Legacy and Lionel Messi
by Brian Phillips · June 29, 2010
Epistemic frustration is the curse and the genius of soccer, which, compared to, say, basketball, obscures causes, disguises responsibilities, and makes all forms of knowing and categorizing moot. Not in a radically skeptical way, but just in terms of guys kicking stuff, I sometimes wonder whether it’s possible to know anything at all.
By now, you’ve heard it said that Messi’s greatness depends on winning the World Cup. That’s a sentence that makes sense in terms of the narrative machinery surrounding the game—Messi’s compared to Maradona, who won the World Cup, so if Messi wants to be as great as Maradona, he has to win it too—but as a form of knowledge, or of expectation, it completely takes itself apart. It’s the kind of statement that can’t be made without simultaneously collapsing its own logic. Not in a radically deconstructive sense, but just in terms of guys kicking stuff, I direct your attention to the nation of Bhutan.
Say there’s a Bhutanese Messi. He’s all-time in potential, but rather than playing for Spain, where he went to live as a boy, he’s chosen to ply his trade for an ancestral homeland that’s currently on the chilly side of 195 in the FIFA World Rankings. You would never hear of this tiny patriot that his greatness depended on winning a World Cup, because with Bhutan, the greatest player of all worlds and epochs would stand no chance of even qualifying for the World Cup. One player can only do so much. And so unless greatness is reserved for players from certain neighborhoods, the Messi of Lho Mon would have to be judged on club form and raw awesomeness alone.
In other words, you can’t say “Messi’s greatness depends on winning the World Cup” without implicitly acknowledging that Messi happens to play for a team for which winning the World Cup is a possibility. Argentina are capable of winning the World Cup, so Messi is capable of winning the World Cup, so the test is relevant. But if that’s all true, then the test is irrelevant, because the fact that Messi needs a good team even to enter the arena in which his legacy might depend on winning the World Cup more or less dispenses with winning the World Cup as a test of individual achievement. Messi could play brilliantly, but a bad day for Demichelis could still flick him over on the chessboard.
You could argue that Messi only has to play well for Argentina to cement his legacy—to “show he can get it done at the international level”—but say they hadn’t qualified, or that they hadn’t advanced past the group stage? The record is (probably) littered with early-round heroics that don’t mean much to history because they didn’t reach the peak. In any case, “getting it done at the international level” is essentially the preface to “he has to win,” or do you think not winning the World Cup has had no effect on how we think of Cruyff? Also in any case, your ability even to play well at the World Cup is dependent on your teammates. Say Messi never gets the ball?
Of course, this is true not only at the World Cup, or at the international level, but at all levels, which is why I sometimes wonder if instead of ranking great players, it would make more sense to rank great “other 10s.” And maybe remove stars from ranking altogether, like mountains that are hors catégorie. After all, a player can only be selected for his national team if various factors, including the right circumstances at club level, align, and can only make a club team if he’s, say, been to an academy where his teammates could pick him out with a precisely weighted ball so he can show the world what he can do when so precisely picked out. If he hasn’t, then he’s just an unraveled set of circumstances. Maybe instead of just exempting great players from rank, we should erase their names altogether, declaring that greatness is simply a set of potential outcomes that happened to be fulfilled many times in a row, and focusing on the conditions that created the outcomes rather than the apparent agent of them. After all, if an individual player can’t win the World Cup, in some sense it’s meaningless to say that there are great soccer players at all.
Obviously, or I hope obviously, this is a sketch of a—what? Tolstoyan?—theory of soccer that I don’t really like or believe. It’s crude and false to rule out individual agency to this extent, not to mention talent; it’s context without text. I want there to be great players, and I think I’ve seen them play. If nothing else, though, it’s scary how flimsy some of the narratives we build on the game (and care about, and invest hopes in) turn out to look when you think about them for a second. Very generally, that is, I’d say the argument above is just about as distorted and self-contradictory as its opposite—which is what we usually think of as the truth.
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