When Messi plays, soccer becomes the 'beautiful game'

Admittedly, it is sometimes hard to love the game of soccer. The joys of the “beautiful game” are rarely as obvious as a slam dunk or a touchdown pass.

So often they come in the subtlety of a back heel, the precision of an 80-yard pass hitting someone precisely in stride, the rhythmic ebb and flow of a game without commercial interruption.

Yet when Lionel Messi steps on the field, soccer needs no explanation.

The Argentine winger scored no goals in tonight’s 3-0 semifinal demolition of archrival Brazil. Yet even in what was – for him – a rather ordinary performance, he was the one player on the field who brought a collective intake of breath from 53,000 people every time he touched the ball.

At times, he looks like a mogul skier, weaving between defenders who appear almost stationary. At others, it seems that he must surely have magnets in his shoes, emerging from a tangle of bodies, the ball still somehow on his feet.

A little like baseball, soccer can be more about what goes wrong than what goes right. Just as a great hitter fails to get on base 60 percent of the time, great soccer teams spend 88 minutes of a game not scoring – and often not coming close.

But in Messi, the beauty of the beautiful game is more apparent. Usually, the goals do come. But even when they do not, there is still a purpose in his every step. There is not a nil-nil bone in Messi’s body.

What others dare not attempt for lack of skill – running full speed at defenses with the ball on their foot – he has made an art form, slippery as a bar of soap, composed as a conductor with his baton and tails.

This is the most precious of soccer gifts, and it is rare. One of Messi’s opponents tonight, Ronaldinho, used to be such a player. Perhaps he can be again. But on this night, there was no question who was the more feared – or adored.

At midnight Friday, East Coast time, Messi will take the field in the gold-medal match against Nigeria. The Chinese crowd will call MES-SI as they always do, and opposing defenders will seem to be on their heels from the moment the national anthems end, as they also always do.

In an Olympics that has given us the liquid strides of Jamaican sprinters, the incomparable precision of Chinese divers, and the amazing Michael Phelps, it is only fitting the soccer’s finale will bring us Argentina’s little maestro one last time.

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