It seems to happen around this time every year that the enthusiasm for Lionel Messi reaches dangerously swoontabulous levels. Messi is everywhere at all times, of course, but a god still needs a festival. Let's call it Messimas. One of the most impressive acts of worship this Messimas is a YouTube video called "Lionel Messi never dives." It compiles instances of the variously desperate (not to say violent) measures by which Messi's opponents have tried to halt his progress on the field, as if he were mortal or something. It may be the greatest tribute a player could have: when defenders see you less as an opponent than as a demon spirit that must banished back to the realm of nightmares, you've made it, kid.
There's barging and all manner of grappling; there are studs to the hip; there are ankle taps and sneaky shirt-pulls and successive outrageously late sliding tackles. Sometimes, it almost looks choreographed. In one clip, two defenders simultaneously launch into flying tackles from 4 and 8 o'clock respectively, causing our man to no more than stumble. Another pair try to close in on him like sliding doors. He looks like a sentient pinball flinging itself around the machine while attached to another, smaller pinball. And on each occasion, as per the video's title, he refuses to take sanctuary in the solid earth and the referee's whistle. Messi is a player who will dribble into a swarm of defenders, get knocked to the ground, yet emerge upright on the other side, never having lost control of the ball; he is a storm chaser who drives straight through the tempest. More than once while watching the video, I laughed, and in doing so recalled Brian Phillips' essay on Pelé as a comedian, "the kind that revels in turning the order of things upside down so that it can give you the giddy satisfaction of seeing them turned right-side up again." Messi always seems to seek that resolution. It's as if, when he has the ball at his feet, there is to him nothing else. Time spent on the floor pleading with the officials for mercy is time spent not playing football. Here is Messi's much vaunted playground spirit in distilled form.
That is, we assume that Messi's habitual refusal to dive is born of a connection to a purity forsaken by the common-or-garden footballer—or worse, by the merely excellent footballer. It may be true. But "diving" is a loaded word. For many in and around soccer, it represents the very worst side of the game: something so common and so unspeakably dastardly that when someone doesn't do it, the band strikes up. But it's not so simple. At the white end of the spectrum, you have Messi; at the black, you have those who consistently manufacture the appearance of a foul out of nothing. In between, there is the kind of foul surreptitious enough to discommode the player on the ball without drawing attention to itself as a foul. The player fouled will often make the most of it, precisely to draw attention to the foul. Is this a way of helping the ref do his job, or just a conventionalized con-trick? Either way, it's a skill most gifted players have to learn as a means of self-protection, especially those players slight of stature.
Players such as Theo Walcott. He either hasn't learned the skill, or just doesn't avail of it often enough for his own sake. A video called "Theo Walcott never dives" is perfectly feasible. Half of it would consist of him using his sprinter's pace to evade ne'er-do-wells. The other half would consist of him being knocked off balance by stronger, cannier opponents. He might be infused with that same Messiesque playground spirit, but we don't rejoice in his innocence—we bemoan his naivety. And here is the clue to what lies beneath our reaction to Messi's indomitability. Messi rarely avails of the skill. He is possessed of such exceptional balance, agility, close control, reactions and acceleration, and of the ability to exercise all of these qualities at once, that he rarely needs to. We're rejoicing less in his innocence than in his old-fashioned imperial majesty.
But we want to believe in that innocence. Or to put another way, when we watch Messi, we get to imagine what it would look like if no one was watching at all. The only true purity in sport was when people only played because playing was fun. Then, people noticed that watching it was fun, and this in turn was noticed. Sport became conscious of the spectator's gaze, and altered as a consequence. Diving of whatever shade happens because the moral authority that governs the game was in large part devolved to the referee: a policeman to appeal to or fool or accuse of venality. That devolution occurred because the participants couldn't be trusted with that authority. The participants couldn't be trusted because the games had become too important. The games had become too important because people started watching, puncturing the membrane between the sport's pure spirit and letting the latter mingle with the air without in all its freshness and foulness.
We thus watch football accompanied by a quiet drone of guilt. But even when the volume spikes, we rarely feel it as guilt. We see players transformed by the attention, and deflect the blame onto them while praising ourselves for having looked at them in the first place. We watched Ronaldinho's smile slowly turn into a grimace, and reacted by saying that tubby needed to stay in at night. Messi, however, seems unmoved in any direction. Watching him is a relief from the drone. To remain in contact with the purity of sport, we don't have to gouge out our eyes or picket stadia or sabotage OB trucks, or even play the game ourselves. We can just watch Lionel Messi. Messi absolves our sins and cleanses our souls. After all, Messimas coincides with Lent.