Friday, March 26, 2010

Stranger than Fiction: Maradona and Messi

This is the age of permanent record, and as such there is now a growing desire for the sort of personalities that will somehow lift the banal stream of day-to-day news roundups into capital H 'History.'  It is a yearning for the age of "Great Men".  You can see it as pundits react to President Obama signing an inadequate health bill through the House of Congress the other day.  So desperate are they not to simply pass over the moment with a lengthy discussion of tax rebates and small business subsidies that they let their eyes glaze over for moment to wax on about "the most important piece of legislation since this" or "the biggest change in social direction since that."  Then there are the comparisons to Reagan, Lincoln, or whomever, regardless of the completely different historical circumstances behind the decisions taken by each. 

This is, of course, nostaglia.  It was much easier to believe in the notion of larger-than-life personalities changing the course of history before "history" dissolved into a series of atomized current events, innumerable blog reax, a million cell phone cameras constantly snapping in every direction, up on YouTube in minutes and hosted online forever.  

So what do we make of the story of Leonel Andrés Messi?

Let's say you're a fairly successful, upper-middlebrow author on the verge of completing a daring, epic novel spanning thirty years.  It is the story of two Argentinians who sit atop World football as the best individual players of their respective generations, two persons of radically different character, trading respective successes and failures over the course of their two careers. 

You have very consciously chosen their names.  Maradona, the Virgin mother.  It is a wry gesture: Diego is everything innocence isn't, and yet his cheating, buffoonery, drug problems, outlandish relationship with the media and the powers that be, all underline the same inescapable childishness that allowed him to play with unpredictable abandon on the pitch.

Your publisher worries for a long time that the name you've given to his spritual son—Lionel Messi, the Lion, the Messiah—might be underlining the Holy Family metaphor a bit too obviously, but after a three month email and telephone back and forth, she lets you keep the names ("I suppose it's a football novel, so we don't have to be super realistic here.").  Messi has won almost everything there is to win in football at the age of twenty-two and seemingly scores at will, yet there is something formless about him.  His skill is so technically perfect as if made by design, perhaps by a video game programmer.  It is football perfectly executed, but the countless skills videos set to awful pop ballads only serve to underline the realization he leaves no lingering aura.  Even at a young age he seems destined for a FIFA job somewhere down the line.  He is a player very much of his age.

The novel, as narrated by Jorge Valdano, former national teammate of Maradona and a sort of philosopher type character that justifies your excessive reliance on multi-syllabic adjectives (a separate email topic with your publisher that has seen some recent emails marked urgent), is mostly centered around Barcelona.  Barca, "more than a club," allows you to explore the maddening contradictions of Maradona and the saintly distance of Messi.

The first part of the novel begins in 1983 when Maradona arrives as an South American ingenue at a big European club, heralding the age of the modern footballing superstar.  Maradona though fails to live up to his new role.  Not because he isn't brilliant.  The problem is his abilities aren't merely technical, they are profoundly individual, personal even, and therefore maddens opposition players.  He is spat on, called a Dirty Indian.  His leg is broken in vicious style by Andoni Goikoetxea.  He gets in repeated fights with club president Josep Núñez.  Maradona realises he himself might be more than a club and Part One ends with him going off to Napoli, a team which happily and successfully allows him to be just that.  Indeed, when he wins the World Cup in 1986, he is arguably more than a nation.

Part Two picks up toward the end of the 2009-10 season.  Messi has completed a stunning hattrick against Zaragoza, and talk has already picked up about how he could be a break out star in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.  With Barcelona he has succeeded where Maradona failed, having already won everything there is to win in European club football, including two European Cups.  And yet he is still under Maradona's shadow, constantly fending off comparisons with the skill of a PR flack.  He is everything Maradona isn't, a poster child, UNICEF ambassador.  He is stable, he plays by the rules.  His face covers video games and posters selling loudly coloured boots.  Yet he's missing something, something vital.

The World Cup is Messi's last major footballing honour and it looks miles off.  He is a shining star on an aging team that by all accounts is poorly managed.  Valdano argues Messi does not yet have the force of personality of a Maradona to single-handedly win his nation a World Cup.  Meanwhile you have Valdano drop casual references Maradona's rise and fall in the intervening years, leading the reader to believe he is either homeless, in an institution or dead.   

Except toward the end of one chapter you have your narrator Valdano skillfully describe Messi's trip to Germany for an Argentina friendly, culminating in Messi's stepping out for training, and suddenly locking eyes with Maradona.  Here?  Is this a dream?  No, he is the Argentinian national team manager (twenty minutes after filing this chapter, your publisher calls you.  You turn off the phone, check it the next day and find ten messages, all marked urgent.  Even you worry about narrative credibility).

So now you're sitting over your breakfast table, lined Hilroy pad in front of you, and you can't figure out how to finish the damn thing.  You want Maradona to redeem himself somehow for his debaucherous life, and for him to impart something to Messi about how skill isn't enough for greatness, that it takes something more.  But having Argentina win the World Cup with Messi leading the team in Maradonian style would kill the novel, it would ensure his publisher would order a rewrite, or indeed drop the whole thing.

How the hell does this end?



Robert Lalasz said...

For some reason, I'm imagining this as written by either Saramago or Bolano. It feels a little brooding to me, darkish and telegraphic. I guess I've already picked the ending...

You've made picking a must read of the weekend easy.

James Hamilton said...

It's not often you get to say this about a post on even the best sports blogs, but this is - one of the best things I've read about absolutely anything all year. The novel conceit is brilliant,and as for the ending -


Mike said...

Hi Richard,

Your blog has been recommended to us as a interviewee's favorite blog!

We would like to do an interview with you about your blog for Blog
Interviewer. We'd
like to give you the opportunity to
give us some insight on the "person behind the blog."

It would just take a few minutes of your time. The interview form can
be submitted online here Submit your

Best regards,
Mike Thomas

Nabeel said...

Totally made my day. Such a joy to read such quality.

Andrew Traynor said...

Messi punches in Argentina's winner in the Final? What he was missing was the realisation that you have to sell your soul to be a winner? Corny, of course, but football does sometimes resemble a very bad melodrama. Another excellent piece, made me think about Messi especially in a different way