Of all the stories in football, it’s hard to think of any so familiar as the one about Messi’s beginnings in football. Women with slack, elastic socks and shopping bags at bus stops could tell you, dear fevered one, he moved to Barcelona as a child to get treatment for something or other. Then he bucked into our collective consciousness in the form of muttered astonishment from the sitting room, the word soon coming that some be-moppèd urchin was running Chelsea’s defence ragged, pinging the ball off the upright and getting players sent off.
Ok, so maybe not everyone remembers that much but we were all there for the hat-tricks, the pokers, the underpants advertisements and the general World Domination. Among his many achievements is the exponential and über-zeigeisty growth in the home-video-child-footballer genre – Messi was doing youtube before youtube -, which we’ve also consumed ad delirium.
Nevertheless, a new film has come out called Messi: la película (‘Messi: the movie’), directed by loveable Spanish funnyman Alex de la Iglesia, to tell us the story again. The première was last week in Río de Janeiro. Until the WC finishes, however, it won’t be shown outside Brazil, which we find somewhat strange given this competition engineers such an unmatchable blend of near-suffocating nowness and exhausting expectation. Right now, even Germans must be gurning with uncontainable anticipation to see what Messi will do in the final. Let’s go to the cinema, bask in the biblical warmth of a well-known tale, take the edge off and stoke our self-lacerating love of suspense in equal measure. Vamos! But no, we have to make do with zoom-lens shots of Messi doing bicycle kicks in training, half-obscured by the trees of Cidade do Galo.
From what we’ve read about it, – and what can be gleaned from the trailer – the film does have a few intriguing aspects. Firstly, it was co-scripted by Jorge Valdano and his son, who does this kind of thing for a living. Besides being a rosarino who has spent many years in Spain, albeit in Madrid, not Barcelona, Valdano is a wonderfully pompous football philosopher never short of a good line. Secondly, for better or for worse, instead of talking heads, the documentary sections of the film take place in a restaurant where characters from Messi’s life sit at various tables discussing his past, his personality and exploits. “De la Iglesia creates a level playing field in the telling of Messi’s story,” Marcelo Gantman wrote on canchallena last week. “Football’s learnèd men have the same importance as his best friend from primary school.” It sounds like a wedding with no bridegroom, or perhaps a wake, although the limbo-like darkness of the background suggests the latter. Messi’s Barca teammates Iniesta and Piqué are at one table; his primary school teachers are at another; Marcelo Sottile, Daniel Arcucci and other Argentine journalists are seated together. Sabella, of course, is in with the crowd at another. Only Cruyff and Valdano sit alone. That’s an interesting cast anyhow, and, at worst, makes it watchable on grounds of scarleh morbidity.
In his review, Gantman does not like, however, the stagings of episodes from Leo’s youth. For the film mixes documentary with recreations/imaginings of scenes of ickle Messi in Rosario with his family, or homesick, fragile, quiet Messi in la Masía. Think Crimewatch without a crime. Enimem playing a version of himself is one thing, likewise The Beatles faffing about in A Hard Days Night, but it’s hard to see how this kind of thing can do anyone any good. Messi hasn’t seen it but his family have, and apparently they were happy with it. Units may be moved but few hearts or minds, we imagine. Neither will it work as prophecy, being released after The Event. While as an exercise in nascent nostalgia, however dreamy, it could hardly compete with endless repetitions of the real thing if things do go well on Sunday.
At least the film’s launch gave us the opportunity to hear what Valdano does best these days, talk. “In his vision coalesce the present and the future, the near and the far,” he told Marcelo Sottile of Olé, regarding the assist for Di María’s goal against Switzerland. This is a virtue he sees only in Messi, who is “another way of being Maradona.” He adds that it’s natural that team-mates can be deferential and reminds us of Menotti’s line about how much possession Maradona should have: “As much as possible.” Nevertheless, Valdano is well aware that there has been a change in Messi’s play: “There was a time when if Messi only scored one goal, it seemed like it was a poor return. Now one goal feels alright.”
Remember, dear world cup finaled one, it was only last November that there was talk of Messi being in crisis. The Right Honorable Sid Lowe wrote that of course Messi was “brilliant, but not quite as brilliant as before.” In the last group game of the Champo League he scored twice against Milan but still felt the need to take two months off to recover from injuries sustained the previous season that had never been allowed to heal properly. When he returned, he continued scoring goals but still looked out of sorts. He was vomiting during games. Nerves, they said. Suddenly Messi was nervous playing against Romania and Slovenia in friendlies. The doctor that gave him the initial hormone treatment dismissed the idea there could have been any long-term after effects. Something seemed to be awry, however.
Or maybe he was saving himself for the World Cup? After all, upon arriving back in Argentina in late May, Messi said he was going to ‘change his SIM card’. It doesn’t appear to have been entirely a mental issue, though. After the first few matches even his grandfather was needling him: “He looks a bit dodgy to me. He doesn’t run around as much as he used to.” This week his mother told a passer-by (who, not realising who she was, was asking the journalist chatting to her for an autograph!) he looked a little ‘static’. His father reportedly told Brazilian newspaper Folha de San Pablo that after the Belgium match, where he tried to chip the keeper in the last five minutes instead of going round him, as he has hundreds of times before, his legs felt like they weighed “a hundred kilos”.
We’re not arguing he’s crocked. In the 120th minute of the semi-final he beat a couple of players on the right wing and sent in a fine cross to the back post that Maxi Rodriguez, of all people, should have done better with. Rather, we wonder if this World Cup isn’t introducing us to a new Messi, the one that will play with Suárez at Barcelona for the next few seasons, one who blends awesome moments of inspiration and incredible bursts of acceleration with long, long periods of near inactivity, like a sperm whale taking a thirty-minute breath before diving five-hundred fathoms deep to do battle with a giant squid.
-Little known Messi fact: as a lad, he, too, loved BBC2’s bowls coverage-
Just as Argentina have altered their style during the competition, his role in the new Barcelona will most likely be different to the false 9 in a 4-3-3 of recent years. Juan Pablo Varsky wrote a few days ago about how, in this Argentina team, for differing reasons he has been deprived of the player who most – and most effectively – gave him the ball (Gago), the decoy arriving late (Di María), and the player he most enjoys linking up with in the box (Aguero). Hence: “He has the ball for more time and against more players, yet he still loses it far less than any other player would in that kind of situation. He’s foregoing personal glory for the benefit of the team. This selflessness is a testament to him as a footballer.”
Having not seen the movie, – this is a preview of a movie preview by way of a WC final preview – pegamequemegusta doesn’t know how this Spanish docudrama treats Messi’s relationship with Argentina: as one of love and hate? A nation piggybacking on his success? The way the French see Ireland in relation to Beckett, just the accidental site of his birth? Either way, on World Cup Final Eve, the country’s relationship with Messi feels as cheerfully expectant as it did back in 2007 at the Copa América, when Messi was more a promise than a saviour. It is often forgotten in the Messi-Argentina story that there was a time before the mutual frustration and disappointment of 2008-2011 with la Selección, a chaotic period characterised by a lack of leadership and poor organisation when even Mascherano, according to an interview in Saturday’s Olé, had doubts over his commitment.
Besides, whatever our paranoia about his well-being, this World Cup has seen a remarkable change in Messi’s openness, his maturity, his humanity. It seems crazy now that such a thing was ever in question, but from everything we’ve seen and heard about the squad, it’s been a real walk-along-a-railway, go-fishing-with-your-buddies type of story, with Messi wailing after the penalties, waving the jersey above his head and singing like any other fan, like all the other members of the team, without the least suggestion of falsehood. This Messi has tattoos, and a son. This is not a fading Messi but a new one.
Many chapters have yet to be written in the Leo Messi story. Sunday will hopefully be a happy one. After all, to invert our earlier analogy, the giant squid was once thought of as being a feckless drifter that fed on sea refuse. Later, the world learned it was a predator.