Yesterday – March 1st – the Telegraph’s Jonathan Liew posted an article discussing the validity of comparisons between Steph Curry and Lionel Messi, and the media’s tendency to describe those leading the way in their respective fields as "the Messi of _____". It’s an interesting piece, and worth your time. More interesting than Liew’s main point – to me, at least – was his friend Ed’s theory that Messi, by virtue of being the best player in the world’s most popular sport at the time of its all-time qualitative peak, is arguably better at football than any person has ever been at anything else.
It’s a fascinating thought, albeit one that could easily be dismissed as overly simplistic and linear: how can we know for sure that Messi is better at football than Mozart was at composing and performing music? Or better than Napoleon was at leading an army? Or better than Da Vinci was at just about everything he turned his hand to? We can’t, and the truth is it probably doesn’t matter. There’s little to be achieved by attempting to rank genii.
That said, Messi obviously belongs in the company of such genii. There’s a clear ‘before Messi’ and ‘after Messi’ divide in the timeline of the global game, and the lives of millions have been enriched by watching him do his thing on an extremely regular basis for a very long time. For a quiet, shy, family man who merely plays sport for a living, to have attained such historic importance is quite staggering.
And yet it’s simultaneously completely understandable, as anyone who’s gone to the stadium to see Messi at his best can and will attest. As someone who has been lucky enough to see him score 15 goals in only 6 games, nothing has made me doubt my atheism like watching Messi play football, and nothing else ever will. When confronted with such luminescent, overpowering and perfect beauty, it feels frankly ludicrous to deny the existence of the divine.
There’s a brilliant video of Messi’s solo goal in last season’s Copa del Rey final, as seen from pitchside. You’ve probably seen it before, but it’s embedded below anyway. It’s a sensational piece of footage, and should be preserved as some kind of World Heritage artefact – not just because it documents one of the best ever’s best ever goals from metres away, but also because it shows how it felt to be metres from one of the best ever’s best ever goals.
When Messi starts his run, there are a few encouraging shouts but nothing more. When he suddenly bends space and time to skip between a trio of Athletic Club defenders, the entire Camp Nou crowd erupts in astonishment. A bald man a few rows in front of the cameraman rockets out of his seat and into the air, hands on his head in disbelief, and a small town’s worth of people scream "¡olé!" in unison. As Messi bears down on goal, the anticipation palpably increases, and when he slams the ball emphatically past the goalkeeper, there’s a deafening explosion of noise.
It’s not "we’re winning in the Cup final!" noise, though – it’s even more than that. It’s somehow more visceral, more euphoric than the reaction of a football crowd. It’s less a response to the consequences of the act for the fans – "we’re going to win!" – and more a response to the act itself on a human level – "That. Was. Amazing." It’s an outpouring of pure and spiritual emotion that shows that what happened was more than just a goal: it was a moment of genuine transcendence. A few rows behind the cameraman, a boy is reduced to tears.
He wasn’t the only one. More than 9,000 kilometres from the Camp Nou, in a non-descript bar in the north of Quito, I sat through the replays, agape, and then hurried to the bathroom to dry my eyes, hoping that everyone else had been too busy watching the incredible happenings on-screen to notice my reaction. I dare say there were at least thousands more watching on TV around the world who had the same reaction.
That was just one of the countless moments Messi has given us – the ‘us’ here referring to the human race, not just the culé fanbase – that have confirmed his status as a historically important figure. He’s long since outgrown the moniker of ‘the best player in the world’ and each season sees him produce yet more goals, assists, passes and dribbles which further underscore his status as ‘the best player ever’, and these days even that title doesn’t do him justice.
Whether or not Messi is the best anything ever is ultimately immaterial, but Liew’s friend Ed certainly has a case. There can’t have been many people in the history of the world with the power to convert 95,000 paying spectators from football fans to an awestruck and emotional mess in just twenty seconds, and have the same impact on hundreds of millions watching across the globe. Fewer still have done so time and time again over a period of more than ten years.
What would the world’s classical music lovers give to be able to see Mozart perform live? How much would the world’s historians pay to have been there on the battlefields of Europe to see Napoleon in action? Can anyone imagine what it must have been like to watch Da Vinci at work?
This is the privilege we have with Lionel Messi. We’re unfathomably fortunate on a cosmic scale, and even luckier still that the technology exists to preserve every moment of wonder – every moment when, for just a split second, even the non-believers could see the face of god – forever.