Lionel Messi: When geometry and poetry coalesce into football

Flaunting 798 career goals and 352 assists from 1,012 appearances, Messi by winning the latest FIFA Best Men's Player Award has nearly completed the list of career feats a football player can accomplish

Lionel Messi

On Doomsday, all the men that have ever lived will be congregated to talk about football, and one will say: I studied in Amsterdam in 1979; another will say: I was an architect in Sao Paulo in ‘62, and another one: I was a teenager in Napoli in ‘87, and my father will say: I travelled to Montevideo in ‘67, and other one behind him: I listened to the silenced Maracanã in 1950. Everybody will tell their battles with pride until the night is old. And when nobody is left, I will stand and say slowly: I lived in Barcelona in the times of the Dog-Man. And there will be silence. Everybody else will lower their head. And God will appear, dressed for the occasion, and pointing at me will say: ‘you, the little fat one; you are saved. Everybody else, to the showers.’

– Hernan Casciari, Argentine-Spanish journalist

The above is an excerpt from Casciari’s 2015 book Messi es un perro (Messi is a Dog). The Argentine-Spanish journalist compares the footballer with a dog he had as a child called Totin, whose complete focus on a yellow sponge was similar to the laser focus that Messi had on the ball.

Now eight years down the lane, the world has much more to add to it as we have watched a lot more from Messi, arguably the GOAT of the game. We saw him in tears announcing his retirement after the defeat by Chile at the Copa America final in 2016 at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Then we heard him coming back from retirement. We were fortunate enough to witness the same man lifting the Copa at Maracanã five years later. We were blessed to see him planting that tender kiss on the World Cup in Qatar last year after a memorable and hard-fought final which lasted for 133 minutes.


Also read: Lionel Messi wins Best FIFA Men’s Award

We had that treat of a 35-year-old man carrying his national team on his shoulders to the podium after a disastrous start. He had been scoring unbelievable goals, providing exquisite passes, dropping the best and young defenders dead, and even taking the battle to the opposition camp over the sideline.

Now with his second ‘The Best FIFA Men’s Player’ and his seventh FIFA individual trophy overall, he has not only surpassed his arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo but also nearly completed the list of career feats a football player can accomplish.

With 798 career goals and 352 assists from 1012 appearances, Messi is only 16 goals short of Ronaldo’s record, who has played 102 more matches than him. For most of his fans across the globe, the GOAT debate is thus (arguably) settled.

‘The little boy from Rosario’  

The first video of Lionel Andres Messi that I saw was shot on May 29 1993. He was six years old at the time but appeared to be four. With his distinctive movement and dribbling abilities, he could stand out from a group of children playing on the ground. He could dribble past as many as four or five kids and score or pass the ball at will, just as he does now.

The second-oldest video of Messi that I have seen features him in Newell’s old boys’ jersey. Shot in 1994, this video shows us the improvement he had made in ball control and passing. As the number 10 of the junior squad, he is seen dribbling against seven opponents before putting the ball in the back of the net. It was not in 2007 against Getafe that he recreated Maradona’s goal of the century, but way back in 1994 when he scored a hat-trick against a Pujata club. “He was like a mute, until and unless he scored a goal, he talked only when the ball hit the net,” recollects one of his Rosario teammates. From the potreros in these amateur videos to the FIFA ceremony held at Theatre du Chatelet in Paris, Lionel Andres Messi’s life has been visually documented and the world knows his journey from Rosario to Barcelona and from there to Paris. The legends on him were not etched in letters or voice – they were shot, the visuals spoke for him. We could trace back the feint he made against Josko Gvardiol to one of those videos of the 1990s.

The playmaker of Parc de prince

The day before, while watching PSG’s match against Olympique de Marseille, I could see the same boy gleefully passing the ball to Kylian Mbappe to score, not once, but twice. The first pass was sublime, not many players would have seen that opening and anticipated that run from lightning-quick Mbappe, I am sure, and I have the backing of many greats of the likes of Thierry Henry here.

Also read: Messi has defied football’s lexicon, and its restrictive grammar

Look at PSG’s first goal. Leo was in the PSG half when the ball was won and immediately Vitinha got the ball to him; he accelerated with it and found Mbappe. That’s Messi. “Give him the ball and he comes to life,” says Henry.

Messi in Paris is not the Messi of Barcelona. The statistics can give you a hint of his transformation from a scorer to a provider but not the whole picture. The new avatar of Messi after his exit from Spain will be marked by the deftness of the killer passes he provided to his strikers – be it Kylian, Neymar, Julian, Lautaro, or even Nahuel Molina, the unlikeliest of the lot who got to score from a dream-like pass from him against The Netherlands in the World Cup quarter-finals.

Messi’s signature on the field is his control over the ball and the balance of his body. ‘Deft’ would be the apt word to describe his movements, with the ‘f’ in it sounding like a feather touch. Messi always keeps the ball close to his feet, just like a parent caring for a ward, as opposed to Maradona, who always chased the ball with swift and huge strides. Messi always acts a tad slower than his opponents anticipate, which could easily throw them offbalance. This is how he nutmegged Nathan Ake and Josko Gvardiol in the quarter-final and semi-final of the World Cup.

Geometry and poetry

The geometric shapes formed by Messi’s movements on the ground are pure art, according to Professor David Stumper of Uppsala University in Sweden. He was one of those mathematicians who was employed by rival clubs to study Messi’s movements on the field.

“You can study and analyze him academically, but it’s never easy to stop him from scoring,” opines Dr Stumper. “Just because his body movements are unpredictable when he is on the ball.”

Yes, the professor is right, there is this geometric beauty in Messi’s passes. For instance, when he sends a “through-ball” to Luis Suarez inside the penalty area from 40 to 50 yards away, and the latter skilfully directs the ball into the goal, the geometry of the ball’s path literally turns into poetry.

Pep Guardiola would be the man who has seen Messi, the player, from the closest quarters. According to him, Messi is like someone who is lost in the woods. “He is so cautious during the start of the match. This is when he scans the field. Messi never runs in the initial phase of the match,” says Guardiola in the Amazon Prime documentary, This is football.

Also read: How nationalist fervour made 5 million Argentines to receive Messi at home

It could be safely assumed that Messi possesses a perfect mix of Argentina’s criollo football, which is heavily based on individual skills, and FC Barcelona’s philosophy of total football. This is how Messi’s gambeta, coupled with the Tiki-Taka of Xavi and Iniesta proved lethal for almost every club in Europe during Pep’s heydays at Barcelona. “Spain’s version of tiki-taka was highly structured, based on protecting possession and grinding sides down with the constant attrition of passing excellence. Barcelona did all that but also had in Messi a player who could suddenly take two opponents out of the game with a gambeta; they had an element of individuality that made them less mechanistic and rather better to watch,” observes Jonathan Wilson in his book Angels with Dirty Faces.

Evolution from the ‘Pibe stereotype’

Pibe, the Argentine urchin who played football in the potreros and streets was the essence and the prototype of their version of football. According to Jonathan Wilson, when legendary journalist Borocoto described Pibe, he had given a startlingly accurate portrait of Diego Maradona. Messi, by contrast, with his more comfortable background and his sensible haircut, despite his lack of height and the slightness of his build, is somehow something else; he doesn’t quite fulfil the Pibe stereotype. This image has made him not-so-favourite in his homeland for a long time.

With their victory in three international competition finals, what Messi has done is to re-write the very essence of the imagination about football in a country. He has done it by replacing Maradona in the hearts of the youngsters, at least. In fact, he has evolved as a modern version of the Pibe, who is truly international, having a global audience.

Also read: Beating France not enough, Messi must beat an egg to prove he’s GOAT


The linear movements of players on the ground barely fascinate me. I fancy the movement of a sportsman as something musical. When the players make even the slightest of a curve of their body movements, the game transcends to another territory, which is of sheer artistry. The transcendence of sports and arts happens with that rhythmic curve in the body movement, creating a flow which the straight and precise ‘robotic’ moves often lack, and that’s what Leo has been treating us with, for the last two decades.