Roma for six, and no doubt Enrique was mildly miffed at his defence conceding a last-minute goal to the Romans.

Moving on to Wednesday, Real Madrid needed a response after the weekend capitulation at home. Far, far from the Bernabeu, Real took Shakhtar Donetsk apart.

Ronaldo had apparently promised the dressing room that he would run more for others. Possibly he meant every word, perhaps after his past month of self-projection in making and promoting a film that is a monumental exercise in ego, he finally realises that it is what he does on the pitch that reflects what he is.

Anyway, he scored two (to stay ahead of Messi in the all-time Champions League scoring records), and Ronaldo set up two goals as Real romped to a four-goal lead in Ukraine, where soccer struggles for relevance given the ongoing war on its Russian border.

A big deal was made of Ronaldo kissing and canoodling with Gareth Bale after the Welshman had laid on CR7's brace. One TV pundit whose career was pretty good, but never at the heights of Ronaldo, smirked and suggested the Real star would cuddle anyone who runs for him and sets up goals for him.

We all know that Ronaldo has the pride of a peacock in football kit. Enjoy the display while it lasts.

The third super show-off this week managed self-promotion and sincerity to a tee.

Zlatan (which he regards as sufficient to describe him) was written up in the sky above Malmo on Wednesday.

Scandinavia's tallest apartment block, the Turning Torso, was illuminated with a gigantic blue "Z" above its 57th floor overlooking the metropolis.

Down below, in the city where Zlatan grew up in an immigrant quarter of hardship, he hired the main square outside the city hall. Malmo stadium's 24,000 capacity, he reasoned, was inadequate for his homecoming.

So he paid for music and for a huge screen in the city centre so that his countrymen, women and children could watch the game.

"Go easy on Malmo, Dad," his oldest son Maximilian had begged him. The Ibrahimovics are still a Malmo family, despite all the honours and the millions gathered with Ajax Amsterdam, with Juventus, AC Milan and Inter, briefly with Barcelona, and now with Paris St Germain.

Zlatan listened to his boy, but couldn't help himself. He scored the third goal of PSG's 5-0 romp. He tried not to preen, but his great smile betrayed him.

"I got goosebumps," he said. "It felt like I was home."

Marvellous. Messi, Ronaldo and Zlatan (in that order, I feel) exude joy in their own ways.

They are different shapes and sizes, but worth their fame when they shut out all distractions to just play.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2015, with the headline 'Messi, CR7 and Ibra linked by fulfilling expectations'. Print Edition | Subscribe