MADRID — A couple of months ago I was interviewing Thierry Henry and we got to talking about Lionel Messi. Like most of us, even this superlative French athlete is left gasping for breath when he watches his former teammate play and grasping for superlatives when he talks about him. But he shared a little anecdote.
Henry mentioned that part of Messi’s magic is that even in training he’ll provide performances, skill, sporting aggression and explosiveness like those which won Sunday’s amazing Clasico. Effectively there was a Bruce Banner/Incredible Hulk moral from Henry’s tale.
“Don’t make him angry. You won’t believe what he’s like when he’s angry,” was the gist of it.
The ratio of training sessions to matches must be approximately five to one so if Messi has played just short of 600 times for his club, that’s 3000 training sessions, give or take, as a senior player. Time enough to get bored, for things to get stale or time to tick over; time to tell yourself that so long as you’re intense for about 75 percent of them, you’re fine.
Not Messi. Not according to Henry.
He told me tales of when Messi might take a kick in a training match, or when whoever was refereeing the training match didn’t give a foul, or gave a bad offside. Messi might lose his temper, and the way he’d take that out on those who’d imposed that perceived injustice was to run around like a mad thing, winning the ball back, dribbling past everyone and scoring. He’d do it again and again until he calmed down.
The media and general public don’t get to see these things happen. But players do. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. Now, when the dust settles from Real Madrid’s defeat, it’s something that Marcelo could have done with realizing.
Football’s a contact sport and when I say that the Brazil international, a wonderful player and notable good guy that he most certainly is, knew just what he was doing when his elbow connected with Messi’s mouth, I’m just noting what my eyes tell me was indisputably true. These things go on; it doesn’t make Marcelo a criminal and I suspect that the refereeing team simply missed it rather than outright ignored it.
What happened next, however, was the Bruce Banner moment. Messi came to life. Furious. Intent on making someone pay.
But first, I want you to take note of something if you haven’t already. When his mouth was split open, when he was lying there dazed and bleeding, when he had to play with tissue stuffed around his mouth and nose to ensure that he wasn’t bleeding so much that he had to leave the pitch, what kind of fuss did Messi make?
Did he lose his temper at the ref? The linesman? Did he go looking to stick his studs in Marcelo? No to all those questions.
When Sergio Ramos did his Bruce Lee impersonation on Messi, risking a serious ankle or knee injury to Barca’s all-time genius, did Messi lose his temper at an opponent who’s previously been sent off for precisely the same crime? Did he complain to the officials along the lines of “How many times?” “Are you blind?” or “Are you on their side?” — precisely the kind of insults you hear from oodles of players in his situation and which then get the offended party banned.
No. He didn’t. Not a bit of it. He just stored up his anger and then cut loose.
I’ve told it before but for those who don’t know, my first interview with Messi was in late summer 2006. He’d just changed to Adidas as his kit sponsor, and they were delighted to have this promising kid. But when they did a product launch and put Messi on the roster of four or five footballers available for interview, they didn’t treat him like a superstar. There was a little curtain over the interview booth and no queue. Nobody moving me along after five minutes. Looking back, it was a bit quaint.
I asked him about the fouls he was already taking. As a fiery Scot, I wasn’t asking him about his glacier-like sense of calm. (To date, he’s only ever been sent off once, and it was a total miscarriage of justice even then.) I was asking him, I admit, why he didn’t go seeking personal justice with boot or fist? I really thought it was inevitable that he’d one day lose the plot completely and get some “equalizing” done.
Messi told me that if he was kicked in the first couple of minutes of a match, it could hurt like hell; he’s actually human in that respect. But thereafter he said, “I’m so involved in the game, I hardly feel anything, and all I want to do is get the ball back and punish them that way.”
So it was here on Sunday night, and the goal that followed the Marcelo elbow was pretty glorious. He’d been catalysed into a reaction of such ferocity and intensity that we saw one of the better goals of his long Clasico career, a fixture in which he’s now the career top scorer.
Dani Carvajal is a fine footballer, arguably the best right-back anywhere right now. But the image of him taking a fresh air swipe at the ball as Messi dragged it past him with his weaker foot before finishing is one that’ll live long in the memory.
Now this might be controversia,l but for my way of thinking about things, there’s more that binds Sergio Ramos and Messi than most might initially acknowledge. Ramos is something of a magician too. He produces acts of defiance and last-minute glory of a sheer, naked will to win that are from the same generic family as what Messi conjures up.
Each of them plays off their own personal comic book scripts. They don’t see games as we see them; they see contests as incomplete until they’ve written the dramatic ending. The difference is that when Ramos has his Bruce Banner moment, it comes out of nowhere and usually with no reason. A gushing reservoir of blood to the head and then a similarly coloured card. I think it’s 22 red cards now, maybe more.
All of the above from Messi and Ramos helped turn this game.
Yes, it’s quite true that Madrid looked like they would use this game as a metaphor for the entire Zinedine Zidane reign. It wasn’t the manager’s fault that Ramos did what he did, nor was it Zidane’s fault that Casemiro ran out of credit, playing right on the razor’s edge of a red card for the second consecutive match.
James coming on after the red card looked odd, too. But when Madrid equalized, take a look at what has happened to get them there. Caution hasn’t so much been thrown to the wind as it’s been shredded up like confetti and thrown into the path of a hurricane.
Madrid, at this stage, are playing three at the back with Ramos off. A 3-3-3. But, hold on: of those three at the back, two are Marcelo and Carvajal. And as James produces his absolutely wonderful goal, a little gem of invention, determination and technique, Carvajal is playing right-wing and Marcelo, crossing, is the left winger. Madrid are playing one at the back. Nacho. It’s a delight to see, and that shuffling of the pack when Zidane is able to bring on a talented “backup” player who changes the game — be that Lucas, James, Alvaro Morata, Isco or Marco Asensio — has been emblematic of his reign.
But when Sergi Roberto sets off on that purposeful, lung-busting, intelligent run that uses space so well, I wonder where Casemiro is. Well, he’s on the bench because Zidane’s taken him off for his own good. When Barcelona play the left wing overlap and the ball’s cut back to Messi, would Ramos have been there to try and block it? Might he have been able to advance and help close off Roberto’s run?
We won’t ever know, but what we do know is that he and Marcelo used physical bullying to try and subdue Messi. Instead, they turned him from a mild-mannered genius to an indestructible superhero who stripped off his shirt and held it up, name clear as day, to the Santiago Bernabeu crowd in a gesture that will now became one of the great iconic moments in Spanish sport for a century and more.
So, take the lesson. Don’t make Messi angry. You won’t like him when he’s angry.
Graham Hunter covers Spain for ESPN FC and Sky Sports. Author of “Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.” Twitter: @BumperGraham.