If Catholics visit Lourdes and Muslims make pilgrimage to Mecca, then football fans must go see Messi.
For worshippers of the one truly global religion the opportunities grow fewer with each passing week. Turning 33 in the summer, it seems impossible to imagine a football world which doesn’t include Lionel Messi shuffling onto his pulpit at the Camp Nou every other weekend.
But it moves ever closer, this eternal darkness.
So go soon, if you can. A few us made the trip in 2017, to mark a shared big birthday.
It helps that arguably the greatest player who ever lived doesn’t ply his trade in Kharkiv or Coventry; Barcelona, of course, has many more attractions than just its famous football team. The surreal wonders of Parc Guell, El Born’s warren of tapas bars, the beach at Barceloneta and the city’s other famous cathedral, La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished masterpiece.
But the visit was built around Messi and his team. They played Villarreal on a sweltering Saturday in May.
This was not one of those heady Champions League nights or taut El Clasicos in which Messi seems truly otherworldly, but minor miracles are miracles nonetheless.
When you are there you can choose to watch him, just him, because you think it might demystify things. You think you might spot something, like a magician’s sleight of hand, and go “Ahhhh, now I see!”
But it doesn’t quite go like that. Sometimes he appears to be doing nothing: Ambling splay-footed around the halfway line in a sort of mournful slouch, like a man being dragged around the shops.
Is this truly the greatest of them all, you ask yourself?
Then you notice how he flicks his neck around, lizard-like, taking barely perceptible glances over his shoulders.
He’s grabbing snapshots, collating information, marking out the grid points in three-dimensional space.
Then the feet come alive and suddenly he’s doing it, the unmistakable whirring, darting, lacerating run and at that moment the defenders seem to be just like the rest of us sitting up on the Camp Nou’s towering slopes: Helpless observers. Not actors but extras: Faceless stooges, expendable henchmen.
He scored two that day and provided an assist for Neymar. His goal included a shoulder drop that seemed to tilt the entire Camp Nou off its foundations; the victim was Rodri, now of Manchester City, who ended up looking like a giraffe trying ice-skating for the first time.
The details of the game are a memento too: A 4-1 win, scorers Neymar (21), Messi (45, pen 82), and Suarez (69). It would be the last time all three would occupy the same scoresheet.
Neymar would play three more games before leaving for his own star vehicle in Paris.
But the signs of drift were there already. That Villarreal game came just weeks after Juventus dumped them out of the Champions League. They were three points behind Real Madrid at the top of La Liga and vainly hoping their great rivals would blink. Coach Luis Enrique would join Neymar in leaving that summer. Andres Iniesta would play on one more year, but was in decline. There was no triumphalism in the Catalan capital that weekend, more the sense of an ending.
Villarreal’s goal came from a simple breakaway that found the entire Barcelona half unpoliced, with Gerard Pique, Samuel Umtiti, and Sergi Roberto chugging back in desperation.
In between the joyous interplay of the front three, Barcelona looked vulnerable whenever they lost the ball.
And that has been pretty much the case ever since.
The story of Barcelona since their 2015 Champions League victory has been of structural flaws thrown into sharp relief by Messi’s continuing greatness. If anything, Messi’s late career work has been some of his best. He is better at free-kicks, he conducts general play masterfully, and the moments of heartbreaking genius still come with bewildering regularity (look up last season’s ludicrous flop chip against Real Betis for example).
But there is now a real fear that Barcelona will be unable to deliver Messi the crowning achievement his late period genius deserves: One more Champions League title.
The disasters of Rome and Liverpool weigh heavy. Messi knows that without this, his fifth European title, these final years will be his Sagrada Familia, his own unfinished masterpiece.
Last week’s row with sporting director Eric Abidal encapsulated everything that is wrong with the club. Abidal had just emerged from a hapless January transfer window in which he had failed to sign a forward to replace the injured Suarez. Still, he felt emboldened enough to conduct interviews with Catalan press in which he appeared to blame the players for the sacking of coach Ernesto Valverde.
Messi was displeased, making a rare foray onto Instagram to let his disgust be known that a club hierarchy who had failed to build a squad befitting Barcelona’s stature could throw stones anywhere near his direction.
Abidal also admitted that the unthinkable could become a reality this summer.
Messi has a clause in his contract that would allow him to leave, for free. If Barcelona are unable to provide him his crowning glory, might he look elsewhere, however unimaginable that may be?
If there is a poignancy in the way that what Messi once called ‘that beautiful trophy’ seems to be just out of reach, there is also the possibility his very greatness may play a part in Barcelona’s dysfunction.
Certainly, no Barca team since has had the perfect balance of personalities as when Pep Guardiola’s vision was enacted by Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi himself, under the steely on-field leadership of Carles Puyol. Now the diminutive Argentinian dominates the club. His vast salary — a reported €106m per season — also makes funding transfers, like the mooted return of Neymar, a problem.
It may be that the cult of Messi is a type of idolatry that has corrupted those around it, or it may be that Barca is just badly run these days. Either way, time is running out. Before his death in 1926, Antoni Gaudi was asked why the Sagrada Familia was taking to so long to build. “My client is not in a hurry,” Gaudí replied.
If only it were the same with Messi.
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