Messi: The Movie

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.

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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. 

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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.

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Celui-ci n’est plus un pibe – Higuaín, Messi & Santiago Solari

Someone who can tell you far more about Higuaín, about contingency, about football and beauty, however, is the subject of our newest man crush, Santiago Solari. He has a new blog in El País called El charco (‘the Pond’), referring to the Atlantic, and it’s amazing. We had to doublecheck when we saw the name attached to such a fantastic piece of prose. Is that..? Could it be… the Santiago Solari who delighted us so ten years ago dancing up the left wing for that awesome, hard-working, downright loveable Real Madrid team? It was, and, dear tired, harassed, perpetually titillated but never rewarded reader, it made the reading all the sweeter.

It’s quite simply the best thing we’ve come across in ages and it’s written by one of the players we have only slightly less of a thing for than Pablito Aimar. It’s an ideal version of pegamequemegusta, without our halfway house wit, our verbosity, and, dear lord, the sheer tediousness of 5,000 word posts. His first article was titled Function and Form. A discussion of aesthetics and football, it includes lines like:

Football is not art as art is neither its goal nor its essence. Nor is beauty.

and

It is wholly frivolous to try and treat a football match as if it were a Flemish masterpiece.

You’ll have noticed the tone, the eccentric, starchy register, the assurance, the perspicacity. In many ways he reminds us of his compatriot and fellow Real Madrid man, Jorge ‘Vincent Price’ Valdano, who’s also given to mystical ramblings about time and space, and a slightly odd vocabulary. While a treat, it makes it harder to translate, but we’ve given it a go.


I

Innocent son that we are, pegamequemegusta always thought one’s signature was just one’s name written down; there had to be a resemblance between the letters of one’s name and what one may write, a modicum of representational ‘truth’. Drawings and symbols, after all, are the hallmarks of illiteracy and backwardness. One’s signature, on the other hand, is a legal entity. It can exonerate you, exalt you, condemn you faster than any god. It is one of the building blocks of civilisation. Indeed, the Spanish firma evokes authority even more directly, deriving as it does from the Latin firmus, meaning ‘strength’, ‘solidity’. Indecipherable squiggles or playful doodles are all very well for Hollywood vedettes or orientally-inclined footballers, but they’re not for those of us desirous of signing the grand edifice of civilisation brick by brick ever further into the sky. 

Hence it was with the dullest of amazement that we shifted in our cot upon learning that this was not in fact the case. One’s signature need bear no more resemblance to the letter’s that make it up than a kebab-shop counter image of succulence tot he dark wet wipe-clad mush one is invariably served. Instead of artfully penning p-e-g-a-m-e-q-u-e-m-e-g-u-s-t-a in cool calligraphy, we might as well sketch an idyllic pastoral scene with a duck in a frilly-sleeved party-frock. Heck, art has advanced beyond the pen and paintbrush, why not attach a stylish papier-maché model of Saussure’s left testicle to the back of one’s credit card? Surely once the link is broken between the admittedly arbitrary reality and its representation, you can surely insist that if anyone wants your signature they visit your docklands installation, where tinsel abounds and nothing is what it seems. Civilisation is more perilously poised than a one-legged parrot atop a lusty weathercock. Incredible, no?

Rather a more twisted pancake, however, is that once one has grasped this graphic disconnect, the signature cannot be changed. Once established midst the ululating perversity of youth, it sits there as immoveable, as stubborn as a matriarchal star. The lines drawn upon opening your first bank account or getting your first passport engender a being more forceful than even the most rounded, the most skilfully delineated character in the most realistic drama ever committed to print. Hamlet is a stick man next to the quintessence that is your signature. You answer to it; it owns you. You must live up to it; you must do it justice; you must make it proud, son. Otherwise you risk pulling down the entire weight of the Occident’s most virulent wig enthusiasts.

Pitiful, pitisome creatures that we are, this is quite remarkable. For of all our gripes about the unfairness of the arbitrariness of the world, not being able to choose barely any of the major facts that define who we are (only to be told later we’re free), this is one we have almost complete control over. Or you do as long as, unlike us, you’re not frightfully ignorant.

II

We don’t always resemble our parents, though, and when we do it’s not necessarily a debilitating curse. Two contrasting but positive examples from the world of Argieball spring to mind like toads after that last ray of sunlight. For the last few years, insofar as we’ve given the matter much thought, Jorge Messi has always seemed a perplexing character to us. An imposing figure, never afraid to speak his mind; an ambitious man who was willing to take some rather drastic and unusual decisions to make sure his weakling son could have a chance to become a top footballer. Not even he could have imagined, of course, what an utter machine little Lionel would turn out to be, nor, even more precariously, perhaps, that he would peak (?) precisely as FC Barcelona saw the fruits of its quixotic scheme to industrialise perfection. Pumping a 12-year-old full of hormones and moving him to another continent on the hope that the treatment would be successful and he might avoid all the pitfalls and make it, what utter madness. Then we saw young Messi himself, already with a few Champions Leagues under his awkward hanging arm, so different, shuffling, mumbling, a tongue-tied Rainman figure. Even last year, the 10 on his back, when he truly began to assert himself in the middle of the pitch, and to make almost everyone else in the game look like a plodding piss-artist, we suspected he’d always remain a somewhat distant figure, one not blessed with a barrier-melting bonhomie or charisma. Maradona made him captain against Greece in the World Cup, but while we knew the marketing men would demand he get it sooner or later, we were sure: at 23 already, this kid wasn’t going to change.

No prizes for guessing where this is going, dear handsome one: Messi has changed. The papers and dials of the Republic are humming like Apu after 96 hours straight at the Kwik-E-Mart, a-humming with talk of the New Messi. Apparently, he’s fashioned out of a brand new type of aluminium recently discovered near the Earth’s core, he’s shinier than a thousand, no, a million suns, and he’s stronger than an ox with a bellyful of onion soup.

Much of it can be dismissed as pure hype, of course, as vacuous as the sniping he suffered ‘ere long: Messi photographed on his day off watching the subs train with a focused air; Messi making eye-contact with strangers, etc. Yet there is some substance to it. In the few games we’ve seen so far at least, Sabella’s common sense tactics appear to have benefited him in that the anxiety that courses through la Selección has been reduced somewhat, and the clutter that oft-times hath masqueraded as a forward line has brought into line like a renegade sideburn. Even in his speech, if he’s as guarded/well-coached as ever, he certainly sounds more mature. He has accepted the inevitability of the press at long last and seems to have realised he can use it to his advantage. He’s learned people appreciate a certain amount of aggression. He’s become sterner, more assertive. These days, he’s more Rudyard Kipling than Lewis Carroll. He’s a man, son; he’s mad Jorge’s boy.

Friday’s 4-1 defeat of Chile, however, was all about Higuaín. Well, that’s probably a tad unfair on Di María, whose excellent performance was a far bigger surprise, given that he’s better known in this cave for being a diving, choke-happy, despicable little turncoat. Unlike Messi, Higuaín was condemned to be born into a decent footballing family (he was born in France, where his father was plying his trade, while his older brother argieballs it for Colón). Thus, for him the case for determinism seems stronger. As we shall see shortly, though, he’s had to fight to get to where he is.

Pegamequemegusta must confess at first we weren’t too convinced by Higuaín. He had been very good for River, of course, but we cheaply suspected he’d be consigned to Real Marid’s Big Room of unemployed strikers. Plus, he refused to go to the Under-20 World Cup in 2007, unlike Aguero, as he felt it was beneath him. Arguably that misjudgment on his part cost him a few years: he didn’t make his debut in la Selección until October 2009. He scored that night (Aimar!) and was Argentina’s top scorer at the World Cup, too. Yet, somewhat strangely, he didn’t really impress. He was there when it counted, sure, but he looked slightly out of sorts. At the Copa América, on the other hand, he was delightful. While Messi rightly took all the plaudits after the hammering of Costa Rica, it was Higuaín’s movement and intelligence, if not his finishing, that had us in quite a lather. The same qualities were on show against Chile last Friday, but this time with at least one sublime execution, for the first goal: 

III

Someone who can tell you far more about Higuaín, about contingency, about football and beauty, however, is the subject of our newest man crush, Santiago Solari. He has a blog in El País called El charco (‘the Pond’), referring to the Atlantic, and it’s amazing. We had to doublecheck when we saw the name attached to such a fantastic piece of prose. Is that..? Could it be… the Santiago Solari, he who delighted us so ten years ago dancing up the left wing for that awesome, hard-working, downright loveable Real Madrid team? It was, and, dear tired, harassed, perpetually titillated but never rewarded reader, it made the reading all the sweeter.

It’s quite simply the best thing we’ve come across in ages and it’s written by one of the players we have only slightly less of a thing for than Pablito Aimar. It’s an ideal version of pegamequemegusta, without our halfway house wit, our verbosity, and, dear lord, the sheer tediousness of 5,000 word posts. Last week he had a piece titled Form and Function. A discussion of aesthetics and football, it includes lines like:

Football is not art as art is neither its goal nor its essence. Nor is beauty.

and

It is wholly frivolous to try and treat a football match as if it were a Flemish masterpiece.

You’ll have noticed the tone, the eccentric, starchy register, the assurance, the perspicacity. In many ways he reminds us of his compatriot and fellow Real Madrid man, Jorge ‘Vincent Price’ Valdano, who’s also given to mystical ramblings about time and space, and a slightly odd vocabulary. While a treat, it makes it harder to translate, but we’ve given it a go.

More than the often dry, static talk of formations, pegamequemegusta is a sucker for anyone who writes about the use of space. A few months back we brought you, oh fancy-free, firmless, hypothetical reader, a translation of a Juan Pablo Varsky article where he savaged Checho’s understanding of space in football. The piece we’ve translated today is principally about Higuaín’s considerable strengths as a striker, but for us Solari makes the leap into true succulence when he discusses el Pipita Higuaín’s movement. Plus, the simplicity of his prose conveys an unusually rigid, a reassuring bond between the signifier and the signified; this is truth. There is nothing arbitrary here.

Enjoy.

The Sophistication of the Straightforward Striker 

by Santiago Solari, El País 10 October 2011

We like to think our kids resemble us when they embody characteristics we regard as virtues.

El pipa Jorge Higuaín was a strong, fearless defender who played for River, Boca and San Lorenzo in the 1980s. Looking back at the old man’s videos, a warrior patrolling the box, it’s hard to see anything of him in his son, Gonzalo, the quick, agile centreforward who’s been making his way at Madrid for the last six seasons. However, there is one fundamental quality that el Pipita has inherited from his father, one on which large part of his success is based – his tremendous competitive spirit.

Gonzalo Higuaín made his début with River Plate in May 2005 and in December 2006 he skipped off to the other side of the pond. It’s not easy to go to Real Madrid when you’re 18 years old, and it’s even more difficult without an intervening spell at another club to help you get acclimatised.

His character was forged in a numerous family, a close-knit footballing family. He didn’t give up when he had to bide his time and sit on the bench waiting for his chance behind the established superstars, Raúl and Van Nistlerooy. When he got it, he made the most of it.

Higuaín is a relatively uncomplicated goalscorer, but we shouldn’t be waylaid by that definition. Scoring goals is the hardest thing to do in football and the only thing harder than that is to make it look easy. There are so many characteristics required to pull it off and there are very few number nines who have the full package.

Of reasonable stature, well-built and with strong legs, he has all the physical qualities one looks for in a striker, and he’s lethal on the counter-attack. He is extremely judicious when it comes to picking up positions when the ball is in motion, and he has an innate understanding of when to stick, when to turn, when to stretch the game or drop deep.

Apart from these tactical attributes, he excels at one aspect of the game vital to his position on the pitch – losing your marker. There, where space and time collapse and one’s allies are left far behind, Higuaín moves with the utmost composure. He manipulates space, making room when there appears to be none, or choosing the shortest route to goal when his team win the ball back. He manages to resolve a most troublesome equation: getting free of defences without straying far from the area.

When he looks for a through ball, he makes the desired trajectory clear for the player in possession. If, when he gets free, his teammate elects not to give him the ball, he immediately looks to pick up another position and show for it once more. And yet, only rarely is he caught offside.

Thus, it’s hardly surprising you often see him in a position to score, whether outside the box or right on the penalty spot, as if the opposition defense had committed some kind of error.

And once he’s there, Higuaín is straightforward, expeditious. He is just as comfortable on either foot. He can turn both ways. He aims and shoots with his left as well as he does with his right, and with both he can belt it or put some spin on it. He strikes the ball masterfully, right in the middle, to give it the exact kind of spin necessary: the perfect parabola to send the ball dipping violently under the bar, or fire it finely across the goal to the far post. When he’s one on one, he’s well able to dribble round the goalkeeper or chip it over him.

He doesn’t hang around, either. Every time he lays the ball off, he darts towards the penalty area. His gift for anticipating the next move gives you the impression he controls time, and if he doesn’t head the ball quite as well as Morientes, last week he managed to overtake him in terms of goals scored in a Madrid jersey: no fewer than 74.

The slipped disc that kept him sidelined for several months, from which he only recovered at the tail end of last season, cost him his place in the team and allowed Benzema to consolidate his position. Yet, true to his style, far from giving up, he merely waited out another opportunity.

He was back in the starting eleven against Real Vallecano and scored a goal. Then he notched up a hat-trick against Espanyol.

With three goals in the Monumental against Chile, he announced to Mourinho, Sabella and Benzema, and anyone else who wanted to listen, what we already knew: Pipita’s most definitely Pipa’s lad.