If Messi’s feet were to talk, what would they say?
What mind-bending display of genius can we expect of Lionel Messi as he takes centerstage at the Olympiastadion in Berlin on Saturday? If his sublime opening goal of the Copa del Rey is anything to go by, we are in for a tantalizing performance.
Football is play—the embodiment of creativity and transformation, and there is no greater playmaker of our time than Lionel Messi. Hailed as “gigantic,” despite his size, and compared to Pelé, he is a four-time Ballon d’Or winner and on course to win the prestigious award again this year. Whatever our footballing allegiance, he takes us spectators to another dimension. Mesmerizing is his inimitable glide across the pitch, as if controlled by an invisible magnet beneath the earth’s surface; the touch of his feet on the ball, a rare mix of intention and non-intention, intelligence and instinct, is thrilling. We are stunned into disbelief—or perhaps an experience of a parallel reality—with his awesome assists and goals.
A devout Roman Catholic, Messi’s relationship with the ball seems connected to his faith. His trademark celebration after scoring, pointing each index finger to the sky, suggests his gratitude godward. He shows himself to be uncontaminated by psychological complexes, as if he was an empty vessel through which the ball is played. If there was ever a player in Tao, it is him. He embodies the sacred nature of the game. As he walks onto the pitch, mandala-like in form, it is as if he knows and respects it as holy ground; a place and space separate in time from outer reality, where something beyond comes into play, where his feet will do the talking while thousands watch.
And if they were to talk, what would his feet say? Surely they would speak of the joy of the ball, a sphere of energy—sent from God?—kept alive by its passing from one player to another, fuelled by the chthonic, masculine urge to win. They would speak of the sensation of the ground beneath them, the rootedness that this brings. They would acknowledge the intelligence granted to them by the brain. They would pay tribute to the phenomenon that is momentum, what allows their dynamism to flow and what makes them, unlike with any other player, run faster with the ball than without it. Perhaps then they would even speak the unspoken: of the sacred and invisible connection between heaven and earth, spirit and matter, as the broader context for this beautiful game. Arsène Wenger has commented that “the real great players are guided by how football should be played, and not by how football should serve them. If it becomes spiritual, it’s endless, and you’re always driven to going higher, and getting closer to what you think football should be.” The subtle twists and turns of Messi’s feet, their speed and direction, their power, the symbiotic relationship they have with the ball, as if the two are glued together, articulate well Wenger’s point.
Messi is the master of kairos, that propitious moment for action. His attentive nature means that he rarely misses it, as we saw on Saturday. His particular exertion of consciousness when he is on the ball is like a devotion. He is an avatar for our time, an incarnate divine teacher who speaks with his feet of a reality beyond now. His desire for the ball is unquestionable, so it logically follows that as the ‘go to’ of the Barcelona team, he is the ultimate interlocutor between ball and men.
Buffon and his band of defensive warriors will have a tough time facing the Holy Trinity that is Messi, Neymar and Suárez. The impenetrable goalkeeper will have to be at his best and to galvanize his team, in the name of the Old Lady, to display patience, wisdom, and intelligence in the face of stealth, speed, and genius. As spectators, we will witness the archetypal clash of attack and defense in a spectacular show of passion from fans and players alike.
Interest in football has never been as rife. The Champions League Final will be watched by over 300 million people across the globe. If people around you are wondering what all the fuss is about, perhaps show them Messi’s goal on Saturday, and tell them how it was for you. And if they ask how a game of 90 minutes can be so compelling, maybe answer them this: Football responds to a profound psychological need, a need to transcend the moment, to release ourselves from the humdrum of day-to-day living in order to experience another reality and affirm our faith in our long-held beliefs. We, philosophy-loving football pundits, might even argue a rightful place for it in the quest to find the meaning of life. Is football a religion? Perhaps. Silent prayers before the game? A collective awash with belief and emotion, chanting song after song in worship of the mother club? The parallel rituals are striking.
At the blow of the whistle in Berlin on June 6, we will share in a moment that encapsulates the potential that lies ahead: on one level, the potential of one team to win over another, but, on another level, the entelechy of a numinous experience. An experience that takes us out of ourselves to enter the realm of the gods. The game will require the players to have the presence of mind and body to enable this. If there is anyone in particular to do the job—and arguably more with those feet—it is Lionel Messi.
Cathy Bor is an analytical psychologist in private practice in London. She has a special interest in football as a metaphor for psychological dynamics. Follow her on Twitter at @cathybor