Camp Nou cathedral is no Jerusalem and Lionel Messi is no Jesus Christ. But that doesn’t make the diminutive Argentine anything less than a Saviour. If FC Barcelona is més que un club (more than a club), then Messi is more than another soldier in the Catalan army. He is the leader, the spiritual inspiration, the Messiah. Without him, the Catalan flock is lost.
As they were against Real Madrid on Saturday evening in this season’s first el clasico. The Camp Nou fixture was a very much un-classic clasico: there were no pig’s heads thrown, no bottles rocketed onto the pitch, no red cards dished out and not much of an entertainment engendered by the footballers. Barca lost at home for the first time in almost two years and failed to score at the Camp Nou for the fist time since that 0-0 draw with Espanyol in March 2005. The clasico was un-classic because of one player who could’ve made a hell lot of difference and you do not have to scratch your head for too long to discern his name.
When Lionel Messi hobbled off the pitch at the Mestalla in the 43rd minute against Valencia the previous weekend, we all knew that Barca were up a stump. For the thigh injury that struck Messi at the time kept him out of Sunday’s el clasico and shall keep him out for four more weeks at least. And we were proved right. Bernd Schuster’s Real Madrid side might have been physically stronger, more pragmatic, more organized, more cautious, more defensive, more solid, more adept at breaking the opponents’ moves and more team-like than Barca were but few doubt that had Lionel Messi been in a red-and-purple shirt that evening, he could, should and would have made a difference.
Because last season in the corresponding fixture, Messi had scored an exhilarating hat-trick in the 3-3 draw and had stood out among a glittering array of stars like a high rock in the ocean. Because Messi scored that Maradona-esque goal against Getafe in a Copa Del Rey tie in mid-April this year that sealed the confirmation that he is Diego Armando Maradona II. Because Messi had dragged Barca by the hair out of the so-called mini crisis at the start of the season when the Catalan giants could only draw with against Racing Santander and Osasuna. Because in the absence of Ronaldinho (well, the one you see these days is either a living ghost of the actual player or the player’s twin brother) Messi has steered the Barca ship. Because Messi is the only priest in entire Catalonia from whom the people can seek salvation.
When Leo Messi ran out onto the pitch against city rivals Espanyol on October 16, 2004, he was already saddled with the curse of being yet another New Maradona. But unlike any other pretenders, Messi has graduated with ease, taken things in his stride, never let the heaped extol barge into his head and kept his feet firmly on the ground. He might have been photographed with a few gorgeous women but then he is not a naughty boy and hardly ever speaks (his team mates at Barca call him el mudo-the mute).
More than his personality, it is Messi’s performances on the pitch that has endeared him to the Barca fanatics. He is stronger on his left foot although his right one is equally threatening and with the ball at his feet, he becomes a sorcerer miles better than Criss Angel. He dribbles around defenders like a sly swift river bending around rocks and like an unselfish boy willing to share his chocolate, never hesitates to pass the ball to his team mates.
At times, you feel that the ball is tied to his feet or that the ball has an invisible iron coating over it and Messi’s boots have a magnet hidden somewhere. His ball possession is so hypnotic that opposition defenders as well as his team mates often stand back seeming to applaud him. All this becomes more enticing and astonishing when you consider that Leo Messi is only 20. At 20 you ought to be at college, having fun, partying long and hard into the night with your friends and certainly not saving people. But there he is, entertaining the Barca supporters and saving them too.
This is the kid who at 13 was so tiny that his feet didn’t even touch the ground when he sat on the substitute’s bench, the kid who had to take special medication to combat a growth deficiency hormone, the kid who gambled on a long trajectory from Argentina to Spain knowing all too well that inability to pull off the coup would throw him and his family out on the streets. Messi has become so towering a stature in the last couple of seasons that Barcelona would give anything to keep him for good.
At 5′ 6½” Messi is not a giant but he is certainly the Gulliver who takes out the Barcelona Lilliputs to war against the Blefuscudans and wins them the war too. The Blaugranes know that and that is why they are so keen to see Messi back on the football pitch. Barcelona are 7 points behind La Liga leaders Real Madrid and although the title race is not done and dusted yet, it would take a dramatic withering of form from Real Madrid to enable Barcelona to catch them. That or a miracle and the source of the Barca miracle is a certain Lionel Messi.
Messi missed one-third of last season with a broken metatarsal but yet managed to find the back of the opposition net 14 times in the league and was undeniably one of the three best players in Europe last season. This season Messi has been on the score sheet for 12 times in all competitions and along with Gabriel Milito and Andres Iniesta has been a chosen few consistent players in the entire Barca squad. He is the one big hope that can rescue Barcelona’s domestic season and manager Frank Rijkaard desperately wants his Argentine boy wonder back.
Football is a cruel game (otherwise you wouldn’t have so many pools of tears at the end of every season), the players are cruel (otherwise you wouldn’t have so many transfers all the time) and the supporters too are cruel (otherwise you wouldn’t have them booing and whistling at their own players).
One and a half years ago, Ronaldinho was Barca’s Saviour but his consistent decline has displaced him from that envious throne and his replacement is the 20-year old Messi. Ask the Barca fans and they would tell you that they wouldn’t as much as dab at the corners of their eyes should Ronaldinho not return from his Christmas celebrations in Brazil.
But ask them about Messi and they would certainly cry their hearts out to have their Messiah kicking the ball on the Camp Nou turf once again.