23 December 2022

Fall, submission, knockout: Messi and the World Cup sublime

There are ... let's say ... naming no names ... certain footballers, historically great footballers, harbour-bestriding colossi of footballers, who can could perform supreme feats which were as predictable as they were unstoppable, devoid of mystery or confusion, entirely legible, their inner workings laid completely exposed and polished for the world to admire, and indeed these feats were very admirable, tremendously admirable, but left no trace, and the player always going way around the defender, rendering the defender's personal physical space and headspace irrelevant, just like how these feats bypass the viewer’s viscera, a pattern of clean exit wounds...

...but do you want to be a spectator, or do you want to play? Or, rather: get played?

Watching sport is an act of humble submission. For all you know, you could be submitting yourself to a pile of shite. But Lionel Messi dignifies that submission by taking you somewhere.

He isn't a showman, if you take 'showman' to imply pandering or ostentation. His play is far more generous than that: he takes you right into the game. In allowing you to see that a situation is innocuous, then taking the ball into what appears to be a cul de sac, or strolling into a dead spot off the ball, he gives your sophistication instinct an airing. Sure, I know this is Messi, but I've seen football before, and there's nothing good happening for him here. I am very smart. And then comes the incredible touch, or the death-defying dribble, or the unforeseeable pass, and you realise you knew nothing. Messi is the master of the double cross, and he turns the viewer into the opposition. You take the same sharp intake of breath they do at that moment the picture suddenly starts to shift. But whereas for the actual victims that inhalation can only resolve to a resigned sigh at best, for you, it comes out as laughter. Illusion/reveal. Set-up/punchline.

I doubt the role of longevity in a personal pantheon, if that pantheon is based on sensation rather than sobriety. But Messi has done this so often and for so long. He's made me laugh more than any other player. He's the funniest fucker in football.

And if you'd asked me before the World Cup for my preferred outcome from the event I would have said, but of course I want Argentina to win, it's only just that a player who has given so much joy should be a world champion and shed the rubbish he's been burdened with on the international stage, why, I'm a partisan for greatness, don't you know, and I'd probably have meant it. But then the tournament started, and I realised that what I wanted most of all was for him to be put through the wringer.

For everyone to be put through it, though. The meaning is in the jeopardy, and in seeing how the participants succumb to it or extricate themselves from it. It lies too in the accumulation of such trials over the competition's history, in its layers of petrified narrative (and petrified players). I want to see the pretenders carve their glory out of rock-solid myth.

I don't believe in the mythical GOAT, but I do believe in the myth of the World Cup, the crucible of crucibles. I believe in what can change in four years and in the eternal truths. I believe in the near impossibility of retaining the trophy and in rotten-fruit homecomings. I believe in the Spanish giants going back to sleep and in Mexico shitting themselves. I believe in Vavá and Władysław Żmuda. I know Maradona didn't win the World Cup on his own, but I believe he did.

I don't believe in destiny or the football gods but I do believe in teams submitting themselves to forces beyond their control: in twenty-two psyches steeped in the angst of their countries' football past and weighed down by their own past failures, and by their successes. I believe in the World Cup mattering, and in the mattering mattering. I believe that the World Cup makes people mad. I believe in the World Cup overwhelming the strongest. I believe in the roll of great World Cup losers.

Now that we've reached the part of the piece where it's only sickos left reading, let's say this: if you believe in the poetry of the precipice to which all who play in the World Cup must submit, then the prospect of Messi failing again — or of Argentina failing Messi again — was beautiful. Aye, beautiful. Not pretty or sweet, but something majestic, dissonant, unsettling. Club football's behemoth player-processing machine tends to mean that talent gets rewarded reasonably efficiently with the biggest contracts, the grandest championships, and awards handed out by the baldest administrators. Overall, the best get the most. But the World Cup, which everyone wants the baddest, brings the pascals and puts the squeeze on such logical, fair narratives. The pressure can silence the Maracanã, deprive the Golden Team and the Total Footballers and Ronaldo, and arrest Scotland's march on Buenos Aires. Even Pelé only has three winner's medals.

That such a force can swallow up the best we can throw at it makes it a character in its own right. Just an inkling of what it's capable of makes its gloomy, lowering ubiquity exhilarating: the thrill of thinking you know what's going to happen, then being double-crossed.

Or of thinking you know what should happen. Messi, of all people, should have won the World Cup. But his dreams had been variously hobbled by bad management, bad luck, bad health, bad miss by Higuaín, perhaps even (gasp) some bad play by himself. His failure to win the trophy — to even, let's be frank, have one tournament commensurate with his ability — cast the World Cup sublime in magnificently high definition. The improbability of such a sequence of duds was startling, and exponentially more so with each new addition, such that yet another would positively light up the afternoon sky with magisterially grey fireworks.

This would be the case however such a failure may have been arrived at, but in the 2022 edition, Messi really ratcheted it up. He was actually playing a World Cup as Lionel Messi, thoroughly and throughout rather than in explosions punctuating puzzling silences. He was playing like an angel with the devil in him. It was what should have happened, but was nonetheless moving for all that. He was really doing it. Like it or not, it was Maradonian. Or Baggioesque, except that Baggio didn't have a Maradona in his unbidden heritage, or arrive at the World Cup quite so heavily pre-loaded with everyone else's baggage, or have multiple prior failed attempts to carry it home. And still he fell short.

Each act of magic brought Messi simultaneously closer to his ultimate victory and to the lowering boom. The World Cup gives you two shows at once: in the foreground, the great practitioners of their craft performing with heady motivation; in the background, fate quietly slipping lead into the boxing glove. The connoisseur of the World Cup sublime embraces and welcomes the triumph of either, even though one may leave them heartbroken, rivulets of snotty tears collecting at their feet.

But we know what happened. Imagine Higuaín had converted that chance in the 2014 final. Messi would have his world championship, but after a tournament in which his decisive contributions had been, by his standards, few. In the 2022 finals, he couldn't stop being the decider. He made it happen as surely as any individual player ever has. Any, if you know what I mean. He'd never looked more alive. 

We could say that Messi's legendary status should not — could not possibly — have depended on him winning the World Cup, such is the formidable nature of his achievements. But sport demands that the abstract be made vividly real. It's really good at it. Football's nearest approximation to the vividly real is the World Cup. Even given all that immensity of talent and his practically habitual realisation of same, and all the times he's set your brain alight, there would have been left, without the big one, that small but heavy part of the Messi phenomenon that remained unformed. But not now.

No-one can sidestep the forbidding myth of the World Cup, not even a genius. When someone uses its force to propel them forward instead of being crushed by it ... when they can take that myth and become one with it, knowing full well what they're doing (just look at his face) ... when new myth is being made before your eyes and you know full well it's happening (maybe Maradona's '86 will come to be seen as merely foreshadowing Messi's '22) ... when you get to witness, nay, take part in such a grand act of beautiful collusion... 

 ...well, what can you say? 

 Except that, if I was French, I'd be pretty fucking pissed off.


Ted,  24/12/22 4:33 PM  

Thank you. Even if people feel this tournament was handed to him, it kind of doesn't matter in the mythos.

Anonymous,  24/12/22 6:01 PM  

Good blog

Anonymous,  17/1/23 9:19 PM  

Write more!

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