Messi's the modest hero of our truly golden age
00:05 GMT, 11 March 2012
00:05 GMT, 11 March 2012
As the finest golfer of his era and
the founding father of the US Masters, Bobby Jones had seen everything
that his sport had to offer. Then, in 1965, Jack Nicklaus won Augusta’s
green jacket by finishing nine shots ahead of Gary Player and Arnold
Palmer. And Jones was stunned.
‘Mr Player and Mr Palmer played
exceptionally well,’ he said. A pause: ‘But Mr Nicklaus was playing a
game with which I am not familiar.’
The phrase ran through the mind the
other evening, when Lionel Messi was scoring his opening goal in the Nou
Camp. There was an urgent scuffle by the halfway line to defeat Bayer
Leverkusen’s offside trap. There was a cursory prod with the sole of a
boot to secure the ball. There was a bewildering calculation, involving
the pace of the run, the position of the goalkeeper and the angle of the
Masterful: Lionel Messi delicately chips the advancing Bernd Leno to score the first of his five goals against Bayer Leverkusen
And then, the coup de grace: a lazy
sweep of the left foot, lifting the ball a yard or so above the keeper’s
grasp and conjuring it, first bounce, into the distant corner of the
net. It was the kind of sublime manoeuvre which might have appealed to
an imaginative child, one who did not know that such feats are
Messi smiled, the faintly flickering
smile of a bewildered man: ‘Did I really do that I suppose I must have
done.’ It was a modest reaction. There was no flamboyant gesture, no
kissing of the badge, none of the tediously choreographed routines
favoured by lesser men, lesser players. Instead, he crossed himself
instinctively, then trotted back for the restart. After which, he scored
four more goals.
And as he went about his devastating
work, that image of the wide-eyed child remained in the mind. For if he
plays into his dotage, Messi will always be the kid playing football in
the street. His mother is calling, his tea is ruined, his homework is
neglected. But on he plays because he is entranced by the game,
beguiled by its challenges, enthralled by its possibilities. We know,
beyond a doubt, that there is nothing in the wide world he would rather
Born to play: Messi collects another match ball for his extensive collection
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His manager knows it, too. Pep
Guardiola rarely substitutes him, rarely neglects to select him, because
he knows how much it means. It isn’t a matter of pride or ego or a
trivial desire to demonstrate that the Nou Camp is his stage. It is the
sheer, uncomplicated joy of performing at a level that nobody before him
has ever managed to attain.
Clearly, there are powerful cases to
be made for gods such as Pele, Maradona and Best. But at a time when
footballers are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before, the game
is dominated by one who stands five-and-a-half feet tall and weighs less
than 10-and-a-half stones. It is Messi’s genius which raises him above
the muscular mob, just as it enables him to disrupt the most
sophisticated containment strategies that coaches and computers can
It helps, of course, that he is
playing in what is almost certainly the finest club side that the sport
has known. If Barcelona represent the best that football has to offer,
then Messi is the ultimate expression of their philosophy. And all his
achievements have been marked by an air of intelligent modesty, a
genuine reticence, an awareness that the game is there to be enjoyed
rather than exploited. When footballers at large are charged with being
arrogant, vulgar and acquisitive, then Messi must be the first witness
for the defence.
And we should appreciate our sporting fortune. We used to stare back down the decades for our heroes, to the likes of Don Bradman, Mark Spitz, the young Muhammad Ali, Lester Piggott and Vivian Richards. These days, we simply glance over our shoulders to take in Shane Warne, Steve Redgrave and Seve Ballesteros.
Then when we look around us, we see that the single sport of tennis has currently produced three talents in Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, each of whom will bear comparison with any of history’s champions. And in our glittering summer of sport, when the world comes clamouring to London, Usain Bolt will assume his place at the peak of Olympus. It is a prospect to savour.
So we live in a golden age, an age in which famous deeds are done. And some of those deeds are being performed by a young man, small in stature and with the shy smile of a gifted child. A man in awe of his own ability, playing a beautiful game. With which we are becoming happily familiar.
Sorry, Glen, but you’ve given the game away
When Luis Suarez, of Liverpool, issued a public apology for failing to shake the hand of Patrice Evra, of Manchester United, a few cynical souls suspected that he didn’t believe a word of it. Those suspicions appear to have been well founded.
It was Glen Johnson who gave the game away. With his club painfully emerging from the biggest public relations disaster in its history, Johnson came up with a bizarre theory.
Evra, it seems, never really intended to shake hands with Suarez. Instead, he had offered his own hand so stealthily that he knew it would be rejected. He sneers: ‘Evra probably stayed up all night thinking about how to do that.’
Flashpoint: Patrice Evra and Luis Suarez
Now we must assume that Johnson is not spouting this tosh off his own bat, that he must have consulted Suarez before speaking out.
Yet let us consider the terms of the Suarez apology: ‘I’m sorry. I made a mistake and I regret what happened. I should have shaken Patrice Evra’s hand before the game and I want to apologise for my actions.’ The meaning could not be clearer.
Kenny Dalglish, whose woefully inept handling of the affair ensured that his image took an almighty battering, admitted: ‘I was shocked to hear that the player had not shaken hands.’
And that seemed to be that, until Johnson unveiled his incredible theory.
We now await a reaction from Dalglish. Somehow, I doubt that the little ray of sunshine is delighted by recent developments.
Theory: Glen Johnson
Times are hard, especially when your name is Oyston
Bovvered Karl Oyston
A week ago, my colleague Nick Harris revealed that the Blackpool owner Owen Oyston paid himself 11million while his club were being relegated last season. Some thought this a touch excessive, especially as Karl Oyston, the owner’s son, had famously criticised the insatiable greed of overpaid footballers.
Unkind words like ‘hypocrisy’ and ‘parasite’ were used, and the Blackpool fans were not entirely appeased when Karl explained that his father ‘does not lead an extravagant lifestyle’.
In truth, Oyston Jnr is not one of nature’s diplomats. ‘If I had spent the 11m on players’ wages, nobody would be complaining but that money would be gone to Ferrari dealers and whatever else players spend it on,’ he said. I can think of some players who might find that faintly patronising.
Not that Karl is concerned about what people think. When you are as rich as the Oystons, you can do what you like. As he said: ‘Frankly, after the way he has supported the club all these years, if it was an 11m salary to my father, so what’
Incidentally, the Blackpool club credit card was reportedly twice declined by a hotel before the game at Peterborough. In the end, payment was guaranteed but you can’t blame the hotel for being cautious. After all, these are hard times. Ask the Oystons.
Mario Balotelli is a bit of a card. Drives into female prisons, races quad bikes in his back garden, has friends who let off fireworks in his bathroom. That sort of thing.
Just last week, he was fined for staying out late at a strip club. But that was last week. Now, he’s a changed man. It seems it’s all down to his manager having faith in him.
‘I can’t let myself do stupid things any more,’ he says. ‘Roberto Mancini has made me grow up.’ I can’t wait for next week.