When talking of Messi, as I’m going to do, it probably helps to bring in Shakespeare – not that Messi is an avid reader of the Bard, preferring as he does the instruction book to the PS4, which he claims was the last book he read. This is a shame because in Sonnet 48 there’s a neat little couplet that goes:
“Dear killer, spare not thy sweet cruel shot / A kind of grace it is to kill with speed.”
All of which takes me back to Saturday afternoon in a crowded downtown San Sebastián, where I was looking for some 89th minute inspiration for my partner’s birthday on Monday. You know how it is with birthday presents – leave it to the last minute and then panic, so much that I forewent (now there’s a nice verb) Sevilla v Barça, being played the same afternoon. Needing to take a pee, I veered into a crowded bar that I know has some loos downstairs.
Spain doesn’t do public toilets because all the bars let you wander in freely to turn your bike round. It’s an unwritten social contract and in this particular bar there is also a dizzying number of TV screens. They’re mounted on every wall angle possible, and on entering I noted the score after 83 minutes. It said ‘Sevilla 2 Barcelona 2’ and I permitted myself a little smile, thinking that the score would keep the league alive for another week at least and keep the pot cooking nicely for next week’s league-fixture clásico in the Bernabéu.
There are certain moments in your life when a sporting event takes place which coincides with something you’re doing that burns the event into your possession, into your long-term memory. It can be the dumbest thing, and in the case of Saturday afternoon, I walk past the first two screens to the toilet-bound stairway. Remarkably, there’s a TV mounted above the stairwell. Bonkers but true. I’m on the second step down when I glance up casually and notice a Barça attack brewing down the right. The ball comes in from the flank, Aleña scuffs a shot, and the ball bobbles through the space to Messi, lurking in the centre-forward position. The centre-back Amadou is facing the play and can’t turn quickly enough but Messi has already seen it and has a split second to react before keeper Vlacic shuts down his spatial options.
I say ‘goal’ on the stairs because I know exactly what he’s going to do, and he does it – chipping the ball delicately over the advancing Vlacic who has correctly gone to ground but who is helpless. Messi chips it as if he’s in the back garden, playing with his kids. He’s done this goal-type before, and so have other players, but there is something about the inevitability of Messi’s grace, killing with speed as Shakespeare would have it, that marks him out. In the time it takes me to say ‘goal’, Messi has tilted his body at the correct angle, calculated the time-space equation and sent the message to his left foot.
The rest, as they say, becomes his 50th hat-trick, 44 of them with Barça and the rest with Argentina. It is also his 36th goal in 35 games against Sevilla, setting a new record for the most goals scored by a player against a single club in the history of La Liga. As Sevilla’s coach Pablo Machín ironically remarked afterwards: ‘Parece que Messi nos tiene ganas’ (It seems like Messi has something against us).
Nobody in the heaving bar reacts very much, as if Messi scoring thus were commonplace. Well it is commonplace, but with the sound turned down in the bar I’m unaware that it’s his 3rd goal of the afternoon. In my car on the drive home, whilst two radio guys were having a post-partum babble about the game, one of them remarked ‘Mira, es fácil si tienes a Harry Potter en tu equipo, que saca la varita cuando lo necesitas’ – which was a good point, amusingly made (‘Look – it’s easy when you’ve got Harry Potter in your team, and he just takes out his magic wand when you need it’). Sevilla had been playing well and had led on two occasions, their first goal from Jesus Navas (playing his 650th) coming interestingly after a misplaced pass by Messi, maybe just showing his mortality. But Messi’s goals, and his equally brilliant assist for Suárez to score a late fourth, just took the wind out of their sails and condemned them to drop from the Champions League places, to be replaced by Getafe.
Watching the goals later, Messi’s first is greeted with a sort of low murmur of astonishment by the home crowd, unable to contain their admiration for the high aesthetic of the shot. It’s a very different goal from the 3rd, but again it conforms to the equation ‘Maths + Physics + Biology’, with Messi the third element in the circumstance. As Rakitic crosses from the left, Messi is already preparing the shot, visually calculating the distance the ball will travel then meeting the object at the single moment that will project it, bullet-like, into the onion bag. Everything is so precise that it almost defies human capacity – which is where the biology comes in. The Sevilla keeper has no chance of stopping it, and is then left similarly flummoxed by Messi’s second, hit with his weaker foot into the only space (at the top of the net) which is spatially available to him at that exact moment in time. A kind of grace it is, to kill with speed.
Was it the best hat-trick of all time? Better than Zlatan against England, Suárez against Norwich or Rivaldo against Valencia? Messi himself has scored more iconic hat-tricks, against Brazil and Real Madrid, for example. But comparisons are usually odious. The point about Saturday’s 50th is that each goal illustrates a different facet of goal-scoring, a different aesthetic, a distinct combination each time of the power chords that Messi has available for any gig, for any song. None of the other guys managed one so beautifully with his weaker foot, and none of them hit a volley with such generous precision.
I love that bit in Terminator 2 where Arnie tells John about the scary new model T-1000 that has come to hunt them. Maybe it’s a more apt parallel for Messi than a Shakespeare sonnet. Break him into pieces, and they’ll all slither together again. It ain’t human, and it loves collecting trophies. Beware next week, all ye who worship at the Bernabéu. Leo Messi T-1000 is on a roll and the white-shirted ones are going to have to play better than they did against Levante, in their insipid 1-2 win late on Sunday night – and they’re going to have to do it twice.
Then again, if you take Harry Potter/T-1000 out of the equation, Barcelona do not otherwise seem a team surfing on a wave of euphoria. Coutinho continues to disappoint, there is talk of Rakitic leaving, the absence of Arthur is suddenly noticeable, Piqué thinks he’s a centre-forward and coach Valverde keeps making some odd decisions (such as bringing in Vidal and Boateng). On Wednesday – in the first of the double clásico this week – one suspects that Valverde will field a full-strength side for the King’s Cup 2nd leg in the Bernabéu, and perhaps rotate for the league match, given the distance in points between the two sides. Real Madrid will also have Ajax on their minds, and you get the feeling that these two games might turn out a little oddly. Atlético are more to be feared by Barça, since they are still in grabbing distance (7 points) but with a tricky one away to Real Sociedad.
Something in the air suggests that Barça, despite their lack of sharpness and defensive stability, will emerge smiling from this next intensive phase. Maybe it’s that magic wand.