Staring into the belly of the beast, Lionel Messi did not flinch.
He stood there emotionless, holding his jersey out in front for all the world to see. The insults flew by the thousands, accompanied by the finger that doubles as this stadium’s greeting card. They were hurt, understandably. For like Shang Tsung incarnated, their souls were his.
It was just some 70 minutes prior that a flying left-elbow from Marcelo had caught him in the mouth. Down on the floor bloodied and bruised some 60 yards away, the play went on. With a slow trot to the sideline, the medical staff handed him a tissue to soak up the blood. Due to the ferocity at which it exited, there was little choice but to play on. Now back, tissue in mouth, a light switch went off.
Like all of the greats, slights are their fuel. Whether real or perceived, this is what separates them. So instead of getting up angry or berating the referee, Messi internalized it. In a game in which emotion is often laid bare by so many players, the mild mannered magician would never reveal his secrets. Instead, his latest trick would see Dani Carvajal disperse into dust.
1-1 the scoreboard now read — game on.
Both clubs would add a goal in the second half, with James’ coming in the 86th minute for a 10-man Madrid. The crowd roared, shaking this capital’s footballing temple. Ter Stegen’s net was being peppered, Madrid becoming the aggressor when nobody saw this coming. Everything was against Barcelona now, the 92nd and final minute beaming from the scoreboard. As the seconds ticked, Barca’s title hopes were suffering a slow and arduous death.
With a throw-in deep in their end, Sergi Roberto played it in to Sergio Busquets. He returned it, before Sergi passed it back to Pique on the byline. Neatly chipping it over an on-rushing Asensio and Kovacic, Pique’s pass would find Busquets, who nudged it off back to Sergi. Turning into the Spanish Usain Bolt, Roberto sprinted past a leg extending Luka Modric. Marcelo was next, but he was gassed. The field was wide open now, with Madrid players with any stamina remaining running helplessly back into their end. Passed through to Andre Gomes, he paused and waited for a run. Jordi Alba would happily oblige, sprinting past the Portuguese’s left-hand side before receiving the ball. The box was all full now, both teams occupying it sensing the desperation cross.
Lurking behind the crowd, he was left all alone. Seeing the seas opening up before him like Moses and the Israelites, Messi flashed through towards Jordi. Without a moment of hesitation, he pulled back his pass, reaching the left-footed boot that had blessed this field so many times before. Nacho made an attempt to get in the way but Suarez had boxed him out. Toni Kroos stretched, but he too could do nothing but watch. Navas was all that was left now but he was too late. The ball flashed into the net and the entire world seemingly stopped.
It was his 47th goal of the season and the 500th of his career. He had scored more impressive ones and definitely more important ones.
But somehow, this felt different.
This was the argument ender. This was Michael Jordan’s shot over Byron Russell. Tom Brady’s Super Bowl comeback against the Atlanta Falcons. Muhammad Ali’s rope-a-dope of George Foreman.
This was Lionel Messi’s GOAT moment.
Many could not believe what they saw so instead he asked only that you read: Messi, number 10, Barcelona.