Often, when Lionel Messi goes a match without producing the sort of highlights we have come to demand from him, as he did on Saturday against Iceland, I try to imagine what we would say had another player, any other player, given the same performance. Always, as I did once more at Spartak Stadium on Saturday, I fail.
This is not, I don’t think, because other players aren’t capable of what Messi does. It’s because of something about the relation he stands in to a game, his teammates, the opposition, even the fans. He exists somehow outside of it all, as if he were jokingly asked to play a game at the local park, and no one quite knows how to behave now that he has showed up.
Messi spends a lot of time these days walking around, sometimes standing completely still, squinting grimly at the decisions of his teammates. Only once on Saturday did I see him go so far as to point out to one of them what he wanted them to do. His emotions, such as they are, were mostly reserved for the referee.
At the final whistle, he stood motionless on the halfway line, head bowed, hands on hips. He looked up only to shake the hands of Iceland’s players, filing respectfully past him on their way to celebrate with their traveling fans, gathered in a large blue triangle on the opposite side of the stadium to where Messi had missed his penalty.
There is a mood of foreboding around this Argentina team, the sense of expectation among their fans so bloated with fear — the fear they are about to watch the entire career of their greatest player since Diego Maradona without a single trophy to show for it — it has warped into something altogether gloomier.
This is a strange development in the career of a player whose game is joyous, so exuberant. Once, he played like a child, obsessed with the ball, enthralled by what he could do with it; now he seems more conscious of what is happening around him. Not on the pitch — he has always been a supremely intelligent, unselfish player — but in the atmosphere.
What, then, are we supposed to say about his performance against Iceland? He took 11 shots and didn’t score. He missed a penalty that would almost certainly have won his team the game. He lost the ball seven times. He was also his team’s best player, the only Argentinian on the pitch who looked either willing or capable of taking control.
There felt something pointed about the fact Messi had nothing to do with his team’s only goal, an excellent turn and finish by Sergio Aguero following an errant shot by center-back Marcos Rojo. Messi trotted over to celebrate, smiling, wondering, perhaps, whether the day would belong to someone else.