The Olympics ended and the headlines in the media continued to be dominated by sports. No longer reviewing great feats or counting medals, but witnessing and analyzing a capital chapter in the future of a mythical athlete. Lionel Messi, whom they describe as the greatest living footballer, left the team that formed him and in which he played for 21 years, Barcelona FC, surprisingly and tearfully. Why is this important?
Even in Venezuela, where fanaticism for the beautiful game does not even come close to the levels of other latitudes, the news had a great impact. He was for four days in a row in the first place of the trends of all social networks and all the sports media dedicated a large centimeter to review, comment and observe with a magnifying glass the implications of the dismissal of the Argentine and his hiring in record time by Paris Saint- Germain. Even President Nicolás Maduro referred to the issue.
They brought out their unpublished statistics, their great deeds, their moments of glory and the data beyond the court. They talked about its value as a brand, the impact of its move in the world of cryptocurrencies, the political implications; Conspiracy theories came to light about an alleged plan by the Qataris - wealthy owners of PSG - to conquer the world, and in general who wins and who loses with the news.
Meanwhile, the audience was only moved to witness an unprecedented postcard: to see a 34-year-old Argentine, millionaire and powerful, drown in tears in front of a pack of hungry journalists, assuring that what happened went against his wishes. "I don't know if I will be able to speak," he would say. In a world that represses and mocks male crying, the event was striking to say the least.
Just as in the past, they could say of Lady Diana or Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Messi became the most photographed man in the world, the most sought after by the press, the most psychoanalyzed from a distance and although during his long career, his fame has never been small, today more than ever it is omnipresent in the popular imagination, in the conversations on every corner, in all WhatsApp groups.
Why does the Argentine generate such fascination? Is it just sports talent? Where is your magic? Let's review its history from the hand of a tourist.
I am going to speak in the first person: I am not even close to an expert in sports, much less in sports journalism. When someone asks me what my favorite sport is, I usually appeal to a brief diversion that I discovered years ago by saying simply and with a circumspect face “dance therapy”; I have incorporated it as an automatic response that I know dislodges my interlocutor and breaks the ice. But it really is like that, sport is for me an unexplored and incomprehensible terrain that I only visit as a tourist and from common places. I don't know if that makes me the best or the worst person to write a work on “Messi for non-fans”, like this one that has been assigned to me.
I consulted with my friend who does know about football, I asked for guidance to be able to describe that "magic" that surrounds Messi and European football in general without giving so much space to cold and incompressible statistics, and in an enlightening voice note told me : “All sports work the same. Boxing, athletics, tennis or soccer. In sports, what the fan likes is how extraordinary the athlete is. The athlete shows you something that you can never achieve. That is what amuses the fan, who pays a ticket to see something that he will never be able to do and that no one else does, only that player. I guess he didn't discover cold water, but for me it was a revelation.
We exchanged more messages and we remembered how Diego Maradona was nicknamed “God”, Pele “The King”, Michael Jordan “The Extraterrestrial”, Yulimar Rojas “The Queen”, and Lionel Messi “The Messiah”. Yes, they are people out of this world who border on fantasy, just like superheroes and science fiction. And if that outstanding talent is also accompanied by a special or enigmatic personality, or worse, affability, as in fact happens in these five cases, the place in history is guaranteed.
Messi for dummies
The aforementioned characteristics exist in all areas of human knowledge and skills. Marie Curie and Albert Einstein, Simón Bolívar and Antonio José de Sucre, Wolfang Amadeus Mozart and Isadora Duncan were also extraordinary beings. But it happens that only in sports, there is also a decisive cocktail: it mixes intelligence, strategy, brute force, beauty, and it does not stay on the books, it is a spectacle. It is not an epiphany in a laboratory or a library, it happens before the eyes of the world.
This is how we get to the Lionel Messi story. He was born in 1987 in the Argentine city of Rosario - the same cradle as Che Guevara and Fito Páez - into a family of Italian migrants. He began kicking balls at the age of four at the encouragement of his maternal grandmother. At six he was already dedicated to training seriously and in general everything was going well for him with a life plan drawn up very early until at eleven he was diagnosed with a hormonal deficiency that compromised his growth.
Faced with this scenario, his family dedicated themselves to seeking a future for the young man in two ways: football as a career and treatment to safeguard his health. It was already clear that he knew how to move on the court so the idea began to develop that perhaps they did not need two solutions but only one. River Plate offered to hire him and assume his medical expenses, but they did not manage to make an accurate offer and in the midst of that uncertainty, Barcelona FC fished in a troubled river, offering a package that was impossible to reject that included taking responsibility for everything necessary for Lionel to overcome his health condition.
"He was very short, he hardly spoke," recalls his fellow player Gerard Piqué - Shakira's husband - who met him in those early days, aged 13 and recently moved to Spain. The story really seems like a movie. His first contract with the Catalan squad, as this week has been remembered ad napkin to death by all the media, was signed on a napkin by his parents and the club's directives, who sat down to finalize details about the future of the child prodigy in a bar in Barcelona.
It was a marriage that bathed both parties in glory. Two decades later, Messi leaves the team with a balance of 35 titles, including ten from La Liga and four from the UEFA Champions League, as well as seven Copa del Rey titles.
He is the only footballer in history to have won, among other distinctions, the Ballon d'Or, six times (two Ballons d'Or and four FIFA Ballons d'Or), the first four consecutive; six Golden Boots, FIFA World Player and a The Best FIFA. In 2020, he became the first footballer to receive a Laureus award awarded to outstanding athletes.
He holds the records for the most goals in a season. In fact, it leaves Spain as the top scorer in La Liga, the Spanish Super Cup, the European Super Cup, and a non-European player with the most goals in the UEFA Champions League, as well as the top scorer for FC Barcelona, and, of course, the Argentine team, for which he has never stopped playing and of which he is captain.
This list of merits and decorations is only a demonstration of a mastery of the technique at the highest level, certified by also by sports science that has studied with determination, his ability to score goals and to deal with the critical knots in the match.
And from that greatness comes the bone of contention that makes him leave the team that was his home: his salary, already unbearable even for the second most valuable football club in the world. Even with the player's own offer to cut it in half. Finally, the new squad that managed to welcome him settled his diet at 40 million euros a year, thus reconfirming the Argentine as the highest paid footballer in the world.
Added to this information about his sporting epic is a sometimes indecipherable personality. Messi does not have the sex appeal of Cristiano Ronaldo or the daring personality of Maradona, he is not a good speaker and he is not even handsome, he does not boast of luxury, fortune or a millionaire life on social networks, he is an unusual influencer despite has 250 million followers on Instagram (several million more than Kim Kardashian). And hearing him speak is like listening to any ordinary Latin American who tries to make himself understood before the world with a vocabulary barely equal to the average. Perhaps that is precisely where its greatest charm lies. He is the messiah, but in the image and likeness of mortals.
Hero, villain or antihero?
This is not an apology to the player. Just as for many he is a hero, for others he is a villain, especially now when, according to some, "he left the club that formed him when he needed it most." Or at least that is what another friend told me who I also consulted to fill me with courage before writing this note.
"It seems that Barcelona has not taken the departure of Messi well at all and now they accuse him of being a liar and greedy. That it is, we are not going to deny it because it is obvious. But before he left, he was too ”, they say in a note published by the Central Defense portal where they criticize the Catalan press for allegedly handling a double standard in the narrative around the player.
The scandal over Messi's departure from Barcelona FC can only be explained in the context of European football and the fascination it arouses, but also seeing it in perspective as the most critical moment in the life of a person that half of the world feels like a close relative whom he visits every weekend, just not for lunch but to watch him play ball from a distance (or near?) from a screen. If you ask me, in my ignorance about sports, I would not place it in the hero box, much less in the villain box, but in the antihero box.
And I think Diego Maradona himself agrees, who at the time said it with better words: “We are both left-handed, we both won a World Youth Cup and we both scored a goal with our hands… and they didn't see it, heh heh”.