Lionel Messi Is Not God, but He Plays God on TV
Within hours of one of Lionel Messi’s most spectacular performances several weeks ago, tweets, vines, videos, blogs, articles—and even a fake obituary for the defender that Messi embarrassed—multiplied a thousand times over the internet. Messi scored a great goal in the 77th minute of a semi-final UEFA Champions League match to put his team up 1-0. (Yes, they call it the Champions League. And it has its own anthem. #RealFootball)
But what really prompted the voluminous response was Messi’s second goal. It came just three minutes later. Messi received a pass about 25 yards from the goal. He began an angled run, dribbling the ball straight towards the goal. Jerome Boateng, one of the most competent defenders in football, closely tracked him. And then in one characteristically swift but gentle motion, Messi feigned one direction and went the other. Boateng tripped over his own legs and fell over. Messi dashed toward the goal with only the goalie to beat.
At this point, we expect one of two things to happen: A) Messi shoots low and hard, but the goalie, Manuel Neuer, makes a fantastic save, adding to the number of impressive saves he already made that game, or B) Messi shoots low and hard, and it’s just too much for Neuer to handle.
Instead, Messi goes for the cheeky chip shot over Manuel Neuer. Over Manuel Neuer! No one goes over the 6’ 4” nimble goalie-of-the-year and starting keeper for the Germany World Cup championship team. No one except Messi.
Astounding. Brilliant. Magic. Best ever. Spectacular. OMG. #filthy. This is just a small sample of the phrases used to describe Messi’s performance. And in addition to the applause and acclamations, clever memes began populating the internet, most of them at the expense of the unfortunate defender, Jerome Boateng:
Boateng’s wikipedia page was edited to say that he had died right there on the football pitch, so devastatingly undone was he by Messi’s moves.
Several edited photos or videos surfaced depicting alternate versions of what happened. In one, Boateng swivels around and falls through a massive hole in the ground. In another, Boateng is lying at the foot of a children’s slide as though he had just gone down face first while Messi darts past. Another, riffing off a popular meme, involves a wrestling figure who appears out of nowhere to grab Boateng by the head and slam him to the turf.
A satirical fundraising campaign was launched to restore Boateng to his legs. It was accompanied by the hashtag #PrayersForBoateng.
But aside from the usual awe at an athlete’s top-notch performance, a mystical kind of reverence also surfaced. One of the announcers in the English broadcast, minutes after Messi’s second goal, proclaimed, “We are blessed to witness this.” Hashtags on twitter like #ThankYouMessi and #GodBlessMessi accompanied jubilant celebration. One ESPN analyst, Alejandro Moreno, dissected the play and closed with a sort of trinitarian blessing: “What special talent. He’s the greatest. We’re lucky to have Messi here with us.”
Evidently for a lot of us Messi’s greatness offers a taste of the divine—something we perceive to be beyond human possibility breaking into our otherwise normal existence. Maybe delightful divine encounters, in this sense, turn out not to be so rare. Maybe when we witness the best footballer to ever walk the earth grace us with his finest skills, one good and right response is to say #ThankYouMessi and then #ThankYouGod.