Lionel Messi scored for Argentina to help their win against Australia, but from the BBC’s coverage of the game you’d have thought he was their only player.
It speaks volumes for the state of modern football discourse that I feel the need to say this, but that isn’t going to stop me.
I am now, and have always been, pretty neutral on the matter of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. They were both wonderful players but neither are in their prime. That’s just ageing. But I obviously recognise that they are among the finest players ever to have played the game.
Comparing players across different eras has always felt like a bit of a fool’s errand. A diverting conversation in the pub, but almost impossible to judge on a serious basis. You’re simply not comparing like with like. On the only metric that really matters – ‘who’s the greatest of their era? – my honest answer is that there may have to be room on that podium for more than one.
But personality and character matter and I guess if I’m reluctantly in Team Messi then it’s probably on account of this, although I wouldn’t truly consider myself to be a paid subscriber. There’s not-great stuff in his past, of course. The tax evasion and the shilling for countries run by autocrats, for example. But broadly speaking he’s simply a blank slate. My primary opinion on Cristiano Ronaldo is that were I intended to be his target audience, he’d want to hire new PR representatives.
But the level of obsequiousness towards Lionel Messi from the BBC during the match between Argentina and Australia was at a level that started to sound shrill. This was a match that exploded to life in its last 20 minutes, a fascinating game which nearly ended in what would have been one of the World Cup’s great comebacks. There wasn’t any need to turn this into a eulogy for one player. There was something galling about seeing every other player being implicitly reduced to that of a bit-part player in the story of somebody else’s life.
His performance was dramatically improved in the second half, though ironically his goal came in the first half, during which he was otherwise an extra himself, and a pedestrian one at that. His second-half performance saw him step up a gear and he improved enormously, but it wasn’t so good that Argentina didn’t twice come within inches of throwing away a two-goal lead.
The overall question of why the BBC should have taken this stance is something of a mystery. Perhaps it’s a natural reaction when we run out of superlatives. The gushing starts when there’s nothing more productive to say and Lionel Messi has been inviting superlatives for almost two decades. There are only so many times you can reach for the thesaurus before it too becomes exhausted.
There is something unusual about the way Messi plays the game. His brilliance comes from elevating the simple things – positional awareness, laser-focused finishing, ball control, reading the game, the list goes on – to a different plane. He remains capable of brilliant, game-changing moments, but it is that engine of consistency that underpins all those moments and articulating that can be difficult and time-consuming. Perhaps the temptation to drill that all down to a love-in is the only way to fit it all in during the few minutes they have available.
‘Ah well, it might have been his last match’, was one potential response to this over-saturation coverage, but this also tastes like pretty weak sauce. This was a second round match, and it was one that Argentina were heavy favourites to win. Had they lost to Australia, that in itself would have been a bigger story than ‘Lionel Messi has just played his last game in the World Cup’. Messi has already more or less suggested that this will surely be his last World Cup – he’ll turn 39 during the next one – and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him retire after this tournament, or perhaps to try to keep going until the 2024 Copa America.
In sharing this queasy feeling at this obsequiousness, Piers Morgan managed to arrive at the right answer as a result of what we might presume to be totally wrong-headed thinking. Of course, it’s difficult to say whether this is a heartfelt opinion – tweets of him previously praising Messi weren’t difficult to find – or whether he was merely being a professional troll, taking a moment to put the boot into the BBC, going out to bat for his new bestie, or all of the above. But ultimately, even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day.
And is this the sort of thing even Messi would want to hear? I mean, everyone loves praise. I have no doubt that Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, loves receiving praise. And there’s nothing wrong with that; indeed, faux modesty can be just aggravating as extreme arrogance. But there’s a point at which most people would surely start to feel a little uncomfortable at the tone of a heavy volume of praise. Some – perhaps many – hate receiving it at all, or at least pretend that is the case.
The following day France played Poland and the BBC’s coverage was back to normal. Kylian Mbappe has probably become the best player of his generation, but while the language used around him was also fawning, it was on a different scale to that laid at Messi’s door the evening before. It felt more than a little like normality had returned. But this does beg the question, what happens if Argentina do get knocked out or lose the final? I guess the BBC may still have all the black-bordered presentation material around from after the Queen died? Perhaps they’ll repurpose that to guide us all through ten days of mourning for Lionel Messi not winning a World Cup.
It is absolutely understandable that people – those who both work in the football industry and those who don’t – should revere Lionel Messi. He is obviously a generational talent. But it felt like such a strange flex for the BBC to take this singular (and, as things turned out, very interesting) match and boil it down to the involvement of one player, whoever that player might happen to be. The other Argentina players deserved better. Australia’s players deserved better. We all deserved better.