Lionel Messi hasn’t even played a league game for Inter Miami, but you can hardly move on the internet for clips of his Florida feats.
Here’s a delightful flick.
There’s an otherworldly pass which you could probably use as evidence in court to legally prove he’s an alien.
Look: another magnificent goal, struck with a purity other mortals can only dream of.
Yet if you look in the comments — which you should never do, but sometimes you can’t help yourself — you will find people who are denigrating the standard of defending, the standard of goalkeeping, or the standard of opposition more generally. The implication is: these flicks, these passes, these goals don’t actually mean anything because Messi’s opponents are no good.
Another — perhaps healthier — way to look at it is to delight in it all, to embrace the pleasure of watching probably the greatest player we will ever see put on a show; the simple joy of a great player absolutely taking the piss.
It was only nine months ago that Messi won the World Cup. He scored twice in the final. You may remember it. They were his sixth and seventh goals of the tournament. In the semi-final, aged 35, he thoroughly and clinically removed the pants of Josko Gvardiol, who Manchester City just made the most expensive defender of all time.
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Last season Messi scored four goals in the Champions League and 21 goals in all competitions for Paris Saint-Germain, the team from which Inter Miami signed him. Barcelona would have happily taken him back in the summer if not for their precarious finances.
For the most part he’s still got it. He shows ‘it’ less often than he used to, but ‘it’ is still there.
In short, if he wanted to, he could be playing at a higher standard than MLS. Which is not to say that MLS is a bad standard, or that it’s a pub/farmer’s/retirement league (delete for your snarky social media word of choice), just that there are higher quality leagues out there and Messi could probably be playing in them, if he so desired.
After it was confirmed that Messi would not be returning to Barcelona earlier this year, the club released a statement that was laced with bitterness, but contained an element of truth. “President Laporta understood and respected Messi’s decision to want to compete in a league with fewer demands, further away from the spotlight and the pressure he has been subject to in recent years,” it read.
It was meant as a dig, but it isn’t really. What, after all, is wrong with taking it a little easier after 17 or so years of absolute brilliance?
There is a perfectly reasonable argument that says elite sportspeople are only really worth watching, and are only really using their time usefully, when they are facing the elite. When they are truly testing themselves, that is when we see their true quality, when we really know how good they are.
And that is true for most of the time. If Saudi Arabia was spraying all of this money around in 2012 or Messi took up an offer from MLS and he left Barcelona back then to play somewhere less competitive, it would be a shame that he was potentially using his best years by competing at a lower standard. Not now, though.
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We’ve had Messi in our lives for approaching two decades. He’s done everything in that time: won league titles, won European titles, won South American titles, won world titles, scored goals, won games on his own, produced absurd compilations of magical moments, and been responsible for pieces of skill that made you laugh at loud.
He doesn’t owe us a damn thing, but he can give us a few things. Like as many reminders as possible of his genius. Messi is like a band you love but whose creative peak was a little while ago, and while you don’t really expect anything more innovative or new from them, it’s still great to see them play the hits.
Take his strike in the Leagues Cup final against Nashville, which looked just like those goals he would score back in his pomp: collecting the ball just to the right of centre outside the area, shimmying round a defender then shifting the ball into a shooting position with two implausibly quick touches, using another defender as a shield to curl the ball around, and into the top corner.
LIONEL MESSI CAN NOT BE STOPPED 🤯
Messi’s first shot of the game is the difference in the #LeaguesCup final as Inter Miami takes a 1-0 lead over Nashville SC.
It’s the 37th goal in a final for Messi.
— The Athletic (@TheAthletic) August 20, 2023
That goal was his “Thunder Road”, and believe me when I tell you that I would happily listen to Bruce Springsteen play “Thunder Road” every day of the week.
Messi’s Leagues Cup final goal: How it baffled opponents and completed his movie script
Another way of looking at it is that his performances, tricks and goals are like a freestyle video, but in competitive surroundings rather than on a street somewhere. This is a Lionel Messi exhibition, his version of a slam dunk contest or the home run derby, only he’s combining it with an actual football match.
In some respects it feels like his levels and the levels of his surroundings have equalised. At his peak, Messi was too good for La Liga, hence the cartoon numbers he was responsible for in his best years. Now, he’s not quite that good anymore, but it feels like he plays in a league that is equally not quite as good as La Liga was then. His standard, and the standard he faced back then, feel about the same distance apart.
Thus, watching him now has echoes of the past, of those astonishing days when he would score 73 goals in 60 games, which he did in 2011-12. Those of us who were lucky enough to be around at his peak saw it all the first time around, but we will still lap up the repeats.
ESPN put out a podcast recently titled ‘Is MLS too easy for Messi?’ The answer: yes, probably. But that shouldn’t detract from the pleasure of watching him put on a show, for as long as he is able.
(Top photo: Tim Nwachukwu via Getty Images)