Is Lionel Messi the greatest footballer of all time?

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

8 December 2018

9:00 AM

If you don’t know who Lionel Messi is you won’t enjoy this book much. If you do, you probably will. But if you know who Messi is and you’ve got at least a 2:1 in English, comp. lit. or similar, you are going to absolutely love it. This is definitely one for the football aficionado as well as for fans of fine writing.

Messi is an Argentinian footballer who’s played for Barcelona for his entire professional career. He’s short. He’s modest. And he never takes a dive. Apart from his appalling tattoos, he’s the very opposite of what you might expect of the modern footballer — an Argentinian Roy of the Rovers. (Indeed, apart from Pelé, he’s the only South American footballer that my father, an ancient, tough-as-nails Alf Tupper-type, has ever had any time for.)

Jordi Puntí is a Catalan novelist and journalist, and he loves Messi. He really loves him. He adores him. He worships him:

If today the Messi myth is already planetary, imagine what will happen in 50 years when the deeds of the best players in history are remembered. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it is claimed one day that Messi was essentially an Aztec or Mayan or at the very least a pre-Columbian god.

Messi: Lessons in Style represents Puntí’s attempt to capture what he calls ‘the beauty, the hunger, the genius, the modernity, the obsession and the instinct, among many other things, of a footballer who is the best in history’. If you don’t believe that Messi is the best in history, just stop reading for a moment, click onto YouTube and remind yourself of some of the goals.

See? Even just a few weeks ago, aged 31, in Barcelona’s opening group stage Champions League game against PSV Eindhoven, Messi scored a hat-trick. Go straight back to YouTube and check those out. Age cannot wither him, nor custom stale. He used to be the best argument for having Sky Sports, but now La Liga is only on Eleven Sports, so you’ll have to shell out an extra £50, a small price to pay for easy access to genius — as I was explaining to my wife only recently.

The book is basically a short biography divided into themed chapters (‘Aerodynamics’, ‘Injuries’, ‘Penalties’, ‘Tattoos’) which allow Puntí to roam around his subject, like Messi himself in the free attacking role he played in the glory years when Pep Guardiola was managing Barcelona.

Messi made his debut for Barça’s first team in 2003. On 16 November 2003, to be precise, when he just was 16 years, four months and 23 days old, making him the third youngest player to do so in the first team, after Haruna Babangida and Paulino Alcántara. Fair warning: Puntí does love his stats, so there’s a lot of this sort of thing.

But he also has a lovely turn of phrase:

One of the most fascinating things about watching videos of Messi playing for the Barça youth team is that in many ways he’s just like he is now. As if he had been born with all that talent, as if he travelled through time with all his qualities intact.

Puntí claims that his book is ‘vaguely inspired’ by Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, which tells one story in 99 different styles. The inspiration does indeed seem vague — Puntí offers only 22 short chapters, and each on a different theme, rather than a version of the same story — but he has a point. Messi is Puntí messing about with Messi.

There are some misses as well as some good clean strikes on goal. Some of the commentary runs into classic Ray Hudson territory. Messi ‘creates language, activates it, awakens our sense of it, our ingenuity, less obvious associations, poetry’. ‘Messi misses penalties because scoring them is too easy.’ Really? But then Puntí comes up with a nice little observation like this — ‘Messi walks as if he has lost his keys or something’ — which is exactly right. And he expresses perfectly the obvious, fundamental difference between Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the only other player in the world with whom he might be compared. Cristiano’s goals are ‘solitary displays, selfies for private recall’, while Messi ‘has always followed the ethos of the team’.

At the very end, Puntí quotes Jean-Paul Toussaint’s Football: ‘This book will please nobody, neither intellectuals, who aren’t interested in football, nor football fans, who will find it too intellectual.’ Fortunately, there are a few of us out there who happen to be both, and in pleasing himself, Puntí has done us all a favour.

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