To people who do not love sports, the whole business may seem slightly ridiculous. Grown men punching each other. Girls twirling on figure skates. Men kicking balls around. To those who do understand sports, however, mainly children and obsessives, the games themselves are merely formalities for the main attraction, the real reason we watch sports: to witness the emergence of heroes. Everything else—the rules, the skills, the structure of the agon—is just an excuse. The current World Cup is the ultimate proof of this truth. The whole tournament is an elaborate mechanism, involving teams from every corner of the globe, to focus the eyes of the world on a single man, the Argentinian forward Lionel Messi. South Africa 2010 is about him.
He will be the most feared and most admired player in the tournament since Diego Maradona took Argentina to glory in 1986. Messi has achieved virtually everything else in the sport other than a victory at the World Cup. In 2008, he led Barcelona to the “treble”—the term used to describe a team that has managed to win the Copa del Rey, La Liga title and the UEFA Champions League title all in the same year. It was the first time a Spanish club had ever achieved that feat. With his national team, Argentina, he won an Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008. And his individual triumphs include the Ballon D’Or, the trophy for the European Footballer of the Year, and the FIFA World Player of the Year. He is only 22 years old and five foot seven, having suffered throughout his life from growth hormone deficiency. Despite his underwhelming physique, everyone expects not just victories but spectacular victories for Argentina, because Messi is not merely the best footballer in the world—and this contention is no longer seriously doubted—he is now a historically significant footballer. Xavi Hernandez, Messi’s teammate in Barcelona, and himself one of the greatest midfield players in the history of Spain, said simply: “A player like this comes along every 30 years or so.”
How good is he? He’s so good that his opponents are the first to praise him once he has taken them apart. After he destroyed the Spanish team Zaragoza this past March, José Aurelio Gay, their coach, said: “Tonight, I saw Diego Maradona but at more revs per minute. There are no words left to describe him—he is interplanetary. We could have beaten Barcelona but we could never have beaten Leo Messi. If we had scored four, he would have scored 12.” Two weeks after the Zaragoza game, Messi destroyed the English club Arsenal in the Champions League quarter-final. Arsène Wegner, the Arsenal coach, described Messi as “a Playstation footballer” and went on: “For me, he is the best player in the world, and by a distance.”
Naturally there are those who disagree. Certain diehard English fans will claim—though the claim is preposterous—that Wayne Rooney is a better player than Messi. A more serious contention is that the Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo, who will also be closely scrutinized at this World Cup, is just as good. Ronaldo is certainly a better-looking player, currently displaying his washboard stomach on the cover of Vanity Fair. But the comparison, in the end, only serves to highlight Messi’s uniqueness rather than to challenge his dominance. Ronaldo is a dazzling player. His play involves a series of intricate, incredibly rapid movements that build in tension to ecstatic finishes. Messi’s play is the opposite: extreme simplicity. He radiates the impression of smoothness, of naturalness. The standard cliché for a great player is that he seems to be playing with a beach ball; in his case that’s really the impression. In the world’s greatest professional football league, Spain’s La Liga, all the other $20-million-a-year players seem like children beside him.
Messi submits to the flow of each game perfectly and completely. The moment of scoring always seems easy, obvious. Ronaldo should be the better footballer, that’s what’s so fascinating. He is, in almost all respects, a much more powerful player—he is taller, stronger. He has more force. And yet Messi, stooped and rather lumpy, surpasses him in all the important markers. Messi has scored twice as many Champions League goals with half the shots. Messi leads the Spanish league in assists and completed passes as well as being La Liga’s top scorer. In that same league, Ronaldo is not in the top 20 for assists.
The numbers alone don’t reflect the essential difference between the two players’ abilities. To say that Messi is a much more giving player than Ronaldo barely captures the difference. Cristiano Ronaldo is self-evidently gifted. He can create the pace of the game and, for terrible succulent moments, impose his will on its flow. Messi can also create such elaborate individual expressions. His most famous goal—against Getafe in 2007—mimicked Maradona’s goal against England in 1986 nearly to perfection (as comparisons on YouTube later showed). He picked up the ball at the half and just carried it all the way down the field, leaving nearly the whole of the opposing team sprawled on the pitch. It seemed like he was inventing a new sport, where you run over human hurdles while dribbling a ball. But the beauty of Leo Messi’s play is much more diffuse and hard to define than such individualistic efforts might lead a casual spectator to believe. His play reminds me of Mao’s description of a guerrilla army, that it must live among the people like a fish living in water. Messi can find, exactly and at exactly the right moment, the crack, the solitary opportunity, the truth of every situation. Messi’s greatest goals are prepared like great art. The surprise at the end feels like the result of inevitable, hidden forces.
In South Africa 2010, the pressure on Messi will be immense. But during his entire career, he has not just risen to excellence in such moments of pressure; he has positively exploded during them. Every important game he played this year, whether in the Spanish league or in the Champions League tournament, has led, the following day, to mock exasperation from the European press at the chronic shortage of superlatives. The game against Real Zaragoza that earned such praise from the losing coach provoked this response from the Guardian’s football critic: “What [the spectators] had witnessed would have been one of the most brilliant performances imaginable from Leo Messi but for one thing: you would never have imagined it. He was unbebloodybelievable. The milk. The consecrated bread. The dog’s dingly-danglies.” Such flights of oratory, we should note, came from an English soccer writer—not an Argentinian, not even a Spaniard. Members of the Spanish press are exhausted from their attempts to describe him. After the Zaragoza game, the Catalan newspaper Sport decided to let the readers give it a try, and asked for suggestions for the next day’s headline. Sport eventually went with “Messi is the God of football. Stratospheric. Magical. Divine. Generous. Extraordinary.” “Mythical, universal, the Lord’s anointed one,” claimed El Mundo Deportivo. “There is only one God: Messi.”
Argentina has produced, along with some of the world’s greatest footballers and some of the world’s most devoted football fans, a few famous football-haters. Jorge Luis Borges, the brilliant literary miniaturist and librarian, despised the game so much that he held a lecture on eternity on the same day and at the same hour as the 1978 final of the World Cup in Argentina. I wonder if Messi would have changed his mind. Even in the early rounds, there are going to be great games, against Nigeria, South Korea and Greece. You will have to see these games in order to believe them. They will be for now. But because Messi is playing in them, they will also be for all time.