You hear people say things such as, “That parking job was a work of art.” The sentence is really just a fancy way of saying you like something. The phrase “a work of art” can usually be replaced with the word “good” to no discernible loss of meaning.
Lionel Messi’s goal on April 18, 2007 in a semi-final match between his club, Barcelona, and rival Getafe during Spain’s Copa del Rey is a work of art. It is a work of art because it is structured and appreciated the way art is structured and appreciated. This fact was brought home to me in my recent mental and emotional preparations for the current World Cup tournament in South Africa. I was watching a YouTube clip of Messi’s 2007 goal (Messi is the star of Argentina’s national team, Group B) and listening to what had been the live commentary of that game on British television.
The goal begins innocently enough at roughly midfield. Messi takes a pass and immediately jukes his defender with a clever left foot flip and then a crossover that loses the next defender coming at him from behind. He sees daylight and takes off. He heads full speed toward two more defenders, who back up toward the top of the goalie’s box. Top speed, hair flopping about, the crowd noise surging, he splits those two defenders, sends the man behind him crashing into another defender, fools the goalie running out to meet him by pushing the ball to the far right of the goal, and then kicks a perfectly angled shot back over the final defender just as he slides out of bounds. Pandemonium.
It is amazing to watch that goal the first time. You hear the surge from the crowd. They know that something magical is happening. At the same time, they don’t really know it, not in a fully conscious way. There is uncertainty in the voice of the announcer in the YouTube clip. Near the end of the play he starts to say “Oh,” with a slight disappointment, thinking that Messi hasn’t finished his run with a goal. The “Oh” slowly turns into “Ohhhh, what an amazing goal!” as he realizes that Messi is going to score during his final slide. The whole event is at first just a shock, for the announcer, the crowd, for Messi himself. The Dionysian frenzy into which goal-scorers often throw themselves immediately after scoring a goal (screaming, running madly to nowhere at all, rending of the clothing) is a direct expression of that overwhelming shock.
When Messi makes his first move and goes, he is running on full instinct. The accumulated knowledge in his bones has taken over. Too many things happen — and they happen too fast — for him to be fully conscious of each move. He trusts body memory, years and years of drilling and practice. Somehow, in that moment, all the training turns into something greater than the sum of those parts. He just does more with his body than seems possible within the constraints of the game. For a moment, he has the made the game fully his own, fully an expression of himself as a unique human being at a specific point in time and space.
In the YouTube clip you can listen to the announcers talk as they watch the replay in slow motion. Slowly they are putting it all together, coming to terms with what they have just seen. Suddenly, it occurs to one announcer to mention Maradona. Maradona, the great hero of Argentinean soccer and scorer of one of the all-time legendary goals against England in the 1986 World Cup when he beat several players to score in similarly spectacular fashion. It is not unrealistic to compare this goal by Messi to Maradona’s goal, mentions the announcer. He is already struggling to fit this goal into context, to understand what this goal means for the history of the game.
The Gambetta allowed Maradona to score his famous goal against England. What is the Gambetta? It’s that little move that makes your opponent think you are going one way when you are actually going the other. It is putting the foot down and then taking it away. It is like the Tango. When Maradona danced across the field of play he was doing exactly that. A way of moving, perhaps even a way of looking at the world was finding expression in his tricky feet. The extra move that seems superfluous but that creates a moment of hesitation in the defender and the space to break free.
When Messi scored that goal in 2007 he made soccer his own, stamped his personal mark on the game. But in doing so, he was channeling moves from Maradona learned during an entire childhood spent watching that goal played over and over again. And in doing that he was channeling something deeper, giving voice to the Gambetta and a specifically Argentinean way of being that goes deeper still. And where does the Gambetta come from, and Tango? Scholars talk of the influence of dance in the rites of the Candomblé religion, which is some mixture of local practice and African ritual brought over from the slaves of Brazil. In the end it reaches down to something you can’t touch, can’t put your finger on, can’t explain. And that, my friends, is the structure of art. • 14 June 2010