With all due respect to the sports scientists who are trying to unravel the genius of Lionel Messi, one hopes they never find out.
On Tuesday night in the cold, wet, industrial Rhineland of Germany, Messi found a new field and new opponents to conquer. He created two goals for Alexis Sánchez with passes of breathtaking imagination. He scored a goal out of the sheer desire to run beyond any teammate, any opponent.
And he celebrated with all the joy of the boy that he still is, even at the age of 24.
Sorry if that spoils the fun of a German university researcher, Norbert Hagemann, and his collaborators who are busy trying to identify the science and psychology behind the Messi phenomenon.
Sorry if it dampens the illusion that a moderate side like Bayer Leverkusen still has a hope of eliminating Messi’s Barcelona after its 3-1 first leg in the Champions League.
The fans, too, are entitled to their fun. And for anyone, anywhere, who got to see Messi darting like a lizard between the muscular rocks of Leverkusen defenders, this was indeed joy in a largely depressing week for the global game.
Barcelona’s coach, Pep Guardiola, was asked on television moments after the game whether he ever thinks of resting Messi, who has played 39 of the team’s 42 games already this season. “Why?” responded Guardiola.
The coach paused, then continued, in English: “People buy a ticket to see him play. I know him — he’s a strong man, he’s just happy when he plays, and for me he’s very important when he’s fit.” End of interrogation.
When Guardiola was asked the Messi question for the umpteenth time, his answer could scarcely have been less scientific. Messi plays when Messi wants to play.
He sometimes needs great perseverance and patience. In the first half, Leverkusen barely crossed the halfway line, such was its obsession with surrounding the key player with a posse of men.
After the break, the home side stepped forward and did trouble Barcelona’s vulnerable defense. However, that opened Leverkusen up to the counterattack.
The first two goals involved Messi’s doing what the absent, aching Xavi might have done. He made the passes that released Sánchez behind the German lines. Each move started around the halfway line, each pass invited Sánchez to find the space when three or four Leverkusen defenders rushed to Messi.
With an audacious flick, Messi hooked the ball into the path of Sanchez for the first goal. Messi then set the ball rolling in the center circle before Cesc Fàbregas passed it with laser-like precision for the speedy Chilean to score again. Quote shoot
Messi was entitled to something for himself. Minutes from the end, supposedly tired by his workload, he spread the ball out wide to Dani Alves.
Messi kept on running until Alves gave him back the ball so that, just six yards out, he stretched forward to volley his goal.
The best at work
Hagemann’s theory is common-sense. “If the best footballer already knows what is going to happen,” he wrote, “then he will know where to direct the attention.
Players like Messi are great at decision-making.” Players like Messi are one in a generation.