I fell horribly and irreparably out of love with football several years ago, but I could not resist tuning in to watch Barcelona v AC Milan face off in the Champions League on Tuesday night. There are some sports events that demand your attention, no matter how fickle your relationship. I was glad that I did. Barcelona were sublime, AC Milan brave but outclassed, and the majestic, mighty Lionel Messi was, well, majestic and mighty. And yet…
There is something about Messi. What is it that feels so remote? Watching I recalled a wonderful, short piece I had stumbled across not too long ago, A Touch of Genius, in El Pais (April 2012) by (the equally majestic and mighty) Spanish writer Javier Marias. He captures that remoteness perfectly.
“With oddly universal accord, soccer legend has it that there are four in the pantheon of Supreme Genius: Di Stéfano, Pelé, Cruyff and Maradona. There have been attempts to add other names, such as Ronaldo and Zidane in recent years, but they haven’t caught on, for one reason or another. These players have had a prolonged decline, or have not been continuously amazing throughout their careers. So they stand on a lower level, together with names like Puskas, Suárez, Beckenbauer, Butragueño, Raúl, Kubala, Xavi and Bettega.
To be admitted to the ranks of Supreme Genius you need a lot: supernatural mastery of the ball; telescopic and aerial conception of the play (as if the player, as well as on the grass, were suspended in the air, at a great height, for a “God’s-eye” view of the field); a long career without notable ups and downs; a capacity for making a champion of a team of merely competent fellow players (the case of Napoli with Maradona, of Santos with Pelé, and even the Barça of Cruyff); and the ability to conjure miraculous goals of great beauty, the kind that leave the beholder stupefied, wondering how they have been possible, in spite of the difficulties in their way or the apparent innocuousness of the preceding play. Anything else? Yes, perhaps there is something.
To judge by his career so far, it seems that Messi is the fifth Supreme Genius in the history of soccer. We Madrid fans have long been observing him with close attention, and unremitting dread. He causes panic as soon as he is in charge of the ball, however far away from the opposing goal. You feel he can dance through seven players in his way and make a killer pass to a player on his side, or dance through as many more, the ball apparently sewn to his foot, for a killer goal of his own. A strange intuition seems to tell him just where the ball is going and just how fast. He has the virtue of paralyzing his rivals. How else to understand how he can run from sideline to center and pop a shot into the goal, with no one stopping his advance? The impression is that the defenders are in doubt, or don’t dare. Like deer dazzled in the headlights, they surrender to the inevitable.
I would have no doubt that Messi is not only the fifth Supreme Genius, but probably the best of the five, except that today we see him so much more often than the others as to make comparisons difficult. If I have used the conditional it is, however, for two other reasons. First, given his youth, we don’t yet know about the length and ups and downs of his career.Messi seems to be a robot lacking in drama, both on the field and off
The other is more indefinable and subtle. In manual and mathematical arts there are cases of exceptionally gifted people who were a bit simple as individuals. This has happened, too, with poets (often), and even with certain novelists. When they speak, or write articles, they are a little disappointing; their general intelligence seems not to rise to the level of their talent or gift. One feels that this would not have been the case with Dante, Shakespeare, Proust or Eliot.
I know the soccer player is not an artist. He does not even have to speak at all. But for a figure to be Supreme, you want to perceive in him a complexity, an intelligence not entirely oriented to soccer, or at least a personality not without enigma – such as that of Zidane. I don’t know about Pelé, but Di Stéfano and Cruyff gave hints of complexity. Maradona seemed tormented, and thus radiated something of mystery and humanity. This is what is absent in Messi, who seems to be a robot lacking in drama, both on the field and off. For the Supreme Genius category the operative word is awe, a blend of admiration, dread, amazement, reverence and fascination. Messi inspires the first four but not, alas, the fifth.”