Yesterday, at the Camp Nou, in Barcelona, Spain, in a 15-second span, Lionel Messi demonstrated why some think he is the greatest player alive today. Tangentially, Barcelona FC won the Copa del Rey 3-1 over official tourney hosts Athletic Bilbao, whose numerous admitted fans matched the numbers of those attending to cheer the venue’s owners for this final match.
That Barcelona was the superior team no one disputed before the match was played. That Bilbao are no pushovers was evident for the first 19 minutes and most of the rest of the game, despite Barca’s overwhelming possession. But at the 20th minute Messi had seen enough and took matters onto his own two feet.
Receiving the ball about eight yards into the Bilbao half and along the right sideline, and with only six of their players between him and the net, he slalomed through the five field players and then scoop-shot a blast into the lower right side of the Bilbao goal, at about 18 inches above the ground, ensuring the ball’s flight eluded the stretched arm and hand of keeper Iago Herrerin’s diving attempt to stop the ball.
To say the goal decided the game was pure understatement.
The entire stadium erupted into chants of “Messi, Messi,” with the requisite stretched-arm bows that signify grateful submission to the sublime nature of such a performance. Neymar’s post game comment was simple: “For me, he is the best in the world.” Barca coach, Luis Enrique, was in an awed low-key mode when responding “We are used to seeing Messi perform it is normal for him to surprise us.”
Bilbao are a proud side and they did not allow the game to become a runaway, but the effect of the Messi moment inspired all of his teammates to play at their best and ensured only the Blaugrana were leaving the pitch as trophy winners.
Truth be told, Bilbao left winners too. Any team that can play through the experience of such a moment and the reactions it engendered in fans and participants alike, has shown a character beyond anyone’s expectations. Athletic did not bow their heads and obtained a goal-of-honor that in any other match might have been the goal of the game.
The official tally included a tap-in by Neymar off a play Messi began and Luis Suarez masterfully constructed. The match also included a second Messi goal. Frankly, had he not scored the first, we would be speaking about his second in awed tones too.
At the 74th minute, Dani Alves received a lead pass down the right wing that allowed him to take a hopeful if calculated cross into the middle of the Bilbao box. The cross was calculated in the sense that there were four defenders in front of the goalkeeper and only Messi representing Alves’ side of the argument. But only one person reached the ball, redirecting it emphatically into the net. Messi, despite trailing the play and being easily ten yards away from where he eventually made contact with the ball—which was in front of a defender and with two others but a couple of feet away—was the only player to touch the sphere, goalkeeper included.
Those knowledgeable about football may argue that once Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid left the Copa competition and once Bayern Munich, PSG, and Real left the Champions League Barcelona were given an unfair advantage to win both titles. Those same folks would also say that Copa America has Argentina as the overwhelming favorites, despite the likes of Chile, Colombia and Uruguay, to mention a few who have been playing well of late. But in all three cases the Messi led teams must still perform. And as they did to win La Liga, they also did to win the Copa. Woe be to those who would oppose the diminutive Argentine in the remaining competitions of this summer, in Europe and South America.