What it felt like witnessing the genius in real-time
The clock ran 50 minutes on the screen board. Hardly a significant moment in any football match. Yet the whole stadium rose to its feet. Just a glance around and I realized what had happened. One normal 5’6 guy was jugging around his dug-out area. Except this one guy was not normal.
Three minutes later, the official displayed the substitution board. And the moment had finally arrived. I was about to watch Lionel Messi live for the first time.
But the moment didn’t arrive after 50 minutes only. It had arrived some 12 years later.
I first knew about Lionel Messi in 2005. People had started raving about this ‘New Maradona’ Argentine kid after a series of other failed ‘New Maradonas’. But this kid seemed different. This kid had caught the eye of even the real Maradona. So I was fascinated by the prospect of witnessing some New Maradona in our lifetime.
For the next 12 years, Football meant only three things. Messi, Ronaldo, and Manchester United (the third part was true for me at least!)
Full disclaimer first, I am a massive Cristiano Ronaldo fan. But for someone who lives and breathes football, I find it impossible not to be fascinated by Lionel Messi, never mind the thought of actually watching him play live.
But watching Messi play live was always a pipe dream, and I never took it seriously — up until I got to live in Barcelona for my studies.
So, when I landed in Barcelona, the first wish on my bucket was not to hit the beach or visit Sagrada Familia. It was to watch Lionel Messi play live. And a few days later, I booked my ticket for Barcelona’s match against Deportivo to be played on October 18, 2017 — three weeks before the actual match (to get a cheaper ticket).
But life, as often, is often not that simple.
A touch-and-go twist was about to come. Messi got injured the following week, and reportedly for two weeks. So, for the next two weeks, I was fretting every day about Messi’s injury, probably more Messi himself.
Finally, the day had arrived.
Matchday, Messi was not in the 11, but I was heavily relieved that he had at least made the squad.
The first half was dull and disappointing for me. Not because Barcelona played badly (they actually scored two, with Neymar and Suarez especially playing well), but because I had been imagining watching Messi play there for the whole three weeks. And there he was, tied in his dugout as a substitute.
The second half started. And barely 5 minutes later, the whole stadium erupted. The moment had finally arrived. And Lionel Messi entered the pitch.
Messi’s first touch, I could barely believe my eyes it’s Messi live. Messi’s second touch, I told myself to calm down and relax. And Messi’s third touch — he had scored and I was lost for words!
Yes. 53 minutes, Messi had arrived on the pitch. And 56 minutes, with his third touch of coming on, Messi had scored. Even before that first feeling of watching Messi live had sunk in, another feeling kicked in. Watching Lionel Messi score live.
The rest of the match followed with the usual Messi magic. He nearly scored two more goals. But it barely mattered. Anyone who has watched Messi over the years will tell you it’s barely about goals when it comes to him. Rather, it was time to sit back and enjoy the magical spectacle that he usually delivers in the pitch.
I must have watched Messi countless times on a television screen before that. But seeing it in front of my own eye was just too surreal. Even with other great players on the pitch (like Neymar and Suarez), it felt at times like watching Messi and 21 other guys at times. Even my American flatmate, who barely watched ‘Soccer’, admitted Messi just looked different compared to others.
That day, I also experienced why watching a match in a stadium is a whole lot different experience, apart from the obvious difference in atmosphere factor. In television, the screen understandably has to focus where the ball is, so in a way what you get to watch is decided by the camera person. Whereas in a stadium, you decide what you want to watch.
And obviously, I was there purely to watch Messi. So, it was a new experience watching Messi when the play was not around him. Barely running, or even standing still at times, Messi off the ball was also a different sight compared to others. At times, it almost seemed like he was there in a thinking state, oblivious of others running around the pitch.
And yet, one could totally understand Messi standing still and thinking. After all, an artist needs to think before his new creation; a magician needs to stand still before he pulls off his next magic. And Messi is both an artist and a magician rolled into one.
And suddenly, when the ball is at his feet, you witness a genius at the absolute peak of his power — dribbling past players as if they don’t exist, nutmegging everything and anything that comes to his way, creating space out of nowhere, and seeing that final pass that no one else could see, and doing all so aesthetically and effortlessly.
I watched Messi two more times live after that, including one during El Classico. But that feeling of watching Lionel Messi live for the first time was different, and that feeling will always stay with me forever.
Now that I am back home in Nepal, I sometimes look back at the days and wander in nostalgia. I miss Barcelona the city. I miss all the fun and fiesta. But what I miss more is the feeling of watching Messi live. And now I regret sometimes for not doing so more (phew, the expensive tickets!)
A few days back, Messi finally left Barcelona. So, it dawned upon me that one day Messi will retire. I wish I could — somehow — watch him play live again. At least one more time before he hangs up his boot. To witness the greatness one more time. To capture the moment again for the rest of my life.