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30th Jun 2018

A frame-by-frame analysis of one of the greatest goals Lionel Messi has ever scored

Kyle Picknell

lionel messi

We won’t remember the failure to win the World Cup. We’ll remember the parting gift

Ever Banega’s remarkable absence was felt by Argentina during their opening game of the World Cup as they toiled away against Iceland. He appeared as a substitute 54 minutes in and suddenly Argentina had something like breath in the lungs, if only for a moment.

For whatever reason he was left out again as Argentina were overwhelmed by Croatia’s golden generation finally coming of age. Banega was left watching from the bench as Modric and Rakitic passed his team into submission, death by delicacy, and he must have been wondering why exactly he wasn’t on the field.

Not to extinguish the flames, but to at least push back the smoke and the fire with some of his own. Against Nigeria he started and played the pass of the tournament.

You can always tell a player apart by noticing where they look when they have the ball. It’s the difference between a player in the literal sense and something purer, grandiose, the “oh, he’s a player” murmurings saved only for those with an instrinsic understanding of the game they are playing, those relentlessly and ferociously at ease, unshackled with the ball at their feet.

Players, you see, they rarely need to look down. Banega does but only once to weigh the pass, reaching into the future and marking a little ‘x’ in the air like a treasure map.

The pass was sublime but for him that was the easy part. It was the movements before that were the key and that’s where we will start, at the beginning of the end.

First he must look across as Rojo plays the pass, registering the speed and path of the ball, and then must turn his head away before it arrives, like a married man bored of the same arguments. Otherwise, there is simply not enough time.

It’s somehwere between pattern recognition and clairvoyance. He only needs one glance, and he knows to duck if crockery starts to fly.

His chin will point arrogantly to the sky as he traps the ball and he’ll hear the dull thud of synthetic leather on leather, the sound of a comma not a fullstop, and know he has control through feel and sound alone.

Then he will search for the man he has been instructed to find at every available opportunity, as if he didn’t know to do that already.

He sees the run, or at least the run forming in Messi’s mind as his eyes flash towards the open space, the green grass suddenly greener in behind the Nigerian defence.

The ball must be flicked out from under his feet too, far enough so he can take exactly four steps to generate the lift, power and spin, but absolutely no further. He must cut underneath it, a sand wedge out of the bunker, and generate enough arc to get it up and over the incoming Wilfred Ndidi, even if he jumps.

After that it’s simply a case of playing the ball through the space between the thread itself and the eye of a needle.

Somewhere in the crowd someone mutters “what a pass” whilst another, maybe a bald Englishman, Greg from Basingstoke, can be heard telling his mate “oh he’s a player that Bodega”, seeing him and butchering his name for the first but probably not the last time.

Then, well, you can only watch and try, if you can, to process the series of images flashing, spinning by in a blur.

Messi’s eyes never leave the ball though, something about an exception and a rule, and he watches the pass travel half the length of the pitch onto his knee before a penultimate cushioning with his left foot before it hits the ground, somehow catching a still-intact raindrop.

His right splashes it into the top corner and only then can he look away, not a player but a god watching creation come to life.

His World Cups are over but at least we have this. There are those that will say he never did enough, but this is where the words end because it is them that won’t do.