Between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, the parameters surrounding success have shifted. Alternatively #1 and #2 in a variety of scoring charts and individual accolades received, they have redefined both what is considered possible for a footballer and, perhaps less attractively, what is considered desirable.
'I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.'
In a world that spins on this axis, it was not surprising to hear Kylian Mbappe, an 18 year old who has only ever known football with both Messi and Ronaldo, reveal upon his arrival at Paris St. Germain that he 'will do everything to help [Neymar] win the Ballon d'Or.' Not the Champions League (or Ligue 1 for obvious reasons), but the Ballon d'Or.
Many would cite Ronaldo, rather than the more reserved Messi, as the driving force behind such an unabashed focus on individual honours - and they would probably be right. Yet, testament to Walt Whitman above, Ronaldo's focus and determination for recognition has scarcely influenced his ability to deliver on it in the harshest of scenarios; going against Messi and Barcelona.
Watching Lionel Messi last night as Barcelona began another Champions League campaign at home to Juventus, something of his invaluable worth was apparent. Although Neymar, Paul Pogba or Eden Hazard may vocalise their urge to usurp one of Messi or Ronaldo, the Argentine is in possession of motives that only the Portuguese may understand.
But they are different. Everybody is blatantly aware of this. They continue to clock up goals and set new records, yet, while arguments regarding superiority are purely a matter of taste and partisanship, Messi, unlike Ronaldo, increasingly appears like a player we ought to be cherishing rather than celebrating. It is a fine line and deviates on what we perceive as being natural, god-given, as opposed to acquired via hard-work.
Now 30, we are inevitably facing into the closing chapters of this incredible career. Although Ronaldo continues to excel in terms of physical preparation and execution, Messi's more transient, altogether rarer, once in maybe two or three generations, kind of talent should not be viewed in such churlish terms.
Almost anyone who loves tennis and follows the men's tour on television has, over the last few years, had what might be termed Federer Moments. These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you're O.K.
Lionel Messi is our Roger Federer, our source of visceral, gutteral response.
11 of Federer's 19 Majors would be won after Wallace's article was written incidentally. But this is unimportant. Watching Messi last night, irrespective of what has come before of what may yet occur still, one was provided with many 'Messi Moments'.
Two goals and an assist in a 3-0 win against the Italian champions, Messi was, for all intents and purposes, doing exactly what we have come to expect of him. Yet, and perhaps it is the reality that this Barcelona team has ultimately had its greatest days, there was a heightened sense of exuberance in watching him perform the 'ordinary'.
— Sivan John (@SivanJohn_) September 12, 2017
One could conceivably calculate how many times Messi has scored a goal like this. That sort of strike where the ball enters the goal at an improbable angle; rolling into the side-netting at a trajectory and pace that leaves the 'keeper looking culpable. Gianluigi Buffon, who before last night had never conceded a goal to Messi, was not at fault here however.
It is difficult to pinpoint however what exactly leaves the situation looking this way; where the defence looks hopelessly inept despite all available evidence to the contrary. Is it the astonishingly quick feet of Messi in the build-up play? Or perhaps the understanding between both Messi and Suarez as they carry out a one-two that takes advantage of space that we can see, but don't truly know how it could be used?
However the logic manifests itself in reality, when Messi receives the ball back from Suarez, he is not, by any standard that any of us who have kicked a ball can recognise, in a good position. One defender to his left and two immediately in front of him, his room to manouevre is so scarce as to be barely worthwhile.
Yet, in the almost literal blink of an eye, it's 1-0. He's done it again. Not only fooling the viewer, but Juventus also. Although they were not at full-strength admittedly, Buffon, in his third decade of professional football and in possession of experience that could feasibly shape his preparation and response, is left helpless. There isn't even time to dive.
Lionel Messi vs Juventus:
— FCBdaily Media (@Fcbdailyy) September 13, 2017
By the time his second goal arrived, the game was gone admittedly. Approaching the 70th minute, as Barcelona (leading 2-0) break, Messi is the furthest man forward. When and where he receives that ball would have sat comfortably with Juventus - even if it being Messi would have gave cause for additional concern. Yet, he looked somewhat slow. Certainly, he did not appear to have the legs to take the ball beyond Alex Sandro with pace.
At about the same moment, as Manchester United were coursing to a similarly comfortable victory against a far lesser opponent over 1,000 miles away, Kevin Kilbane lamented Anthony Martial's insistence on cutting inside when he clearly had the pace to beat any opposing player and charge into the space behind.
Undoubtedly, there was a time when Messi's decision-making possessed flaws à la the 21 year old Frenchman. They have long since resolved themselves. In what amounted to another entirely familiar Messi strike, there was nonetheless so much to enjoy from this goal; the initial burst of pace back across the pitch, the second feint that ultimately opens the necessary space for his shot, and then, the unseen eyes or shape that Messi displayed to Buffon once more.
Again, he leaves the Italian no time to even dive. From the edge of the box, the ball has already entered the net by the time Buffon just falls to the opposite side. Beautifully familiar yet uniquely his own, the speed at which it was carried out betrays the multitudes that were contained therein.
But then, this is Messi's career in a nutshell for most of us. Catching fire between glimpses on Champions League nights and various Clásico matches with Real Madrid, he is largely a source of an unimaginable number of goals; occasionally sought out and seen, but usually taken as a given. As alluded to earlier, both strikes against Juventus were typical; his first against Espanyol last weekend had definite traces of his second last night.
Celebrating Messi's talent no longer holds much currency. Everything has been said and written. We are only left with those 'Moments' Wallace identified in Federer. Cherish them. They won't last forever.