Lionel Messi may well go down in the annals of history as the greatest footballer to have ever played the game. And to compliment his God-given talent with a ball at his feet, he appears to possess a warm and humble persona that has made him far more affable to neutrals than the perceived egotism of Cristiano Ronaldo.
But it is the way in which he executes his footballing talent within the backdrop of footballing perfection at FC Barcelona, that has really galvanised his legacy. La Liga’s, Champions Leagues and Copa del Rey’s have all been achieved with a footballing philosophy that is pure and true to the merits of the beautiful game.
Yet this last week, when asked about his views on the supposed ‘bus-parking’ of certain European teams, Messi’s retort made the heart sink. Speaking to the Times magazine, the Argentine said:
“Football is a game. I’m trying to have fun on the pitch, always, just to play. That’s why I do it. The day I stop having fun is the day I retire… I never want to lose that spark, that passion.
“Today, teams are playing more statically, more for the final score than producing good football. For them, it’s more important to win than to play well. We need more players with passion coming up for the good of football.”
Think about what Messi has said here. The humble, relatable, good-guy of football, Lionel Messi, has won nearly 20 major trophies during his time at Barcelona. He has scooped three Ballon d’Or’s, two Pichichis and an Olympic gold medal. All Messi has ever known is winning. To condemn those who try to win through other means is patronising at best, if not elitist. No one is denying the sincerity of Messi’s comments. But the Argentine has got this one plain wrong.
The core of Messi’s point is of course, extremely relevant in light of recent footballing events. The outcome of the 2011-12 Champions League has been deemed as a victory for anti-football. And to a certain degree, that term holds some truth. Both Barcelona and Bayern Munich dominated Chelsea in the semi-final and final respectively, whilst the Blues chose to sit back and absorb what was in truth, relentless pressure. This is far from a critique of Di Matteo’s game plan, simply an honest observation.
Barcelona and Munich both possessed the better footballers and played the game in the way we wish to see it played. They both executed their football differently, but the principle was short, sharp passing and gorgeous flowing movement, all interwoven into an attacking philosophy. They looked to play football, whilst Chelsea looked to stop it.
But ultimately, it is Chelsea’s name that was scribed onto the side of the European trophy. Nothing will ever change that. History books don’t cater for the runners-up and neither do supporters. You don’t look to gloat to rivals about the time you deserved to win the cup. You can’t find memorabilia that decorates the timeless football that didn’t get you silverware. As Bill Shankly once said: “If you are first you are first. If you are second, you are nothing.”
This is what Messi has failed to grasp and he may well grasp it next season. Ask an Arsenal fan whether the pretty football they play is a better substitute for winning trophies. And make no mistake, however unlikely it may seem, if Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona fail to pick up a trophy next season, the white handkerchiefs may well make another cameo at the Camp Nou. I’d like to see Lionel Messi tell the 170,000 odd paying Barcelona socios that it’s ok to finish behind Real Madrid in La Liga and win nothing, as long as the football remains brilliant. It doesn’t wash.
This isn’t a jealous swipe at the recent success of Spain and Barcelona. What we are witnessing is football being played at the highest technical level imaginable and we really should be savouring the delights of seeing such football win trophies. But the cycle will not last forever and it will not necessarily be sustained, either. The likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Messi are once in a generation, if not once in a lifetime talents. The model of a team like Barcelona has played its part in the modernisation of the game. But people cannot use that team as a realistic yardstick to measure the rest of European football with – either now or in the future.
Although it was Messi’s suggestion that playing well is as important than winning, which really strikes a chord. The Argentine has played his part in Barcelona’s use of dark arts over the last few years, however much people are willing to sweep it under the carpet. The melodrama and theatrics that adorned the now infamous El Clasicos of 2011 were hardly played in the spirit of ‘fun’. The haranguing or referees was at times, hard to watch, and although the tempestuous atmosphere was engineered by both teams, it just seams cheap that Messi can try to so publically downplay the importance of winning.
However much people enjoy putting them on a pedestal, Barcelona still obey by the basic principles of the footballing world. Whether you go to the Camp Nou, The Emirates or Brisbane Road to watch your football, everybody wants to be entertained. But it is the euphoria of winning and the joys of success which will always be the lifeblood of the beautiful game. It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you do. However much Lionel Messi tells you otherwise.
Sick of Messi and co telling us how we should play your football? Or would you rather win diddly squat but play free-flowing football? Let me know what you think about it all, follow @samuel_antrobus on Twitter and bat me with your views.