Illustration by Clara Nicoll

Sporting life: What’s Messi to me?

When we watch sport, we passionately identify with players we do not know
March 1, 2023

Zinedine Zidane, the French superstar footballer of the 1990s and 2000s, was the subject of a fine film directed by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno, Zidane: A 21st-Century Portrait. Lasting 90 minutes, the film followed a 2005 Spanish La Liga match between Zidane’s team, Real Madrid, and Villarreal. The camera focused almost entirely on the player himself.

It was indeed a portrait of the man, not only of the man as footballer. It revealed a mixture of extreme alertness, speed of reaction and energy, alternating with a sort of laidback absence from the fury. In the last state, Zidane would reveal his underlying presence by a repeated little gesture of stubbing his foot in the ground like a browsing, pawing deer, ready for a dash for safety if a predator appears. But immediately we saw too Zidane the predator, a leopard creeping up on a herd of potential victims, each clawed paw poised, quietly ready to pounce.

The film was in a way prophetic of a deep-seated tendency in the man: near the end of the match, suddenly embroiled in a brawl, he was given a red card and sent off. A year later, this happened again. Provoked by his marker, Marco Materazzi, he lost control, head-butted the Italian and was sent off (for the 14th time in his career): notoriously, the context for that outburst was extra-time in the final of the 2006 World Cup.

It was Lionel Messi, the key player in the Qatar World Cup in November and December last year, who reminded me of Zidane—not because of fits of madness, but because of his extraordinary combination of physical electricity interspersed with passages in which he hardly seems to be bothered with what is going on around him.

Messi does not fit one’s image of the modern professional footballer. Short, with a low centre of gravity, he doesn’t look like a great athlete. As he was very short for his age as a young adolescent, he was prescribed growth hormones. The family could afford them for only a couple of years before his team, FC Barcelona, picked up the tab. At 35 he is old for a top footballer. He’s round-shouldered (my wife commented on how his sloping shoulders are just like mine—I said “two great sporting icons”, but underneath was slightly hurt). He has a wonderful way of drifting about on the field, especially in the first few minutes of a match, rather like an older man who has wandered into a frenetic game played by the kids, or a cat-burglar casually casing a joint before breaking in through the smallest of gaps. He is almost a flâneur, a sort of lounger with time to kill. Yet this impression of detachment alternates with incredible dribbling skill, combined with a wonderful touch, delicacy and force in his passing and shooting. He combines the qualities of a great striker with those of a great playmaker. 

I found myself supporting Argentina for the final in Qatar. The main reason for my sympathy, for this temporary identification, was Messi. I love his genius, his subliminal knowledge of where everyone is, especially his teammates. In the first 20 or so minutes of the match, he played several delicately incisive passes from an inside-right position to left-winger Ángel Di María. And after all his lounging, he turned up in the right place in the six-yard box to score—plus landing two successful penalties. 

But why do we become passionate for teams or players we hardly know? Why do we find ourselves devastated when they give away a goal? Why so elated when “our” team scores one? 

One feature of sport is this sort of identification, among viewers as well as players. In our minds we become the player, we join the team. We adore the beauty, the sublimity of the skill. In the case of Messi, as of Zidane, we love the shifts from restful detachment to ecstatic involvement. 

In Hamlet, the player king sobs when playing the part of Hecuba. Like Hamlet, we ask ourselves, “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba?” What’s Messi to me, or, to be sure, me to Messi? 

It’s all in the imagination. We watch with passionate eyes. We live the game with our present heroes. We celebrate and mourn with them. 

Until we switch. When Argentina had dominated for about 70 minutes, I began to yearn for a real game, for France to come alive. I had enjoyed France, too, in their close match against England. If the French could get it together and score a goal, then there would be a real match, not—what seemed most likely—a by-now foregone conclusion. I started to back the new underdogs. And they scored! Kylian Mbappé of course. Before we had got much further, they had a second. Now I felt for Argentina again. Could they survive these ghastly disappointments? Could they revive? 

In 1990, Norman Tebbit coined the “Tebbit test” for being a real Brit: an immigrant becomes British by supporting the England cricket team. I have shocked some people by failing this test myself! I usually support the England team, but not always. I may support the underdog (and plenty of them had their terrific moments in this football World Cup) or the opposition because I admire an individual’s flair, or their resourcefulness and courage. 

Why do we become passionate for teams or players we hardly know?

We are, some of us, variable creatures, with many strands of identification and allegiance. EM Forster famously said, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Such people go beyond local tribalism. There are drawbacks and risks in this stance. We, the variable ones, are liable to ignore or distort our own sense of belonging; perhaps we bend over backwards to avoid it. We risk disloyalty, inconstancy, even masochism. We may become sentimental, like a parent who ignores the close-to-hand exclusion of his own children while loudly supporting suffering children on the other side of the world. Charity, our opponents might say, begins at home. 

We are right to be upset most strongly when our families and friends are suffering. And yet, and yet. Imagination and empathy have wings; they soar beyond the local. We have many identifications; we belong in many actual and virtual groups. 

Well played, Morocco and Japan. And well played Messi! I’m glad you won.