Another game, another goal for the best player in the world. It wasn’t a particularly spectacular goal but it added to his already incredible tally of goals this season. Mind you, I am not talking about his goal against PSG – I might as well be talking about one of countless he has scored this, and indeed, any season. After the game against PSG I noticed that ESPN commentator Robbie Mustoe tweeted that he wished that Messi had scored less goals than he had so that we could focus less on his goal scoring statistics and more on his all round game. This got me thinking – do we actually truly appreciate Lionel Messi as a football player?
I know this sounds silly because he is almost universally regarded as the best player in the world with the Ballon Dor’s to prove it – four of them in fact. However, the danger with his abilities is that we can slip into an old human deficiency – complacency.
It is such a powerful emotion that the strongest of teams are always vulnerable to its pull and the weakest hope that they can use it to their advantage. The human brain naturally looks for the easiest way to do things; it will always choose the path of least resistance when it can. This clever adaptation means that we can use our bodies more efficiently in order to not waste valuable energy. This does not just apply to the working muscles of our bodies, it also applies to our brains. This is why to work hard is a skill in itself – your brain is trying to prevent you from doing so. It is why I find Messi so incredible. He has mastered the art of ignoring his brain and instead keep reaching new heights with his performances. The better you are and the more you are praised for your greatness, the more powerful the force of complacency becomes. What is incredible is that this seems to have the opposite effect on Messi: he gets better with praise. Not only that, just to illustrate the point definitively, we the audience have grown complacent instead.
In the beginning Messi was a unique player, a phenomenon He struck us back as a football audience and took us by surprise. These days there is no surprise. A hat trick has become (incredibly) a normal outcome. It is no longer new, not as special as the one’s from his earlier playing days. What is that old saying: familiarity breeds contempt. It should be familiarity breeds complacency. We lose focus on Messi’s non goal scoring talents such as the assists he makes, more than both Xavi and Iniesta in fact. He actually leads the La Liga in both goals and assists. Consequently we have lost the enthusiasm for Messi. He is brilliant but he has become more of the same. He is not original anymore, no longer an unknown. Dare I say it, he has become boring.
We have started to watch Messi with an abacus mentality, only expecting goals. Numbers. We have lost the touch of looking for the quality, the creativity and technique. It are these intangible qualities that we have lost the capacity to appreciate simply because the statistics have over-ruled all other forms of measurement. It has reduced us to a zombie way of watching, repeating the same old experience as before: GOAL to Messi! (followed by a shifting on our couch in acknowledgement followed by a resumption of our pedantic way of watching). The subtle part of the game, the little flicks, the sublime bit of control, the dummy move with the shoulder has become null and void. It is no longer significant enough to be talked about in the same sentence as his goal tally and I find this sad.
I enjoy those little things that players do on the pitch. The little pieces of skill that make me smile and nod in appreciation. It is not all about the goals – that has bored me already. Imagine if Johan Cruyff was scoring fifty goals a season and in the middle of a particular game in which he scores a hat-trick he performs the now famous Cruyff turn. I would guess that it wouldn’t have made the impact that it did precisely because of the Messi syndrome. The crowd becomes desensitized to great skill and performances simply because they are used to such high standards and they miss anything other than that which is worthy to applaud. High standards mean anything that was previously great is now simply average.
I know this article is perhaps a generalization and an exaggeration of the view people have of Messi, but I think we are traveling down that path. Only when Messi one day chooses to retire will we look back and realize what a talent he was. Right now Messi is a machine. It is a pity we choose to call him something which represents the robotic and the automated. It would be much more appropriate to call him a wizard or even an artist. For the beauty in football lies in its artistry and pictures, not in its numbers. In this current moment it is a shame that Messi is more represents the mathematics professor.