Messi yawned and scratched his cheek. After a few seconds he even decided to open his eyes. The journalist was still there. Should we all be racists, now, Lionel? ¿Qué? Should we all be racists now? It’s just with being on twitter all day, at night I just like to enjoy a cup of tea. ¿Eh? he shuffled in his anorak. The racism, Leo, the racism – you know, it was on the front page of the Sun; Drenthe and all that? ¿Qué carajo es un drenthe? I’m just a simple free-scoring underwear model with a left-foot that makes martyrs want to swap sides with the Holy Ghost.
It was left to his club to refute the claims. “They’re well wide of the mark,” Barcelona said in a statement. “The player has always shown a maximum respect [sic] and sportsmanship towards his rivals, something which has been recognised by his fellow professionals many times, and we are sure that any accusations to the contrary are well wide of the mark. His behaviour throughout his career has always been exemplary.”
Enough churnalism. (Feed the cat; drink the fernet; write the words). Grand, he’s Not That Type of Person. We’ve heard for years about how quiet, how reserved he is. Carles Rexach, the man who famously signed Messi on a napkin, said that after knowing him for ten years the most he’d ever heard him say was ‘alright, yeah, no, okay and nah’. However, that was two years ago, before his explosion into onion-bag-busting supremo, a man who breaks records like a young Marcelo Bielsa broke hearts. Perhaps our image of Messi is hopelessly flawed. Maybe Rainman’s drunk on power and success, the demure exterior but a front for a chest heaving with hate.
We read a story in the local paper here a few weeks ago of a family of marplatenses who run a traditional Argentine take-out business in Casteldelfels, where the roasarine ogre dwells. They were highly complimentary of his charm and good manners when coming to the gate to pick up the odd bag of empanadas. In the light of these Drenthe revelations, however, pegamequemegusta now wonders if lil Lionel wasn’t threatening the hamlet with blocking out their sun if the real tale of his ghastly, bone-munching character were to get out. Think about it, the praise heretofore has been so universal there must be a cover-up. No, really, he’s a dreamboat, they all insist, fingers quivering for a smoke when there are already three on the go in the smouldering tray; a Camp Nou flunkie a few kilometres away with a pair of Calvin Kleins pulled tightly across the snout of the family dog.
What happened anyway? Currently clubless Royston ‘Vasey’ Drenthe spoke to a Dutch newspaper in his homeland. He said he’d had a few run-ins with Messi in his time with Real and Hercules. “I’ve played against Messi loads of times”, he chest-thumped vicariously. “You know what always pissed me off? He’d always call me ‘negro’.” The, in Olé’s words, ‘insconspicuous’ Drenthe goes on to say that before one match Messi shook his hand with an ‘Hola, negro’ but then they had a bit of a ruckus in the game. “Afterwards he didn’t shake my hand. I don’t think he’ll be inviting me to his birthday party.”
Shades of Suarez? Drenthe actually diffuses the situation like a bomb hound with his next comments: “I know it’s common in South America but I can’t stand it. [At Real] Diarra would get really angry when Higuaín and Heinze would say it to him. Eventually they cut it out.”
In some versions of this story, that last line is rendered as ‘they were stopped’. We imagine the Argentines being gagged by kit men as they struggle to utter their favourite word, negro. Or perhaps they were fitted with buzzers to train them to be civilised, like rats in a cage with a pellet-dispenser. Either way, Drenthe seems to recognise that it is a perfectly innocent cultural misunderstanding – but nevertheless one that still got under his skin, so to speak.
The glaring like a raybanned-rooster-in-a-vat-of-neon-paint problem in terms of interpretation here, however, is that the comments were made in Dutch. It is a lamentable fact that so many journalists in our most supermodern of worlds actually use google translate to do their work. If you compare the automatic translation of the Drenthe article on nusport with any of the English papers’ versions, you get a Spider Baby, a dollied up farce. One of the most damning elements of the headlines is that they say Messi called Drenthe “a negro”, not just negro as in ‘Alright buddy’ (not matter how many layers of sarcasm you want to apply) but a negro – it sounds so inescapably horrible.
That little twist doesn’t even occur to the editors over here because the phrase is so common. In other respects the versions on the Argentine pages differ slightly – not in terms of presenting Messi in a better light necessarily, but in terms of subtle grammatical changes. In the Googlish version, for example, it says Higuaín and Heinze ‘were stopped’, whereas in the Spangooglean version it says ‘they stopped’ of their own accord. It’s an important point that the language barrier prevents us from resolving.
No such qualms troubled many a rag, though, when the semistory came to light. Nor, to our knowledge, did they use any of the tools at their disposal to investigate the matter. Rather, it appears that many were all too happy to sully the reputation of the stainless saint of nowball. Front page: Messi = Racist. Over here, the story only appeared on websites half-way down the page below the latest goings-on at River in their Divine Comedy round the seven circles of la B, and Copa Libertadores previews. Yet we think it would be churlish to say it was buried. After all, besides the mention of ‘tone’ in some translations, Drenthe’s own comments attest to a cultural misunderstanding more than any real malice.
No, what really surprised us about this story was how out of touch it made us feel. The common thread over the last few years in the Messi-Argentina saga is that la Pulga doesn’t play well for his national team because of essential questions of belonging and identity. Umpteen times and more we’ve heard how estranged he feels, how he’s been in Catalonia so long he’s hardly even Argentine, that this is the problem. No matter how outdated this viewpoint is (Time magazine published a hopelessly passé story on Messi not being accepted in his homeland a few months back) pegamequemegusta was sure that, no matter how false any of that was, over there, in DeVillepin’s centre for the spiritually retired, Messi was essentially viewed as a European – as opposed, say, to other squat, rotund, picante, mouthy powerhouses, clearly South American, like Tevez and Suarez. Although everyone obviously knew he was Argentine, we thought he qualified for honorary, non-lazy sombrero-wearing–wetback/sudaka status in the same way Henry had won gentleman status in England. In short, we thought the press had granted him an exemption from his class, that there was always a leather-bound chaise waiting for him at the club if he wanted it.
The appearance of this story in the European press tells us otherwise. Messi is indeed fair game for those who are wont to present South American footballers as preternaturally skilled halfwits, culturally bereft tricksters with such an instinctive, nay, animalistic attachment to the ball it makes their gliding past defenders essentially unfair.
Thirteen years in the Irish education system has this to tell you about South America: they said there was gold in a place called El Dorado. They couldn’t find it. Our complete ignorance of so many foreign cultures, and the lack of time in the day, leaves us eternally exposed to misreadings of events and people. Make no mistake: racism is a massive problem in South America, and especially in the Europe-tilted Argentina, but it has nothing to do with the American/English/French/Africa narrative we’re sadly familiar with. Drenthe’s comments weren’t particularly incendiary; they were actually pretty fair. Messi is just from a different place. They do not mean he’s a bigot, though. Indeed, Drenthe was probably most annoyed because Lionel did this to him (after all, it’s the Chinese he’s after):