This Machine Kills Romantics

What might we learn from rummaging through Leo Messi's Instagram feed? Will what we find corrupt our image of the famously secluded superstar?
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Former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes writes a regular column for The Independent. Apart from using it to apologize for calling Robbie Savage a “knobhead” on live television, Scholes also employs the outlet to share his insights on European football. In one of his February entries, the ex-Red Devil gushed over Barcelona star and all-around soccer messiah Lionel Messi.

Scholes doesn’t know Messi, but the two have a brief, albeit noteworthy, history. As a part of Sir Alex Ferguson’s golden United generation, the Ginger Prince played and lost two Champions League finals against Messi’s Barcelona in 2009 and 2011. Prior to those meetings, Scholes was on the winning side against the Catalans in the 2008 UCL semifinal en route to the title. Scholes scored the lone goal in that tie, on a peeling strike from well outside the box. Messi left a lasting impression on Scholes through these games. The 40-year-old admits he spent the majority of these encounters “hoping [Messi] would take up positions as far away from me as possible.” One time Scholes got too close, and Messi did this to him.

Scholes’s column reads mostly as a love/fear letter to the Argentine maestro. He has a unique perspective on a once-in-a-thousand-lifetimes talent, having played against him on European football’s most prominent stage. But Scholes can’t do much besides talk about how hard it is to talk about Messi: “There have been so many superlatives to describe Messi’s career that you find yourself just adding to the pile of words about him.”

I agree, Paul. So, let’s not do that. Instead, let’s dive into this: “Messi is as famous as any footballer has ever been and yet, when it comes down to it, we don’t know much about him. I read that he is a family man, and likes to walk his dogs, but beyond that he’s a mystery really.”

This idea of Messi ever operating as something other than a footballer—in this case, as a “family man”—is intriguing. It proposes a separation exists between Lionel Messi, public figure, and Lionel Messi, actual human. If a reclusive celebrity like Scholes can cleanly discern Messi’s mysteriousness, then maybe there’s something there worth exploring. Although the Englishman is a mere mortal compared to Leo. World-class athletes are rare, but all-time greats who remain unknown beyond the parameters of the pitch are basically nonexistent. Outside of Messi, of course.

***

I often wonder about that other part of Lionel Messi, the part we don’t know. The part that likes to walk his dogs. The part that wakes up in the early morning when nearby construction gets to be too loud. The part that prefers two percent to skim. Messi’s private life has largely gone undisturbed (setting aside his expensive-but-not-so-criticized failure to pay some taxes between 2007 and 2009), and he doesn’t speak on off-pitch matters. (The notoriously silent Scholes noted that Messi “never speaks on the pitch” either.)

Messi hardly ever gives interviews. He hates them. Although to be fair, every one he gives is pretty useless anyhow. In this promotional interview for Gillette, the most interesting answer he gives is in response to a question about razors: “I find it tough to shave everyday, but these razors make it simple.”

Or take this 2005 feature for Dutch public broadcaster NOS. In the two-and-a-half minute video segment, 17-year-old Messi declares, “I don’t really like movies.” As the interviewer further prods him about books he replies, “even less.” The entire NOS piece, in fact, is framed around Messi’s apathetic attitude towards the obligation of speaking to reporters. After he tries some complementary candy from Holland called Spekkie, the narrator concedes, “We didn’t really get to know Lionel Messi, but at least he learned a Dutch word.”

Because of this elusiveness, it feels bizarre and wrong— and fun—to speculate on the quirks and nuances of what Messi is like in real life. What are his political affiliations? What’s his drink of choice? (He does drink, we know that much.) Simply put, nobody has been able to get much out of Messi. Not ESPN, not Sports Illustrated, not even TIME.

Instagram might’ve gotten the most.

 

Can you imagine Messi playing the guitar? Me neither, but apparently he does.

 

This photo confounds me. Where was it taken? Who’s behind the camera? Is this really how Messi took in the start of 2014? What’s that hammock made out of? Is that Elmo axe a hand-me-down? Most importantly, what song could he possibly be playing? There’s an image I can’t shake of Messi serenading Pep Guardiola with the Champions League anthem—thuhhhh Champ-yaaaaaans!—at the Catalan manager’s invitation-only Badalona beach New Year’s Eve BBQ.

Messi exposes very little to his 11.3 million Instagram followers. An extensive dig reveals that he enjoys the company of his Barcelona and Argentina teammates, adores his son Thiago, and has gone sleigh riding at least once. Oh, and he loves football. A lot. It appears to be roughly 99.9 percent of his focus. Maybe that’s why his girlfriend Antonella’s account—where the guitar pic originated—tends to reveal just as much— or, more accurately, as little—as his “personal” one.

Yet, even in its arid state, Messi's account is one of the only athlete Instagrams that is truly appealing. It’s not terribly surprising that Cristiano Ronaldo eats personalized underwear cake, or that Andy Carroll's house looks like it was furnished by Karen Hill in 1970, or that Alex Song has tricked/forced another one of his teammates to pose in some crisp Systeme Tchakap gear. But it is surprising that Messi plays the guitar. Unlike those players’ insipid social media endeavors, Messi's Instagram could actually give us unbridled access into the personal life of not only an enigma but possibly the most gifted enigma to ever lace up a pair of football boots. It just so happens that, in fluid concert with his enigmaticism, his account currently presents more questions than answers.

The truth is, any possible answer to these prospective questions would surprise me regardless of its practicality or insanity. If I discovered that Bruce Springsteen was Messi’s favorite musician, I’d say “hold on, really?!?” If I found out that he loves feijoada but hates carbonada, my “whoa!” would knock Keanu into a fourth Matrix film. If you told me that Leo’s favorite Wire character is Slim Charles, I’d politely tell you to shut the fuck up and stop playing with my emotions.

I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way either. It’s part of the reason football Twitter exploded last year when a couple of bizarre tattoos appeared on Messi’s anointed left leg. Despite one of the designs being an anatomically precise soccer ball (were you expecting a sugar skull?), the mere fact that tattoos are usually something we valley-dwellers get to fulfill some weird vanity quota within ourselves, and that Messi had gotten a few, made everyone recoil. Who knew gods could have their skin penetrated with ink?

***

For as much as I gravitate towards this perpetual stream of innocuous information, I absolutely fear it. For this generation of football fans, of which I’m an active member, Messi is a deity. (His first ever Instagram post was conveniently a video of him meeting Pope Francis.) And like a deity, opinions of him can be as fragile as they are shallow or deep. Knowing his leisurely pleasures would help us all understand Messi as a person, but could also shatter and remake our perception of Lionel Messi, the Alpha and Omega. Those pleasures open the door for vices, which open the door for vulnerability, something only ever associated with the greats when they miss shots or lose games (things Messi doesn’t do very often). Those primal reasons you initially fell for Messi? Those can be displaced. The footballer you most adore can become the one you most resent.

That’s what even this limited access threatens. It threatens our romanticized image of what and who our heroes are. The quest for inside glimpses can feel harmless enough until the bowels of the rabbithole are breached and you realize the poster boy isn’t at all who you thought he was. Or at least who you wanted him to be: the angel to Ronaldo’s devil, the honorable sportsman, the blameless conduit who just goes out and plays without paying mind to issues and problems that segregate people. Maybe you’d discover that he dwells in unsavory circles with detestable people. Maybe you’d find that he’s much more of an asshole than you ever thought he could be. And maybe that’s okay, but more than likely it wouldn’t be. Your fostered idolism will almost certainly prove to be a falsehood that leads to an avalanche of disappointment. So, does obtaining that truth benefit you in the end? Are you better off knowing the flaws behind the folk?

Messi is particularly susceptible to backlash, given his off-the-pitch unassumingness. He’s easy to like and highly provocative but only when he’s delighting millions with a football at his feet. The rest of the time might as well not even exist. In this way, he’s nothing like his predecessor Diego Maradona, whose crass essence and rebellious lifestyle wrote scandal off merely as logical progression. Last October, a cellphone video of Maradona physically assaulting his girlfriend Rocio Oliva leaked out into public. The Daily Mail headed the video with the words, “SHOCKING” in all caps. But it wasn’t shocking. It was exactly the kind of thing the belligerent Argentine would do. To no shock at all, Maradona’s image has remained virtually unchanged in the wake of the incident. The repeated falls from grace fit his narrative perfectly, therefore nothing was soiled outside of what was supposed to be. For Messi, it’s the opposite. One lewd public incident, and suddenly his public persona would transform. He wouldn’t become Maradona overnight, but he would become less like the man we imagine him to be.

I’d like to believe Messi will always be revered as a footballer. He's given so much joy to so many over the last decade that it seems only right for the memories he created to survive untarnished. But through this voyeuristic hall of mirrors we're all trapped in, the game of fandom continually heightens and cheapens, for better or worse, imperiling the increasingly frail legacies of our heroes. None of us asked or planned for these new dilemmas, but we probably deserve them. It's like the Twilight Zone episode where the rich guy gets chased down by his electric razor and murdered by his unmanned Lagonda. If you’re going to use something, know what it’s capable of. I think Rod Serling would file this one under “M” for "machines."


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