When Lionel Messi’s moment came, it was, of course, spectacular.
Stage? The Spanish Supercopa final. State of play? Defeat or victory balanced infinitely delicately. Classic Messi territory.
For 753 Barcelona matches, sufficient to make him the greatest player in history, this has always very specifically been Messi territory.
From his first Liga goal, scored against Albacete in the 90th minute nearly 16 years ago, via his extra-time winner against Estudiantes, scored with the club badge on his chest, in the Club World Cup final of 2009, right up to him choosing the 92nd minute of a Bernabeu Clasico to win the match 3-2 with his 500th Barcelona goal — believe me when I tell you that this was Messi territory. Messi-time.
Only this time, the “spectacular” wasn’t a goal but the right hook Messi swung at Athletic Bilbao’s goal-scoring, beard-growing, trumpet-playing striker Asier Villalibre.
In street fighting terms, you’d call it a rabbit punch. And when Messi saw the first red card of his entire Barcelona career, there can’t be any question, at all, that referee Gil Manzano, albeit helped by video repetition, got the decision right. No suspicion that man from Don Benito in Badajoz, down in Spain’s south west, was a memento collector. The type of referee who says to himself: “Right, old son, this night I’m going to go down on history for being the first person ever to send Messi off in a Barcelona match. History beckons!”
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No, there’s no question that Messi lost his temper, took a swing and connected then was ordered to take the long, solo, embarrassing walk to the dressing room (for only the fourth time in his entire career, more of which later) for just cause.
Not even the cast, scriptwriters and tense jury room atmosphere of “12 Angry Men” (Sir Alex Ferguson’s favourite film, if you care to know) could have got Messi off on a not guilty verdict.
And what’s more, you have to hand the Argentina international even more credit.
Not only was it bound to be spectacular when he finally received his marching orders for Barca. there also was bound to be a sense of genuine “timing” when it occurred.
With very little time left of a ding-dong, see-saw Supercopa final that eventually brought Athletic Club only their second major trophy in 37 years, this particular piece of timing was dramatic enough. As I’ve pointed out, it happened when that Messi of the ages would normally be scoring or creating the 3-3 goal to take the final to penalties.
But this season, of all seasons, it had to happen — didn’t it?
If Messi’s miraculous on-pitch patience wasn’t running empty, nagging at him to explode and to seek personal vengeance by now, then it would never happen. Ever.
Sunday’s red card was the first Leo Messi has received while playing for Barca’s first team, a length of 753 matches. David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images
From the sacking of Ernesto Valverde, almost exactly a year ago, through the clown circus of Quique Setien’s hapless time in charge, via an almighty walloping at the hands of Bayern Munich, an operatically tragic attempt to quit the club he loves, including that Burofax and the unspoken threat of court action, the weeks of mutual hackle-bristling between Messi and Ronald Koeman — like all great cinematic affairs — was suddenly turning into a genuine bromance. And with a trophy having been, literally, only seconds away from making this the honey-sweetest beginning to what might still become his last handful of months at Camp Nou, but then dramatically slipping away in the 90th minute … when else was Messi going to be red-carded?
Honestly, I ask you?
Nevertheless, it’s time to set another couple of parts of the record straight.
Firstly, referee Manzano, the man from Don Benito, gets an “assist” in this process. No, I’m not recanting; the red card was fully justified.
But his refereeing was as if he were a refugee from the 1968 summer of love, flowers in his hair, those round lightly tinted John Lennon-style specs, a guitar slung over his shoulder and a ticket to Woodstock sticking out of his feather-decorated leather waistcoat pocket.
Manzano took a “Hey man, it’s all groovy” approach all night as Athletic’s players applied a shrewd, not uncommon, but wholly illegal approach to disrupting both Barcelona’s and Messi’s rhythm.
A foul, a nudge, a pull of the jersey, a trip — it started very early on with Iker Muniain, who committed at least three bookable offences but wasn’t yellow-carded once.
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“Peace love and happiness” was Manzano’s attitude. A waggle of the finger, a raised eyebrow or, at his sternest, a “Hey bro! You’re harshing the vibe man!” reprimand.
It might have made Joni Mitchell’s lip quiver, but nobody else’s. Least of all the clever, preprogrammed and magnificently determined Athletic players.
It wasn’t brutal, it wasn’t unusual, and (the point is) Messi has been suffering this for what’s getting close to 900 professional matches.
But wait, there’s more. The actual sending off, that momentous image of this little genius traipsing off having let his side down, having let his guard down, also told a tale of what Manzano might want to reflect on as what’s happened sinks in.
The action comes as Barcelona are mounting an attack. You might call it, were you script writing this, “a last, desperate attack.” From 2-1 up in the 90th minute, they’re now teetering on the edge of losing (to an Athletic Club who, frankly, deserve the trophy for some absolutely outstanding determination, skill and chutzpah) and there are mere seconds left.
Messi, unfit because of hamstring problems during the semifinal, has played well below par; but it’s factual that he helped create the 1-0 goal for Antoine Griezmann. and he is enough of a threat for Athletic to have systematically tried to bump him, tug at him or trip him.
As the crucial moment comes, Messi has sprayed a lovely ball to the left, releasing Jordi Alba, and it’s another type of “signature” moment.
Think of all the commentaries you’ve listened to since 2012: “Messi … to Alba flying down the left wing … Alba takes the ball, he cuts it back to the edge of the penalty area aaaaaaanddd Meesssiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii! Goal, goal, goal!”
You remember them, right? Well, so does Villalibre.
Messi stands over Athletic Bilbao’s Asier Villalibre just moments after they clashed. CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP via Getty Images
As Messi tries to hare off in pursuit of what will be a cutback pass from Alba, Villalibre (who already has been booked) remembers the script.
It’s only an opinion, but I’ll wager he remembers the tactical briefing the Athletic squad have all had in the days leading up to this game: “DO NOT LET MESSI RUN FREELY ONTO AN ALBA CUTBACK, AT ANY COST.”
And so the striker, who’ll later charm the football world by celebrating the trophy with his teammates by producing his trumpet and playing victory songs, tries to put a full body check on Messi in what the knows, if spotted, will mean a red card for him, not Messi.
Only this time, Messi does what you, I or any normal person would have done many, many seasons ago: He lets disappointment, frustration, the sense of burning injustice overwhelm him, and he takes a swing.
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He was in the wrong. It was a red card action. Athletic deserved, overall, to win the final. All these are facts.
But when Manzano goes to look at the video, he does half a job. He is undoubtedly aware that a lot rides on this, he has been told that Messi took a swing at an opponent and he is running over with that in mind.
He looks at the repeated action and completely ignores the fact that Villalibre’s action was wholly illegal and that he too had to be sent off.
Emblematic of the referee’s night, emblematic of Athletic’s “we know how to give ourselves the edge” attitude.
When Messi was first red-carded in senior football, it was a piece of absolute, utter nonsense: Argentina vs. Hungary in August 2005.
The kid, still an unquantified genius rather than the 24-karat article he’d very quickly become, was on the pitch 90 seconds before Vilmos Vanczak first of all tried to hack him down, then nearly tugged his shirt off his back until Messi tried to free himself and was judged, ludicrously, by referee Markus Merk to have committed a sending-off offence.
I’d like to think that Merk buys Messi chocolates and flowers every year on the anniversary to try to make amends.
The other? Copa America 2019 — Chile’s Gary Medel tries to head-butt him twice, Messi simply stands his ground, they go chest to chest and both get reds from the Paraguayan referee — somewhere between the clear cut of the Supercopa and the clear comedy of that Hungary friendly 15 years ago.
“Medel is a player who always plays right to the limits of the law and he’s provocative, but I didn’t think either of us merited a red card,” Messi said afterward.
There have been other moments when this beckoned. Remember the UEFA Supercup Final between Barcelona and Shakhtar in 2009?
He definitely put his forehead onto Darijo Srna’s nose but was pardoned by referee Frank De Bleeckere when he probably shouldn’t have been.
Messi is certain to miss two matches, but that could be doubled, depending on how the competition committee categorises his dismissal. Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP) (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP via Getty Images
Over the years, I recall a few where Messi too has been at the outer limits of staying on the pitch. He’s no angel.
But from the first day I watched him, for Barcelona B in Autumn 2003, until today, I’ve seen opponents kick, tug, barge, attack, provoke and try to damage him.
One of the first questions I ever asked him (by then it was 2005): “You get kicked all the time but you never react. Are you made of industrial rubber?”
He told me, then, that, early in matches, he could feel the pain and discomfort, but once a contest was in full flow, he was so desperate to get the ball and influence the result that he barely felt any of it.
Yet what he feels most keenly, especially now, is a sense of loss, a sense of further great achievements potentially slipping away, a sense of “where have all the good times gone” and I’ve no doubt a sense that Father Time is starting to scythe at him just as dangerously as any opponent ever has.
So when Villalibre, loveable for his beard, his Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation” impersonation, his terrific equaliser in this dramatic final and for his magical trumpet voluntary once the cup was in Basque hands, added a little streetwise bodychecking to his repertoire, I find it little to wonder at that Messi, finally, snapped.
Justice wasn’t done because the referee allowed the temperature to boil up and over thanks to choosing flower power over card power, justice wasn’t done because Villalibre didn’t get a second booking.
But, Leo, old chum, justice was done for your right-hook rabbit punch.
It’s been a long time coming, I genuinely don’t know how you kept your temper until now. But the next few games you miss because of suspension for violent conduct, well, you earned them, all right.
And now that this has happened, if you thought they were out to provoke you before, just watch what comes next.