The world’s greatest athlete is the anti-athlete

The world’s greatest athlete is the anti-athlete
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First Published: Fri, Dec 09 2011. 10 04 PM IST

Kick off: Messi’s footwork reminds us that sport is, in fact, dance. Photo: David Ramos / Getty Images
Kick off: Messi’s footwork reminds us that sport is, in fact, dance. Photo: David Ramos / Getty Images
Updated: Fri, Dec 09 2011. 10 04 PM IST
Lionel Messi should be set to music. As an accompaniment, commentary is redundant. Anyway, when the Argentine flows and cuts and swerves across the pitch, English seems an impoverished language. Better to put him to music— or even imagine the music within him that he plays to—and sit back quietly. And here’s the first thing about Messi. You don’t have to know football, or even sport: to just see him is to immediately understand beauty.
There is this possibly apocryphal story of the Dutch once breaking Dhyan Chand’s hockey stick to check if there was a magnet inside. Perhaps Messi’s boot is lightly coated in Araldite, for the ball does not seem to leave his left foot when in the mood. But it is an incomplete analogy: Messi’s beauty is as much in how, and when, he lets the ball go. The other day, he slipped a pass quietly to Xavi which bisected four men perfectly, and on repeated viewings on YouTube to comprehend this athletic geometry, a second thing became clear.
Kick off: Messi’s footwork reminds us that sport is, in fact, dance. Photo: David Ramos / Getty Images
Messi was reminding us of an old lesson in sports-watching: Look at the goddam feet. Even in football, we tend to be more obedient to the second part of the word—the ball. It’s where the eye goes more often. Instead of to the arrangement of the feet, the shifting balance, the marriage of pause and feint, the closeness of Messi to the defender, what he might read in the defender’s feet, what part of his boot he uses in his caress.
To understand Messi’s subtlety, his timing and then his explosion, we should look down on him. As we must for Roger Federer, whose racket-craft is so delicious that his feet can become a corollary to his craft, when really they are his grandest weapon. It’s the same with cricketers and their shuffles, with basketballers and their dribbles, and Messi is telling us what we occasionally forget: that sport is in fact dance.
Messi matters, thirdly, because of the second part of his nickname when translated into English: Pulga Atomica or Atomic Flea. Tennis has become an elongated world where the average height of the top 20 is 187.9cm (or 6ft, 2 inches). Rugby players now emerge from a Neanderthal factory and studies show they are bigger. But football, partial anyway to a lower centre of gravity, evidently takes itself seriously as a world game: In this sporting democracy there is room for all. To the point where the reigning deities are a Holy Trinity of the Tiny—Messi (5ft, 6 inches), Xavi (5ft, 7 inches), Andres Iniesta (5ft, 7 inches). Of course, Diego Maradona was no high jumper either, but there’s something reassuring to Asians in an increasingly super-sized sporting world that the world’s greatest athlete is a chotu.
The fourth thing about Messi, and sports writer Kunal Pradhan alerted me to this last week, is that in a desperately divided football universe his genius can still unify us. We live in lands of football shirts, our belonging is identified through colours: red for Manchester United, blue for Chelsea, stripes for Newcastle, and we see football through these narrow prisms of our particular tribes. Till Messi starts to slip between defenders, even your defenders, and begins to exquisitely pick apart your team with a skill that has no violence, and the pleasure of what he does outweighs any private pain of a defeated club. He touches the boy inside us, the boy whose first allegiance was not to club but just to football.
One reason Messi can do this, skill aside, and this is truly the key to him, is that he—of the choir-boy face—is inoffensive. He is the world’s greatest athlete who, in fact, is the anti-athlete. In a planet of hoopla, of entitlement, of Ferrari-crashing, nightclub-fighting, threesome video-making, tantrum-throwing, rival-dissing, he almost doesn’t fit. Even his hair doesn’t look gelled. Even when he gets fouled, he’ll get up, perhaps open his arms and shrug to the referee, but he’ll go on, without endless drama, and start his concerto again. Has he misunderstood his status, can he not find something redeemably obnoxious to do?
I briefly looked up Messi and misbehaviour, Messi and controversy, Messi and tantrum. No real luck. Wait. He clapped a celebratory hand against the side of a plane, which happened to be the emergency exit, and a part came off. Whoa. He once kicked a ball rather crudely into the Real Madrid crowd. Tsk, tsk. He was reported to be at a party where there was alcohol and women. God help us. This is the worst we can find on him!
Of course, he is flawed and harder digging might reveal it. Of course, we need the club-throwers and the baked-bean eaters, the whiners and the sneerers, for sport is not some All Saints Parade in shorts. But it’s just perfect that I don’t know who his girlfriend is, or what car he drives, or what suits he prefers and who his barber is, or which blonde claimed he slept with her, or which rival accused him of a terrific arrogance. I don’t know because it’s hardly ever spoken of. With him, I just know a boy, a ball and the idea of music. It is sport at its simplest and, in a way, its most profound.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at gametheory@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Dec 09 2011. 10 04 PM IST