AS Archie Macpherson will tell you, numbers aren’t my strong point. On this page recently, I listed him as being 87 when in fact he’s a mere laddie of 77.
I’ve apologised in person and do so again here in print – Happy 2015, Archie, and I look forward to hearing you tell us exactly what’s wrong with Rangers all the way through your, er, 78th year. Now, this failing of mine may sound like a problem for someone who writes about sport but I should point out that, when Spurs banged in their fifth goal against Chelsea the other day and the cameras cut to a seething Jose Mourinho, I was one step ahead of the commentator.
“This has only happened once before!” screamed the man at the mic. He meant a Mourinho team shipping five and he meant El Clasico, 29 November 2010, Barcelona 5, Real Madrid 0. In a state of some delirium I wrote at the time that this had been the greatest team performance of the modern age – team being the key word – but don’t just take my word for it. “A melange of magic!” was part of the purple prose of Ray Hudson, an exiled Geordie describing Barca’s death-by-a-thousand-passes for US-based Gol TV and still available on YouTube. “It’s like playing poker with a witch: You’re gonna lose!”
CONNECT WITH THE SCOTSMAN
• Subscribe to our daily newsletter (requires registration) and get the latest news, sport and business headlines delivered to your inbox every morning
And guess what? The wee man didn’t even get one of the goals. Maybe that was the beginning of the end for Lionel Messi.
Just kidding. He was brilliant before that night and brilliant after it. He scored absurdly beautiful goals, how-did-he-do-that goals – never ho-hum piledrivers. He scored with a near-perfect reproduction of Diego Maradona’s slalom-run from halfway for Argentina against England, then, because he could, repeated the trick a few days later. He left poor-sap defenders with twisted blood which he then boiled in a pot, like a witch might do. It was a witch’s brew, for sure – no, a bitches brew. A Messi run was like a Miles Davis trumpet solo – insanely gorgeous and impossible to follow. And, although Barca’s undoubted star, he was a team player who never celebrated with a strip-o-gram’s strut like Cristiano Ronaldo. That great rival, meanwhile, was left to construct an epic petted lip while our man won Ballon d’Ors for fun.
But now we’re wondering if it really is the beginning of the end for Messi at the Nou Camp. He’s not speaking to his coach. He’s not turning up for the annual kiddies’ open day. He’s not starting games (the defeat to Real Sociedad, although he was back against Elche on Thursday and scored). He’s not smiling, which is the solemn sorcerer’s default expression of course, but this time he looks like he really means it.
If true, this is sad, tragic for Barcelona fans, but hardly surprising and kind of inevitable. Barca, the perfect team for most of this century, maybe the most progressive, who-cares-about-defence? team ever, had their tiki-taka rumbled a couple of seasons ago and haven’t counteracted, circumvented or produced anything like a Plan B. In this, they’ve been like the beautiful silent-movie actress who didn’t see the talkies coming.
Just as the silent star revealed her voice and it was unusually high-pitched, so Barca were caught high up the pitch by Chelsea in the 2011-12 Champions League semi-finals. Never mind, we Barca lovers thought, that had been a victory for grim, bus-parking anti-football, the apogee or rather nadir of the footballing non-philosophy which Messi first identified a few years previously at Ibrox – Walter Smith’s “Watenaccio”.
We felt sorry for Barcelona in losing to Chelsea but not at the same stage the following season when Bayern Munich attacked and overpowered them. At first their adherence to core values – little guys, metronomic passing, what a dazed and confused Sir Alex Ferguson called “the carousel” – was romantic. Suddenly persevering with a little midfielder at centre-back seemed perverse. Surely even Messi, in charge of the carousel levers, would have wanted his club to buy a big, tough defender to replace the estimable Carles Puyol who was certainly tough but not that big. That wouldn’t have amounted to a disavowal of Barca tradition. But, instead, they splashed out on brilliant attackers.
Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez may not be a forward-line to fear. It could be one to make us think: “Isn’t this a bunch of galacticos who might not ever dovetail?”
Galacticos were always a Real Madrid thing, which is certainly a disavowal of Barca tradition and the club’s reputation has taken other knocks.
Barcelona were supposed to be the perfect team with the glorious academy until Fifa imposed a transfer ban for breaching rules on signing international players under the age of 18. And Messi, the celestial footballer, had his own reputation tarnished by charges of tax evasion.
Who knows, maybe Watenaccio – where every clearance hoofed into the Govan sky was cheered like a goal – was the beginning of the end for him. After that, more and more teams, realising that taking on Barca at passing was a fool’s game, decided to throttle them. If Messi has grown bored of this then no bloody wonder. If his team won’t change – not alter drastically but respond to football’s evolution and refine – then maybe he has to change teams.
He cannot change his country and Argentina’s failure to win the World Cup must weigh heavily.
They reached the final of course and only lost in extra-time but, by his own incredibly high standards, those misses against Germany were bad ones. At times he’d had to carry that team, like he’s so often been Barcelona’s biggest little guy.
A thousand pieces were written last summer about how Messi couldn’t be considered alongside Pele and Maradona until he’d won the World Cup. But they seemed to take no account of the fact that these two won theirs when club football wasn’t actively working against international football, when the Champions League (which Messi has won three times) wasn’t a World Cup in itself, when the big show every four years wasn’t discredited by players being too knackered. Messi is one of the true greats, no question.
So, if he goes – where? Surely not Chelsea, as the resultant raving about the wonder of “the Prem” would be truly insufferable.
Eight new planets were discovered last week, one of them very similar to Earth. That would suit him fine.
SCOTSMAN TABLET AND IPHONE APPS