The world without Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi might not be medicine, but he can feel like it. Watching Messi with a ball at his feet is a testament to the rest of our possibilities. Maybe we aren’t so terrible, because he’s one of us. He can make us seem better than we are.

He rewards so many different kinds of attention. Sometimes he is best seen from a distance. If you’re far enough away from the action so that the names and numbers have disappeared, Messi will still be easy to spot. That’s him, way over there, the man farthest removed from the play. That’s him standing by himself.

Early in the game, he will also be the man who looks the most mentally distant, as though a spectator has invaded the pitch and nobody has bothered to chase him. He will be the one looking as though he’s waiting for a bus, maybe with his hands on his hips, or with his hands running through his hair, or with his hands rubbing his eyes. He will be the only player doing more with his hands than his feet.

In Barcelona’s last La Liga game, at home against Eibar on May 21, there was a moment when Messi amazed by just how little he seemed to be doing. It was an important match — a win coupled with a Real Madrid loss in Malaga would have given Barcelona the title — and Eibar had taken an unexpected lead in the seventh minute. The cauldron that is the Camp Nou steamed with urgency, and when Eibar lined up to take a corner kick, there was a palpable sense of concern.

Not from Messi. He was standing inside the center circle, watching the play but not really.

Then he took a step and became distracted by something under his feet. The ground wasn’t quite right. While Eibar took their corner, unsuccessfully it turned out, Messi was crouched down, his back to the play, doing a bit of work on the pitch. In that moment, at least, he didn’t seem interested in healing anything but the grass. He was concerned with only the smallest of fixes.

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Maybe he knew that Cristiano Ronaldo already had put Real Madrid ahead in Malaga, and the fight was over. La Liga would not be his for the third time in nine seasons. Or maybe Messi was saving his resources for those moments when he knew he would make more of a difference. Or maybe he was watching Eibar and looking for weakness. Maybe he was Messi, lying in wait.

Opportunities more worthy of his attention eventually came, but he failed to convert them. He missed from the top of the six-yard box, and Luis Suarez stared at him, open mouthed, the way a nonbeliever would contemplate a ghost.

Later, trailing 2-1, Messi saw his penalty shot stopped. He tore into the front of his jersey with his teeth. That seemed to cleanse him, and he decided to play more like Messi, as though the choice had always been his. Now he was easy to spot for better reasons.

Again and again he demonstrated the subtlest of his talents and so the most beautiful of them: perfectly weighted volleys and a nutmeg so grievous that it felt as though the victim had to be in on it. Barcelona tied the score, and then Messi converted his second chance from the penalty spot to give his side the lead, 3-2.

Then he went on a run.

With seconds remaining in the game, he picked up the ball inside the center circle, not far from the spot where he had made his earlier repair to the turf. Maybe he had known all along how important that patch of grass would be.

He broke through two Eibar players immediately, and then he ran straight down the middle of the pitch, as though on a tightrope, making the slightest of feints to get past Alex Galvez, who almost blew a hamstring lunging for the empty space where he thought Messi would be. Messi dodged two more defenders, leaned inside, and slipped the ball across his body with his right foot, easing it into the bottom corner of the net, 4-2.

In some ways it was just another goal for Messi, the 506th of his club career, made meaningless by Ronaldo’s larger scheme which, this season, also happened to be the winning one. But for those of us lucky enough to see Messi’s goal in the flesh, it would remain significant beyond reason.

Even while Real celebrated their title in Malaga, Messi remained defiant, determined to write his own ending. That run was a message to his rivals in Madrid. It was also a message to sickness, to despair: This is what I can do. Who cares about you?

On Saturday, Messi will turn 30. He made his professional debut in October 2004, when he was 17 years, 3 months and 22 days old, the second-youngest player to dress for Barcelona’s senior side. Somehow, that was almost 13 years ago. There are teenagers who know life only with Messi in it.

The math is easy, except that it isn’t. Messi will not be playing football when he is 43. His career is more than half over. It is probably three-quarters gone. Whatever the number of games that remain for him to play, and so for us to watch, it will be far less than he, and we, have already enjoyed.

It is almost painful to see film of him from the start of things. He played differently then. He was unblinking, like a child. His skin was clear of tattoos. His hair was boyishly long, parted in the middle. Now we know the greatness that awaited him, but back then, when he came sprinting off the bench for the last eight minutes against Espanyol, the first eight minutes of his career, he was all future.

Today’s Messi is mostly past. Each time we see him, we get a little bit closer to what will be our last chance.

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