Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 5 August 2020

Dejection for Lionel Messi, but Barcelona star gives Saudi Arabia fans a night they will never forget

Messi has made the remarkable routine, but the Barcelona maestro cut a dejected figure as he strode down the Jeddah tunnel following Spanish Super Cup exit

They had come primarily for him.

They rose in unison when he emerged from the tunnel pre-match. They tracked his every move, even when he relocated to the far side of King Abdullah Sports City, diminishing to a dot.

They whopped and hollered and hugged each other when his image beamed across the big screens, even if it depicted him merely pottering around, paying no heed that the gaze of almost 60,000 people was upon him.

They celebrated his curled free-kick in the warm-up, beyond his own goalkeeper and tucked tight into the corner, as if the free-kick had been curled past Jan Oblak and the match that was about to unfold was won.

He simply brushed back his hair, retrieved another ball, and went through the same routine. It elicited the same result.

They chanted “Messss-i, Messss-i, Messss-i” until their throats rasped and the stadium rumbled. They unfurled their banners, waved their smartphones. They video-called those not fortunate enough to be present to witness it.

For that’s what it felt like on a special Thursday night in Jeddah: a happening.

They cheered loudest when the line-ups were announced and his name read out. From the first whistle, they shuddered in expectation every time he touched the ball, a surge of electricity through their bodies and throughout the stadium. The sense was that, with him in possession, anything was possible.

They rushed towards him whenever he set about taking a corner, ball under his arm, not a care in the world as the world converged on what suddenly became the most prime piece of real estate on the planet.

He arched his corner towards goal, but Antoine Griezmann could only flick wide his header. His supplier trotted off, undeterred, knowing he would soon conjure another moment.

Because that’s what Lionel Messi does. He summons moments, supplies them across a contest so that one quickly supplants the other, making it nigh impossible to keep track.

We call them “moments” – a devastating dropped shoulder; an unexpected burst past an opponent (the speed of movement still draws the breath, even if the back-catalogue stretches 15-plus years as a professional, even if this diminutive but dominant footballer is halfway to 33); a perfectly weighted pass through unforeseen spaces; a slalom through a posse of opponents.

Most probably, he sees them as nothing out of the ordinary. For as long as anyone can remember, Messi has made the remarkable routine.

On Thursday, they saw him score twice, both beautifully simplistic finishes to nobody but him. One counted, when he broke beyond two Atletico Madrid rivals and whipped a right-footed shot – universally accepted his weak side - past Oblak to draw Barcelona level.

The other was chalked off, although perhaps it should not have been. Messi had, apparently, used his arm to control the ball before slotting inside the far upright. The infringement was so barely detectable, like some of Messi’s most impactful moves, that it had to be flagged by VAR, pulling the referee to his pitchside monitor.

In the meantime, they twirled their scarves, chorused his name, fanned their arms, bowed down to this otherworldly talent. Messi has often been deemed extraterrestrial, by friends (e.g. Carles Puyol), by foes (e.g. Gigi Buffon), by former managers (e.g. Luis Enrique).

In the end, though, he was brought back down to Earth. With nine minutes remaining, Atletico equalised. Five minutes later, they struck the winner, triumphing 3-2 to silence the crowd and confirm their place in the final of this revamped Spanish Super Cup. Taking place for the first of three years in Saudi Arabia, Atletico meet Real Madrid, their Spanish neighbours, on the same grass on Sunday.

It feels a shame - a travesty even - that Messi will not be a part of it. After each of Atletico’s late goals, he retreated to the end of the halfway line, as far from the din and the disbelief that he could withdraw without taking seat in the stands.

He stood with hands on hips, eyes fixed on the turf. He rubbed a hand over his face. Somehow, as his side and his supporters looked to him, he seemed completely lost in the blur. Then Messi doubled over, hoisted his socks and set about dragging his team back into the match.

But he could not. Even he was powerless to prevent Atletico’s overwhelming act of defiance. The whistle went and his head dropped. He shook hands with whoever blocked his trudge towards the exit. As Atletico celebrated a first success against Barcelona in 10 encounters, the on-pitch television camera trailed Messi, oblivious to the jubilation around it, to those cavorting in red and white.

By then, a large portion of the stadium had turned for home too, Messi’s disappointment mirrored. They had come primarily for him, but he would not be coming back.

Sensing its finality, one fan hurdled the barrier, escaped security and scampered towards Messi, wrapping around the Barcelona captain as if a relative had returned from a long-drawn war. He was promptly unfastened and ushered away, Messi emotionless, for he has presumably experienced it countless times before.

Then he removed his armband, fixed his stare down the tunnel, paid no attention to the people’s pleas for at least a little recognition. For the first time on the night, Messi slipped definitively from view.

Updated: January 11, 2020 12:55 PM

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