Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Hand of Messi

I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentinean football and his name is Lionel Messi. -Diego Maradona

Those of us who've been watching boy wonder Lionel Messi develop over the last couple of years know how special he is, but it was his performance in the Copa del Rey semi-final against Getafe CF on April 18, 2007, that rallied the press to a fever pitch, many dubbing him "Messidona." Yet the amiable, low-key Leo Messi has always seemed free of the dark shadows that haunt Diego Maradona. Oh, Leo. Did you have to imitate your progenitor quite so literally? You were my favorite, you know, and you have broken my heart into a million pieces. "Little cheating bastard," announcer Ray Hudson--who clearly adores the Barca boys--declared, disappointment in his voice. "But Barcelona fans, they don't care!" Oh, yes, they do--this one does anyway. Not only is it disappointing to see a player of his caliber resort to such tactics, but it taints Barcelona's race for the title. I know it is supposed to be the way of the modern game: it's results that matter, not how you get them, right? But today I discovered there is something that feels worse than losing, and worse than losing by shoddy refereeing and shady tactics on the part of the other team, and that is when your own team, your very own favorite player, hangs on by a thread with a blatant cheat.

And like Maradona, Messi then went on to score a decisive goal in the second half, as if to say, just as Maradona did, You see? I could've just as well done it this way, too.

It was a day of extraordinary moments in La Liga. Three matches, all kicking off simultaneously: Real Madrid v. Real Zaragoza, Sevilla v. Mallorca, and Barcelona v. Espanyol, the last a Catalan derby and in each match, a title contender. Fans in the stands monitored other matches on headphones and here at home the announcers for the live broadcast Real Madrid v. Zaragoza game abandoned all pretense of keeping the scores of the tape-delayed games a secret and resorted to split screens showing the action across Spain. Sevilla v. Mallorca remained scoreless, ending Sevilla's title hopes, but the Hand of God is apropos indeed, as you'd have thought the gods were playing some sort of back-and-forth on the football pitches, using players as pawns and raining lightning down from the heavens to show their displeasure. Espanyol's Raul Tamudo was first to score, at 30 minutes, but Madrid supporters' joy was short-lived as Alberto Diego Mileta of Zaragoza quickly followed with a penalty in the 32nd minute and suddenly both teams looked poised to be giant-killers. Messi's handball closed out the half; then Ruud van Nistelrooy equalized for Madrid in the 57th minute at the same time that Messi scored his second, legitimate goal. Zaragoza pulled ahead again at 64 minutes, Milito with his second goal of the day, and for the next 25 minutes the top spot in the Primera Division looked to be Barca's at last, albeit in a tarnished sort of way. But in the 89th minute Ruud van Nistelrooy did it again, leveling the score at 2-2, and one minute later at the Camp Nou Tamudo crushed Barca's dreams and made it 2-2 as well.

Now Madrid must lose next week, the final week of La Liga competition, for Barca to have a hope of taking the title. And meanwhile, Leo Messi, lacking the swaggering arrogance of Maradona, may find he is unprepared for the fallout sure to come on the heels of that audacious, almost-beautiful, devastating punch into the net.

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