Billy the Fish is the hero of an English comic strip about a fish-man hybrid who is a football star. Small and with a fishtail and fins, he is a goalkeeping genius defying physical laws. I’m always reminded of Billy when I see Lionel Messi: there’s a passing facial resemblance, and though the world’s greatest player doesn’t have a fishtail, neither does he immediately strike one as a great athlete.
If the other great footballing geniuses of the last decades—the pit-bull built Maradona, the balletic Zidane, and the ripping Ronaldo—all impress with their physical presence, drooping, tiny Messi (nicknamed The Flea) looks like he’s taken a wrong entrance and wandered onto the field by accident. And his football, like Billy’s, has a distinctly “how did he do that?” feel.
Not so much technical perfection (as with Ronaldo) but a mercury quality of slipping through non-existent cracks in defenses, the ball not merely in acrobatic control (as with Maradona) as weirdly morphing to his foot, passes which aren’t just visionary (as with Zidane) but which actually seem to slow down, then accelerate again as if they can warp the space-time continuum. If sport aims to an Olympian perfection of nature, then Messi is distinctly unnatural, the greatest player in an equally freakish era of genius football which is about to pass.
Medically he might never have made it. At 11, back in his home town of Rosario, Argentina, Messi was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency. “Every night I had to stick a needle into my legs, night after night after night, every day of the week, and this over a period of three years,” says Messi. But his steel factory worker father and cleaner mother struggled to keep on raising the 1,500 dollar a month treatment. His first Argentine team, Newell’s Old Boys, promised to pay, but couldn’t make good on the promise.
By 13, Messi was already a phenomenon—at halftime he would entertain crowds by keeping the ball in the air so long fans would try to distract him by throwing coins at him like Messi was some sort of circus act. Barcelona offered to ship him to Spain and pay for the treatment. It meant splitting up the family—Messi’s mother and siblings stayed in Argentina.
The Barcelona youth compound is called La Masia, a country house boarding school for 300 boys. The Barcelona ideal is heavily influenced by the Dutch concept of “total football,” with its focus on one-touch passing, movement, and the ability for players to switch positions, a style one Spanish commentator famously nicknamed “tiki-taka,” a nonsense word which catches the metronomic quality of Barcelona’s interchanges. But the team fostered at Barcelona with Messi would take tiki-taka to a new level, as a whole generation of players matured who were all small, agile and silky skilful.
Usually a team can afford to have one or two such “creative” players. Barcelona suddenly had a surfeit, a team with an abundance of creative midfielders but no hard defensive midfielders or tall center forwards. The genius of Barcelona’s coach, Pep Guardiola, was to let this team play to its strengths. Instead of a center forward a swarm of small, attacking midfielders would roll sideways and round and only eventually forward in swirling waves to help Messi move the ball to the opposite goal. When they defended they made up for their lack of hard men by closing like liquid around the opposition. It was a system in which a player like Messi could go from a fringe flair player into the team’s essence, and in turn it was only Messi that could turn this team into world-beaters: when other teams, like Arsenal, try this approach they just get pushed off pitch by tougher teams. Barcelona without Messi is vulnerable.
Messi’s Barcelona produced the greatest football ever played, not just at club level but also forming the majority of players and defining the style for the Spanish team that won two European Championships and one World Cup on the trot. The problem was they were so good they made other teams’ football boring: the only way to defend against Barcelona or Spain was to play dirty, sit deep in a mass huddle and hope for a quick break. Thus the last World Cup was so terrible. It was terrible because there was a great team. This World Cup is wonderful because there are no great teams—the genius of Barcelona and Spain is on the wane and everyone can attack equally poor opposition.
Bayern Munich’s 7-0 thrashing of Barcelona in the 2013 Champions League semifinal was the first bell-toll: the liquid fugues of Barcelona’s elegant, lithe midfielders torn to shreds by a team full of strong, direct running and muscular midfielders. Holland’s crushing of Spain in the first round of this World Cup was the final burial. The subplot in the Holland-Argentina semifinal was Messi taking revenge for Holland’s destruction of his Barcelona teammates.
The subplot in the final will be Messi and the beautiful game’s last stand against the return of Butch football. Interestingly Germany began this tournament trying to play Barcelona style with a plethora of midfielders. They were weak and have become much better playing more traditionally. The miraculous brand of Billy-the-Fish football is almost over and the butch giants are back. Enjoy Messi while you can—he might play on for a few years yet but everything he represents is already a relic.