[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, January 2023.]
Is the legend now complete? Is it a case of all praise to The Great One, Lionel Messi, the Messiah of Argentina, Saviour of Rosario and FIFA-family favourite?
On the whole it seems so, but like so many public figures, this 35 year old (who spent all his crucial teenage years at La Masia, the Barcelona Football Club youth academy) sharply divides opinion. Even within me.
On the one hand, he’s undoubtedly the most skilled footballer I’ve ever seen. I was lucky enough to watch him play at the Camp Nou stadium in the King’s Cup final of 2013. He hit the crossbar with a penalty but (unlike on television) what I noticed more than anything else was that every pass, run and movement he made was at least 20 percent faster than anyone else. And just as throughout the world cup tournament, he was also more accurate than any other player on the pitch.
Every time I’ve watched this wizard play I’ve seen something new to admire about his work. In the semi final against Croatia he set up a goal with an opponent leaning all over his 1.69 metres, as he controlled the ball and shifted position several times. Shrugging his much bigger pursuer off, Messi’s strength and balance in those vital seconds was a rare, rare thing. It meant his team was able to get into the final and go on to win the damn thing.
I was a good young footballer myself and considered trying to shoot for a career in the sport (or in cricket) so the talents and longevity of a supreme athlete like Messi are impossible for me to dismiss. What disturbs me is that while Messi has always been a relatively “clean” sportsman on the field – well known for not fake ’diving’ to get a free kick, for example – his record off the field deserves plenty of criticism.
For me, it’s hard to stomach his tax evasion of more than four million euros: using offshore and shell companies in Belize, Uruguay and Panama. In 2022 alone, his income has been put at 41 million US dollars. His various acts of philanthropy during a decade and a half career can’t take away from the argument that these high-profile guys need to be a role model as a citizen and celebrity.
“The Messi Brand” has Adidas as its main corporate sponsor. The same Adidas that has a lengthy history of human rights abuses against its workers and parts suppliers. Messi himself would surely know but has chosen to ignore this.
The fact that he, with the major help of his teammates and support staff, has given countless hours of pleasure, and even joy, to millions of people has to be considered, though. With a round ball on an expanse of turf, Messi’s been an entertainer like no other. He’s generally avoided Cristiano Ronaldo’s vain parading or the unethical cheating and self-abuse of Maradona.
In the end, I’d consider lifting the world cup as a fitting way to recognise Messi’s otherworldly ability. I just can’t help also wishing that our heroes were more heroic when they step out of the arena.