Those who know me probably also know my tendency to shut down in the middle of a game in which I am deeply invested in the outcome.
A sports competition involving your favorite athlete or team can become very stressful and my way of dealing with it is to turn off the TV, log off social media and only check the result after the match is over.
This need to “unplug” is usually limited to tennis for me (and prior to the 2010s, tennis and cricket). But from the moment Lionel Messi’s Argentina took the field against France in the World Cup final on Sunday, the crippling fear continued to threaten to rear its ugly head.
Around 75′, when the Albiceleste was only 15 minutes from nirvana, the tension finally became too much. If Messi were to lose from there, there would surely be no way to recover. So I took refuge on Netflix and waited for the time to pass.
if only it were that simple. In no time at all, the cheers of fans in my neighborhood (many of whom supported France) during Kylian Mbappé’s goals brought me out of my self-imposed amazement.
I soon realized that it would be impossible to log out of this game, so I forced myself to sit through the last minute of torture while Argentina tried to screw everything up.
The penalty shootout was incredibly nerve-wracking and it took all my courage to keep staring at the TV screen.
When Gonzalo Montiel fired the winning shot, it seemed almost too good to be true. It was only when I saw Messi collapse on the ground and get jumped on by the rest of the team that I realized that in the end he had done it.
The funny thing, of course, is that none of this should have interested me. Football has never been my sport; I don’t even understand some of its technical intricacies. Yet when I saw Messi curl up like a child with the most beautiful smile, tears almost came to his eyes.
24 hours later, it’s clear I wasn’t the only non-soccer fan overcome with emotion following Messi’s (and Argentina’s) historic victory. In fact, I have never seen so many people united in joy for a single sporting result. I feel that the whole world has gathered to savor this moment, to crown the king.
Why is Messi so important? First, there’s the obvious: the visual appeal of him. Even if you don’t watch football much, one look at Messi on the pitch is enough to convince you that he is no ordinary player. The ease of his dribbling, the hypnotic way he weaves between defenders, the brilliant touches that make the ball feel like an extension of his feet – it’s all a little too glamorous to ignore.
The fact that Messi is usually overshadowed by the physically imposing opponents he faces only adds to the mystique. He is a maestro who still looks like a kid from Rosario and regularly faces – and beats – the giants of world football. You can’t help but get carried away.
There is also the suddenness of his labyrinthine movements which makes the show quite exciting.
For most of his matches, Messi seems invisible. He searches for him in the crowd of players on the field, hoping to be surprised by his magic, but he finds nothing. Experts will tell you that it’s part of his genius, that his ability to stall for time, visualize the space around him, and wait for the right moment to establish his positional advantage is what makes him so special. But for casual viewers like me, his sudden appearance in the middle of the action, conjuring a goal threat out of nowhere, seems like a magic trick.
Messi’s personality off the pitch has also contributed to his legend. He is small, not only in stature, but also, apparently, in demeanor. You almost never hear him making outrageous comments to the press, or really, exhibiting bad behavior in public.
Of course, Messi is not Mr. Nice Guy to excess, like Rahul Dravid or Dominic Thiem. And his tax evasion controversy isn’t quite in the rearview mirror just yet. But cases of alleged rudeness are rare, and tax evasion is perhaps the most easily pardonable crime one can be involved in.
Messi is, today, widely regarded as the personification of sportsmanship and humility. When you’re so successful at your job and it’s so aesthetically pleasing at your job, you don’t have to do anything awful to be put on a pedestal.
This is where the oft-repeated parallels to a genius from another sport begin to sharpen. Much like Lionel Messi, Roger Federer has spent the better part of the last two decades making people believe in divinity. And just like Messi, the Swiss is also seen as a model of politeness, despite the fact that he has launched more than one arrogant comment in his time.
It is no coincidence that both Messi and Federer have hordes of fans around the world. They have transcended their sport by combining artistry and success like few others, in any field, have. There’s a reason they’re media darlings, and their victories never fail to inspire a string of poetic praise.
Messi’s fans far outnumber Federer’s, in part because soccer is so much more popular than tennis could ever be. But there is another factor at play: Messi’s ease of access.
Federer, with his fashionable persona and sophisticated eloquence, arouses as much admiration as love. The Swiss is often thought of as an ethereal entity, a being that can never be touched or even reached. But Messi? Messi is one of us.
I’ve said in the past that fans tend to watch their favorite sports stars like parents watch their children. This is perhaps more true in Messi’s case than in any other.
He’s the boy with the mischievous smile, he’s the boy who battled a growth disorder in his early days, he’s the boy who always stays out of the spotlight, he’s the boy who just wants to play football. Almost everything about Messi makes you want to protect him and fight for him, regardless of his age or achievements.
During the 2014 World Cup Final debacle, I felt like kicking all the trolls criticizing him. And the missed 2016 Copa America penalty (and subsequent about-face) made me want to ask all the meme-makers what they had done in their lives to think they had the right to make fun of him.
My outrage wasn’t just directed at the haters and trolls. When Gonzalo Higuain and Lautaro Martinez missed their chances, I cursed them more than I ever cursed any athlete (except maybe a certain player accused of rape).
Of course, Messi didn’t need all my silent screams; he did—and still does—very well without it. But the beauty of sport is that it’s not just about the players on the pitch. It’s also about how these players make fans feel and how these players create legacies that go way beyond stats and records.
The fact that Messi has the stats and records is indisputable. He has won nearly a dozen national championships, four European championships, seven Ballon d’Ors, one America’s Cup and now the last missing piece: the World Cup. And it is true that all those laurels make it easy to cheer for Messi; why not seek glory from a player who already has so much?
What was never easy, however, was encouraging him when he tried to win something big with his nation. Despite Messi’s seemingly easy success with FC Barcelona, his campaigns with the Argentine outfit have been tortuous to say the least.
When Mbappé equalized with that last-minute goal and Randal Kolo Muani nearly gave France the win before Emiliano Martinez made a desperate save to keep Argentina in the match, I started to think Messi wasn’t destined for club glory. World Cup. And this time, his failure seemed to hurt a million times more.
Messi had done his best to overcome eight years of misery, putting together outstanding performances, but it wasn’t going to be enough. He had been superhuman for seven games in Qatar, only to be reminded of his humanity at the last minute. Losing after leading 2-0 and 3-2 could only open a new set of more painful wounds and break even the strongest among us.
But fate had other ideas. Messi’s teammates lived up to it in the penalty shoot-out, as they had for most of the tournament, and catharsis was achieved. The moments that followed seemed hazy at the time, but will no doubt become indelible in the years to come, replayed on repeat countless times.
The image of Messi kissing the World Cup trophy while holding his Ballon d’Or was fondly remembered, as was the clip showing him being hoisted into the air and carried around the pitch in a winning spin. These are images that have moved everyone, considering all that had gone before. During that brief historical moment, the whole world became fans of Messi.
Could a fairy tale be even more magical?
“Messi on a million backs, Messi for a million flashes,” Peter Drury’s voice echoed in the FIFA’s quickly canned tribute video. The fact that these “millions” can consist exclusively of people who are not football fans makes Messi’s legacy truly unparalleled, to the point of making the debate over the world title irrelevant.
Messi and his team just gave us a million more reasons to root for him, as if there weren’t enough already. Why does this man represent so many things? The answer is simple: he is one of us, but also one of the immortals.