The Argentine Lionel Messi is the personification of soccer sublime . He has come to move fans in ways that art lovers are moved by a painting.
This article was updated on Sep. 8, 2023 at 4:35 p.m.
BUENOS AIRES — Lionel Messi, that giant of soccer, is entering the twilight of his career by joining an American team, Inter Miami. He has received all the praise and glory anyone could in the world of sports, not to mention an ocean of publicity, online and offline, and all the money you could hope to earn. A while back, Marius Serra, a journalist with Barcelona paper La Vanguardia, counted 564 press articles on Messi in Spanish alone.
One is reminded of the "perfect beauty" evoked in one of Shakespeare's plays, mentioned in the novelist Stendhal's (1829) travel diary, Promenades dans Rome. Indeed, beside Messi's status as an icon for soccer fans from Buenos Aires to Bangladesh, is there an artistic dimension to this personage? His followers speak of him in superlative terms that suggest inspiration bordering on dizziness. That is how Stendhal felt viewing works of art in Florence.
One of his biggest fans is the Englishman Roy Hudson, a former footballer now based in Fort Lauderdale close to Miami. Recently he compared the exhilaration of watching Messi live to watching a Shakespeare play with the writer himself or watching Rembrandt paint. Millions of people living in Florida could now watch the greatest soccer player of all time, he said. In 2016, when Messi was in Barcelona, he compared him to the magician Houdini.
He has been a subject for at least two contemporary artists, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami. Hirst's triptych, Beautiful Messi Spin Painting for One in Eleven, sold for €448,000 for charity a decade ago. Though still young, he already boasts several biographies. One writer, Jordi Puntí, the author of Todo Messi, sees in him the concepts of lightness, speed, precision, visibility and multiplicity, which the Italian author Italo Calvino foresaw decades ago as shaping art and literature this century.
These were cited in Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Sei proposte per il prossimo millennio), which was to be read out as a set of lectures at Harvard University in 1985. Puntí says that unwittingly, Calvino was talking about Messi and other soccer giants of our time. The manager of the Paris Saint-Germain, Luis Enrique, says "Messi is decisive even when he is at home, having dinner."
The Anglo-Spanish journalist John Carlin, who writes for papers including Clarín, calls him a genius, a joy and a consolation in life, and his "only idol," admitting he watches Messi's teams, just to see him play. The end of his career will be a day of mourning, he declares.
Soccer has a particular momentum that provokes in fans the same, breathless sensation Stendhal had in Italy. It surges in moments like Messi's pass to Molina against the Netherlands (at the last World cup), the play before goal three against Croatia, goal two against France or the collective exhilaration of Argentines at the Montiel goal.
In Stendhal's case, he felt far more than elated while viewing art in Florence (in 1817) and simply for being in that city: "I had reached an emotive point of celestial sensations given by the Fine Arts and passionate feelings... I had palpitations, felt exhausted, and was afraid of falling as I walked." Since then, confusion induced by works of art is termed the Florence or Stendhal syndrome.
One is even reminded of the poet Baudelaire, who wrote (in Paris in 1855) that "What is beautiful is always strange. I do not mean to say that it is willfully, coldly unusual... I mean it will always have a little strangeness... which is what makes it particularly an object of Beauty."