They Think They Know You, Lionel Messi


On Sports

Our favorite poet/sports correspondent is back, this time with a meditation on Lionel Messi.

Lionel Messi/ Photo: David Ramos

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Seville. On an overcast morning in New York. Sometime past midnight in Tokyo. A Saturday in Abidjan. This is how you live now. This is how you have lived for nearly half of your life. You’re in one place, playing a game, which is to say doing your job, which is playing a game. You’re in one place and you’re in all possible places; at times encircled, at times cursored, at times turned into a digital shroud of statistics that mark how fast you’ve run at your fastest. The shorn-smooth grass you walk on—you mostly walk, like a painter let loose on a meadow, while everyone else runs as though late for a meeting—is black ice for the rest of us. We see you there, infected with data. We watch you in the simulacrum. We love you because the simulacrum tells us to love you. We hate you because the simulacrum tells us to hate you. The pontificators and the screamers have their say. Some of us have no interest in you, but the simulacrum makes sure we know who you are. We parse from all of this what we consider pleasure: love, hate, indifference. You’re standing in one place, one patch of grass on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Seville, playing a game, which is to say doing your job, which is playing a game. A ball floats in the air toward you. You’re in one place and you’re in all possible places. Your name is stamped between your shoulder blades. You turn your back away from the ball. We all know who you are. You balance yourself and focus. What you’re about to do has no name.

Fifteen years ago, you were an anonymous kid on my street corner sipping an Aquarius in front of the neighborhood’s corner store. You were the kid sticking his head out of his friend’s jalopy as he drove down Carles III. You were one of the last child prodigies before social media made prodigies remorseless celebrities. The last seasons of having no internet in the apartment, of having a chocolate croissant and two sports papers that I’d read cover to cover because I didn’t know any better, and the team practicing a block up the street, I knew who you were and felt strange that I knew who you were. Day after day I’d see you there, taking the same break with a soft drink, a kid bored out of his mind alone on a Barcelona street corner. The tourists manage to see and not see you—so close to the stadium and yet somehow, as if by magic, out of sight. We both had The Nod down pat, for different reasons, I suspect. So we’d nod The Nod. And I’d keep going. And as you finished your can of Aquarius you’d look down at the sidewalk for something suitable to kick around.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in Seville, your team is continuing to master the art of the beautiful flatline. They haven’t been bad but they haven’t been good, either. As though the color yellow has been put in front of you when you were expecting gold. Five trifling performances in a row but no real damage done yet. Your teammates seem dulled, jaded, wading through the dreariest part of the year, fighting through pains or rust or existential crises, but you are healthily in first place in the league, the other shiny tournaments are still in play. It’s the privileged ennui of a Sofia Coppola film. You watch and don’t know how to feel. Everything is fine, but with the lack of goals, game after game, the smell of smoke is getting stronger. And then you give the ball away. You give the ball away, which is like giving away your heart. You gave the ball away trying something mundanely special that didn’t work out and there went the ball, the other team took it, ran away with it, and now you’re losing. A minute passes. Another. No one will say it’s your fault or, if they say it, they won’t really mean it. It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in Seville and if you lose nothing really changes. The reporters will dust off their stories about crisis, rub out a rumor or two, ask the same questions they asked a week ago, everyone doing the same thing because that’s how the food arrives on the table. You’re losing. A few more minutes have passed. A quarter of the game has come and gone. You start to grow into the game. You start to have a vision.

You imagine someone standing to your left, the length of a blue whale away from you. There’s a ball at his feet. And, free to muse for a moment, he sees you flickering among a sea of hostile white shirts as if in a dream. You’re surrounded by five sets of pumping arms, legs, heaving lungs, and panic, that want anything to happen—anything. From their lifetimes of amateurish mind-reading, they think they know what he, the man who sees you, wants to happen. They know you. They think they know you. You’re invisible like a god and powerful like a god, but they can feel the heat when you part the air with your presence; so they think they know you. There’s a man standing to your left, the width of a rainbow away from you. You are standing in negative space: there are three men in front of you, watching you while barricading themselves in front of the goal; there are two more men on either side of you; another in hunter orange stands tall in the goal, eyeing you. You’re only open for a pass at this moment, in the sense that you’re accounted for and thought to be in a place where you can do no harm. The only way a ball can arrive to you is if it finds its way to you faster than those men who surround you find their way to you. This is the hospital pass. This is the moment of broken legs, dislocations, and concussions. And yet, like all things within the ken of Jupiter belong to Jupiter, the ball belongs to you. When does a habit become a fact? The ball arrives to you. You swing your left foot waist-high to meet it. The ball meets the high corner of the goal. In the minds of mortals, the dream of the impossible goal is less precise than this goal. You celebrate it as though you now know, or suddenly remember, that there are no limits to you. The observable universe chuckles; when left to its own devices, it sloughs off the adjective. And when your team is losing again, you’ll do it again, this time with your other foot. You’ll imagine someone standing to your right, the length of the flight of a paper airplane. This time, the ball will be rolled to you and you’ll cradle a curlicue of a shot toward the other high corner of the goal—send it so softly that it wouldn’t break an egg if one were dangling there. When it’s late and the game’s there to be decided, you’ll see the chaos carom of a deflected shot before anyone else and run, finally run—just a little—because you know when to run and when not to, and calmly, you’ll scoop it over the onrushing goalkeeper. Three goals. For the fiftieth time. Four hundred and eight goals in a Barcelona shirt. And there’s time left over to lob a first-touch pass over the defense, a fourth goal placed on a pillow for your goal-hungry partner Luis Suárez, before you put the game to bed. Just another game for you. And for me. And yet, didn’t we talk about precisely this moment fifteen years ago? Didn’t I say to you, Lionel, you don’t know me but I know you and I know that the days you’ll be able to just hang out in front of this Opencor are numbered. And so I just want to tell you, now that I can, about this dream I had. It happens fifteen years in the future: you’ll score three of the greatest goals we’ll ever see. And we’ll just move on after that, almost like we’re bored by it now, because we don’t have words for what you do. It won’t be the first time and it won’t be the last. But I felt the need to tell you, today of all days, that—



Rowan Ricardo Phillips is the author of the poetry collections Heaven and The Ground. He is the recipient of a Whiting Award, the PEN/Osterweil Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the GLCA New Writers Award for Poetry, and a Guggenheim fellowship. His most recent book,  The Circuit: A Tennis Odyssey, is a finalist for the PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sportswriting.