When you hear professional sportsmen being interviewed, in between the rehashed script about “giving it 100%” and “taking things one game at a time”, first on the list of thanks is often the almighty. Every achievement is understood as a blessing from God, every failure a preordained judgement deemed necessary to stiffen resolve, stimulate motivation and push the individual in question towards a higher destiny. As an outsider and an atheist, to hear the seemingly absurdist sporting narrative distilled into an intimate interaction between oneself and the divine is both a fascinating insight into the psychological wiring of elite level athletes and a compellingly alien interpretation of what this writer has always taken to be a wholly temporal pursuit.
I may not believe in God, yet his presence in the minds of those who would claim otherwise means that in an abstract sense he can undoubtedly be said to exist. Argentineans everywhere were certainly looking for a heavenly helping hand to nudge them over the finishing line on Tuesday night after a qualifying campaign that has forced the country to its knees both in despair at its footballing decline and to pray for the miracle they needed to make it to Russia. If God’s job is to push you to your limits and provoke a response, he’d certainly done a fine job of it.
In Ecuador, Jorge Sampaoli’s men found themselves at a ground in which they do not win, at an altitude which they cannot bear and, but of course, a goal down before even having had time to tie their laces. Such was the scale of the task, the sheer severity of challenge in front of them, that one could not help but think that the situation had been preordained so that only one subject was capable of overcoming it. Tuesday night was not a game of football. It was a chess match between Lionel Messi and God. When Romario Ibarra gave the hosts the lead, the Lord leant back in his chair and smiled wryly, “Your move Lionel, no pressure”.
Yet Messi was made for such occasions such as these and eleven minutes later broke the match open with an attack so swift and incisive that even God himself didn’t see it coming. Like a grandmaster thinking an infinite number of moves ahead, he blew through the initial defensive line, slid all his pieces into position and struck a first telling blow. His opponent had a right of reply, of course, but Messi was moving through a different dimension. No matter what tactics were employed to frustrate his advance, every eventuality had been considered, every potentiality prepared for. 1-1.
By now the Messi mainframe was in overdrive. He had absorbed a nation’s anxiety, soaked up every bead of sweat, cupped it in his hands and from it was spinning silk. The second soon followed. Whereas we’ve become accustomed to seeing the diminutive genius finish with calm, clinical efficiency, in the 20th minute he erupted. All future inquests and recriminations were wiped out with a single primordial swing of that famous left boot. This was a feat beyond man, but not beyond Messi. 1-2. “Your move, my Lord”.
Ecuador pushed forward, but it was an impotent advance. Shots reigned forth, but each was a sterile projectile no more threatening than raindrops on your double-glazing. The almighty had questioned him, tested him, thrown everything at him and simply had no more tricks left up his sleeve. God was done. Messi, however, was not and on the hour he cut through once more. With a jagged drop of the shoulder he toppled a few more foes, before producing a finish even the man upstairs surely could not help but envy. With a defender futilely attempting to knock him over, and a greater tenderness than that with which a mother caresses her newborn child, Messi lifted the ball over the goalkeeper from the edge of the box, eliminating any possibility of a comeback. Checkmate.
Victory secured, ticket to Russia punched, their captain, their king, stepped off the pitch to address his awaiting public. “Thank God, we fulfilled our objective” he said. Thank God, indeed.