The Italian novelist Umberto Eco apparently suffered a crisis of faith while watching a soccer match with his father when he was 13 years old. Surrounded by thousands of passionate fans who were living and dying with their team, all that Eco observed on the field were "senseless movements" of the players that added up to nothing. It was a "cosmic, meaningless performance," he determined. This childhood experience forever linked soccer, in his mind, to the vanity of all earthly things. But he might have thought otherwise had FC Barcelona's Lionel Messi been on that field.
I have seen Messi play at Camp Nou, Futbol Club Barcelona's 100,000-seat stadium, which is again drawing packed crowds as the new season commences in Spain. Seeing what the diminutive Messi does with a ball while opponents hang onto him, beat him and kick him in their futile defensive tactics makes me believe that there is a beneficent God, and that every 15 years or so he places a sublime soccer player among us to ease our worldly pain and to remind us what beauty is. Pele, George Best, Maradona, Zidane and now Messi.
Despite the increasing popularity of youth soccer leagues here, and the deep loyalty to the game in Latino communities, I'm guessing that most of my neighbors on the Westside of Los Angeles don't know who Messi is. Many are like me, who grew up playing and watching baseball, basketball and football. I hear them say that soccer is "that game where nobody scores," or that it is still somehow a "foreign" import into American sports culture.
When I hear these kinds of comments, I plead with them to go to YouTube to watch highlights of Messi's play. He seems to defy the limits imposed on us by physics. He runs faster dribbling the ball than running without it. The ball seems to stick to his feet by some magnetic force. And he sees movements and possibilities on the field that render fans mute. During the game I saw in Barcelona, fans responded to Messi's moves with a collective gasp, followed by ecstatic cheering. Soccer pundits describe his talents as limitless.
But theologian John Dominic Crossan suggests that it is the games we create that constantly remind us of our limitations. We structure the rules in a fashion that limits absolute success. If a game is too easy, we stop playing it and devise new rules that will challenge us. This mixture of triumph and failure, and the discipline required for even partial success, is what retains our fascination as players and as fans.
Anyone who has played sports is compelled to reflect on their own limitations and to recognize the inevitability of physical decline. Even the greatest of athletes — Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali — begin to stumble when they stay too long in the game, believing that the laws of nature don't apply to them.
Feelings of reverence are the result of this recognition of limits. It is the emotion, author Paul Woodruff writes, "that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods." We cannot be godlike when we stand in awe of what lies beyond our control, which includes much of the world. This understanding of human limitation can be beneficial politically, socially and personally. Reverence keeps us from overreaching and imposing our political will on others. Personally, it engenders a respect for the gift of life itself. Approached in a particular way, the reverence we have toward our athletic heroes can be a social resource.
While adoring fans hold up signs in Camp Nou proclaiming Messi as a god, it is clear that he knows his gifts will last only a few short years. He is like a young boy on the field, full of primitive urges and intuitive naturalness that direct his play. When he is knocked down, he bounces back up immediately as if to say, "I have only so much time here, so I had better make the most of it." This behavior is unlike most other soccer stars who prefer to pound the ground and look to the referees for help. Genius does not need referees. This kind of enthusiasm and self-knowledge commands our respect.
There is an absurdity in my gratitude toward Messi and the beauty of soccer, especially for an American who came to soccer so late in life. My Irish friends, who grew up with soccer, find my Johnny-come-lately love of Messi annoying. Regardless, as most of America tunes in to the National Football League's season, I'll be watching Messi and La Liga, and shouting in my best broken Spanish for their version of futbol, the "beautiful game."
I suppose this is part of Eco's point. The vanity and crazy money, maniacal response of the fans and the fact that this year's scores and records bleed into the next almost without intermission: It's all absurd. But for me, it's not the absurdity that is troublesome. It's the absurdity that makes the game, and Messi's unfathomable talent, great.
Kelly Candaele is producer of the documentary film "El Clásico — More Than a Game," about the soccer rivalry between Futbol Club Barcelona and Real Madrid.