Messi! Robben! And The Hilarity of Soccer!
What do I have to say about this phenomenal week of Champions League action? About Lionel Messi’s latest in his weekly series of career-defining goal binges, in which the micro-Argentine stung some schoolboys’ outfit from London for a quartet without appearing to work very hard? About Arjen Robben’s heart-attack strike to deal the latest blow to the tottering, sclerotic Third World regime that is Manchester United?*
Not much, I find. If you want to examine the brainy majesty attained by Messi and this beyond-state-of-the-art Barcelona side, you can start with the newly gorgeous Run of Play (a blog which went away for “vacation” and returned the prettiest blog in all blogdom—hmm) and work your way from there. If you want to peer into the abyss with Sir Alex, watch this. I cannot expand your knowledge of these matters in significant ways.
But I can say that these two games reminded me of one of football’s most overlooked characteristics: the game is hilarious. You can find endless ruminations on the latest fragile tactical filigree devised by Arsene Wenger, a manager who doesn’t add much to the trophy case but is constantly building his portfolio, you see. Such poe-faced commentary sadly disses the sport’s comedic side. In general, the Discourse ignores football’s subtler gags in favor of broad stuff like old YouTube clips of Tony Adams screaming the C-word at a referee. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
And Messi’s goals-plural suite and Robben’s wunderstrike—in addition to their aesthetic delights, which were many—both had me laughing half-hysterically.
To watch Messi pummel the bejesus out of Wenger’s boys was to watch an exuberant puppy lay waste to a Michelin-starred restaurant while the chef with his name the door leaps from table to table in frantic attempts to contain the damage. It was like watching…a shoeshine boy pick the Mayor’s pocket. A guileless (but genius) turnip-farmer’s assistant sit down to debate theology with the Archbishop—and win! It was like an out-of-body experience in which you’re able to watch yourself chase your two-year-old around and around and around the house, as you clutch his winter parka and beg him to stop and he looks back at you and cackles.
Somehow, even though Barcelona itself is one of the soccer world’s creamier luxury brands, Messi retains that street-scamp, trickster wit. When he rampaged in for that fourth goal, ignoring the easy pass, regaining the ball after the save and then calmly nutmegging poor Almunia (who, himself, is a living exemplar of soccer’s comedic side), you could tell he knew he was laying it on a little thick, but that he would get away with it.
And then there’s Robben—a player I like even though he has played for a succession of clubs I don’t care for, in large part because he looks like he could be my dad. (Even though I am almost a decade older than him.) Robben looks old. He runs old: like he was cinematically excised from a 1970s highlight clip and pasted into the modern game, with that slow-fast piratical swagger that is far removed, philosophically and athletically, from the sprinty step-over bullshit of your Cristiano Ronaldos. (How is it that these two dudes, who look and play like representatives of different eras of civilization, are about the same age?) In other words, this young ancient is comedy waiting to happen.
So first Robben scores this ludicrous goal, about as pure a recitation of football’s basic concepts as you’ll ever see: man sees spheroid falling through air; man kicks spheroid one time; kick sends spheroid whistling into an improbable target; event makes 70,000 other people gathered in the same location very unhappy; eventual outcome affects commercial transactions in the millions.
And then—and then—the goal celebration! In which Robben, age 184, sprints down the touchline looking like he just smashed his own hand with a hammer! Or like he’s got a bee trapped in his cheek! Like this thing he has just done is so very, very good, it may have blinded him a little in his left eye!
Jogo bonito? Jogo funito!
* Sir Alex Ferguson’s rhetoric increasingly sounds like that of an out-of-touch banana republic strongman—his state bankrupt, his army faltering—locked in his labyrinth in the final hours before the peasant mobs breach the compound walls or his own officers cease exchanging significant looks and finally draw their pistols to spare the Motherland another moment of crazed misrule. Not to deal in national stereotypes, but if the Mancs don’t win the Premiership, it’s really going to start to look like the final scenes of MacBeth over there. But I fear that I digress.