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We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Tradition and the Individual Superstar

The vast conceptual morass of modernism, modernity, and the modern subsumes many different strands. Christopher Mann, in an earlier piece for this site, articulates one such strand quite nicely, ultimately lamenting global soccer’s inexorable march toward “materialistic modernity.” For Mann, the modern robs soccer of its spontaneity, its naïveté, its inner Romanticism. For me, the modern strips soccer down to its most raw and most beautiful form. Mann treats the modern as a cultural condition, one that defines an era of commercialization and celebrity. But it’s also possible to view the modern as an aesthetic category, and in that vein, T.S. Eliot’s version—the one to which I subscribe—illuminates the unlikely literary underpinnings of the beautiful game.

Queen Victoria's hands

The Eliotian conception of modernism, which I derive from his 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” presents at its core the idea of “tradition.” In a literary sense, this idea holds that all literature, from the works of Homer to those of Jonathan Franzen, enjoys a “simultaneous existence,” and that this simultaneous existence endows any given work with meaning. We measure artistic significance in this version of modernity by judging the work vis-à-vis the work of “the dead,” according to Eliot. Interestingly, and controversially, Eliot also believes that this canon constitutes a “simultaneous order,” an order that is altered every time a new work enters the canon. Upon a new work’s entry into the canon, a process of modulation occurs until “the values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted.” As Eliot sees it, the present can alter the past, and vice-versa.

Sound confusing? Well, the same goes for soccer, where Eliot’s essay can help us consider the accomplishments of players past and present. Consider the case of Lionel Messi. On the surface, he appears to exemplify the Romantic, full of youthful guile, inimitable skill, and iconically bad hair—an individualist anathema to Eliot’s impersonal tradition. Some say he’s the best player in the world, others say he might be the best player in history. Regardless, these claims are actually grounded in modernity. Eliot writes, “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.” How can we evaluate Messi? By comparing him to the players he competes against. Who is Messi better than? Pretty much everyone playing right now. This juxtaposition of the work (Messi) to the canon (worldwide player pool) makes the claim possible. Who else do we compare Messi to? More grandiose claims about his greatness invariably include his fellow Argentine, Maradona. The YouTube videos comparing every single (eerily similar) step of their mazy half-field runs side-by-side—those are extensions of Eliotian tradition, Eliotian modernism, in modern day. Maradona’s run gives meaning to Messi’s, and his past accomplishments situate Messi’s current ones. Similarly, Messi’s current feats alter our perception of Maradona’s past ones. Messi is pretty damn good, but he doesn’t have meaning alone.

Queen Victoria's skirt

Moreover, modernism can reveal to us insights into the success of Messi’s club. Here we must consider Eliot’s depersonalized conception of beauty because, for Eliot, “it is not the greatness” or “sublimity” that matters “but the intensity of the artistic process.” The “artistic process” I equate to Barcelona’s system: for me, the joy of watching the system collectively overwhelm an opponent trumps any ephemeral awe from watching an individual bit of skill from Messi. Barcelona’s flashy players will come and go—see: Ronaldinho—but Catalonia’s most famous onomatopoeia, tiki-taka, remains. Barcelona actually employs an almost mechanical system—the kind of artistic process that Eliot later refers to as “an efficient engine”—that deemphasizes the individual. After all, Eliot says that “poetry…is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” The Barcelona system neither caters to a superstar—just look at the emergence of former squad-players like Pedro—nor relies on the particular attributes of any of its players (e.g. Ronaldo’s pace for Real Madrid). On the contrary, each player essentially has the same role: pass and move. At Barcelona, “there is no room for puffed-up, show-boating individuals,” says Iain Rodgers for Reuters Soccer Blog. “The players work as a unit, constantly creating space for each other and harrying the opposition into giving up the ball.” Each player is fungible, for “the emotion of art is impersonal.” Behold! Modernist thought is behind the production-line success of one of the world’s biggest clubs.

Queen Victoria's upside-down head

Next Saturday. Cold. The cacophony of metal cleats. Lionel Messi is in a Blaugrana shirt, standing in the tunnel before the game and thinking. He might be thinking about his coach’s pre-game instructions. He might be thinking about the abuse that awaits him from opposing fans. And he might be thinking about how itchy his right shin guard is. But the one thing that Lionel Messi will not be thinking about is the only thing that is guaranteed to happen every single time he plays for Barcelona. Once he steps on the field, he will give up his self-contained existence and open himself up to immediate evaluation, unfair speculation, and comparison to his peers and his predecessors. Once he steps foot on the field, he will shed his individuality and assume the 112 years of his club’s existence, Total Football, tiki-taka—tradition. Once Lionel Messi steps on the field next Saturday, in the cold, amidst the clatter of cleats, he will become modern.

Shaj Mathew attends the University of Pennsylvania. His writing has appeared in The Millions,, This Is American Soccer, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. You can reach him at

In a literary sense, recall how Chinua Achebe’s (recent) criticism of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness has affected the current perception of the (much older) book. Likewise, Edward Said’s Orientalism has revised contemporary opinion on many novels (Mansfield Park, for example) that have already been published.

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Tradition and the Individual Superstar

by Shaj Mathew · February 9, 2011

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