Every day, thousands upon thousands of words are written and spoken about Lionel Messi. In newspapers, on websites, on radio stations and television.
If possible, we would listen to and read them all. No other footballer, perhaps, has ever done so much to deserve such fulsome adulation; reached such stratospheric levels, performed such abnormal, inexplicable feats with pelota and pie.
But in among all the praise, all the futile attempts to pay tribute to his genius with ink and hot air, none of which will ever be sufficient, there is a facet of the little Argentine’s being that is discussed less frequently than it should be: Messi, for all of his ability and technique and intelligence and dexterity, is hard as nails.
Not in the theatrical hard man way of English football of years gone by. He’s not Razor Ruddock, Julian Dicks or Vinnie Jones, is he?
But Messi is rugged, sturdy, robust, resilient. Tough as a pair of old boots.
He has been fouled literally thousands of times. But no matter how often he’s knocked down, he is back up again, like one of those round-bottomed wooden toys, expression unchanged, brow unfurrowed, magic boots still dancing to his own interplanetary beat.
As one of his opponents told The Guardian: “[Messi’s] incredibly strong, extremely fast. You can’t knock him over: you hit him hard and you don’t put him off his stride. Physically he is brutal.”
Silent, elegant, but brutal.
And if we are to discuss Messi’s brutality and fortitude and pluck, then there is one game and one goal that encapsulates it better than any other: El Clasico, April 2017, the 90th minute plus a little on top.
El Clasico is never without its tension and challenges, of course, but this one was edgier than most.
Barcelona were in a dark place. Not as bad as the ones they have come to know since, but a crisis by the standards of the previous decade.
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READ: ‘We’re the best, f*ck you’: The story of Barca & Real’s four Clasicos in 18 days
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After a win at Sevilla in early April, they had been in control of the title race and looking forward to a Champions League quarter-final with Juventus with the momentum of La Remontada behind them.
Two weeks later, they had been beaten 3-0 in Turin, drawn 0-0 with Juve in the return leg, and lost 2-0 at Malaga in La Liga, ceding control of the race to Real Madrid once more.
It was Luis Enrique’s last season, and it looked like a terrible end to a glorious spell in charge. With Real Madrid next up at the Bernabeu, things could get worse. A Madrid win and they would be six points ahead, the title out of sight for the Catalans.
Messi was going into the game looking as beleaguered as his team, too. After a firm challenge from Dani Alves in the return leg of the Juventus tie, he had a shiner around his left eye, a physical reminder of the Italian side’s knockout blow.
But the rhetoric was defiant. “What we have to do there is what we have done before,” Andres Iniesta said. What Messi had done before is probably more accurate. This was to be La Pulga’s 34th Clasico. In the previous 33, he’d scored 20 and set up 13 more.
But Madrid had a plan to stop him, one they made very obvious very early on. Inside the opening 20 minutes, Messi had been on the receiving end of a wild scissor challenge from behind from Casemiro and an elbow – well disguised, but on second viewing quite probably deliberate – from Marcelo.
As a result, he had added a bloodied mouth to his black eye and started to look more like a boxer trudging through the 12th round of a gruelling fight than the twinkle-toed footballer that we are so used to viewing.
Seven minutes later, Real Madrid took the lead through Casemiro, a scrappy goal from close range in the second phase after a corner.
But remember what we said about Messi bouncing up like one of those wooden toys? It wouldn’t take long.
Physically, he had a piece of tissue between his teeth, soaking up the blood. Metaphorically, the bit was there.
He dropped deep and to the left, picked up the ball, played it to Sergio Busquets, who passed it on to Ivan Rakitic. Rakitic returned it to Messi, who skipped past Luka Modric, then Dani Carvajal and slotted the ball gently but perfectly past a helpless Keylor Navas. One each.
The game became wild, end-to-end. Both ‘keeper were forced into multiple saves. Both Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo missed chances that, for them, were sitters.
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READ: Seven times Lionel Messi absolutely destroyed Real Madrid in El Clasico
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Then, finally, the breakthrough for Barca. Seventy-two minutes in, Rakitic shifted the ball from right foot to left and rifled it into the top corner. Seventy-six minutes in, Sergio Ramos went in two-footed and at full pelt on Messi and was shown a red.
Messi was floored once more, but surely the game was done. Only a quarter of an hour to go, a goal and a man to the good.
You’d think. But this is El Clasico. Somehow, Real Madrid rallied. Marcelo crossed, James Rodriguez – the anti-Messi in a sense, a man as brittle as a biscuit – met it at the near post and Los Blancos were level.
“A terrible blow,” Luis Enrique later called it. And it almost got worse. Madrid pressed for the winner, hoping for an improbable victory to all but seal the title.
Then, with 33 seconds left on the clock, Barcelona won throw-in in their own half. It looked innocuous. But Madrid, in their frenzy, had lost shape and solidity.
A quick exchange of passes freed Sergi Roberto, who burst forwards and didn’t stop. Past Modric, past Marcelo, over the halfway line. Then to Andre Gomes, who touched it back to Jordi Alba, who played it into space on the edge of the area. That space. You know it and, more to the point, you know who occupies it.
Abril 23, 2017.
Lionel Messi anota el gol del triunfo y tuvo un mensaje especial para el Santiago Bernabéu. 👕
— Ahora o Nunca ESPN (@ahoraonuncaespn) October 21, 2021
Messi had glided across unnoticed, untracked. A swish of that magical left boot and the ball was in the back of the net.
Messi whipped off his shirt, ran to the seething mass of white-shirted fans behind the goal and held it up, name and number turned towards the stands – the most iconic of his hundreds of celebrations.
‘You can bloody me, you can bruise me, you can try to break my legs – but you can’t stop me’, the gesture screamed. It was an image that said more than those many thousands of words written about Messi. An image that will abide.
Silent, elegant, but brutal.
The goal, as it turns out, did not matter much in the grand scheme. Though Barcelona went top temporarily, Madrid had a game in hand, which they won, starting a run of six consecutive league victories that ended with Zinedine Zidane’s first La Liga crown as a manager.
Still, it is a goal that is worth recalling and examining. Not only for its drama or its beauty, but for the way it sums up Messi’s most underrated quality.
By Joshua Law
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