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Leo Messi’s Magic Realism

By Saurabh Nagpal

Though it emerged as a political response to Eurocentric, objective forms of literature, magic realism is a postcolonial literary mode, which in its most elementary sense, fuses the fantastic, the magical, the mythical, the imaginary, the supernatural with the realistic, displaying the unbelievable in everyday, modern society in a very normal and acceptable manner. Unlike surrealism, this literary form does not make grandiose claims of transcending reality and unlike realism, it does not aim to represent one absolute Truth, rather it seeks to amplify the scope of and incorporate variant realities. One way in which magic realism functions is that it strives to defamiliarise the mundane, that is, to open alternatives, differing points of view on commonplace things and phenomena for its audience, thereby presenting newer realities. This literary form aspires to heighten the awareness of life’s connectedness or hidden meanings for its reader.

German intellectual, Franz Roh, coined the term ‘magic realism’ in 1925, however, the sense in which he used the term differs mightily from the literary genre that was responsible for the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and 70s, and the revival of the novel form. The genre of magic realism finds its essence and context in the socio-political reality of Latin America. Alejo Carpentier, in his essay, On the Marvellous Real in America, delineates that in magic realism “improbable juxtapositions and marvellous mixtures exist by virtue of Latin America’s varied history, geography, demography, and politics – not by manifesto.” Gabriel García Márquez, a champion of this form, often elucidated that magic realist writings were unfathomable or were things to marvel at for a Western or a non-Latin-American reader, but for the natives, the so-called magical or imaginary was merely a part of their reality.

Lionel Andrés Messi, born on June 24, 1987, in Rosario, Argentina, hails from the land of literary giants and masters of the magic realism genre like Jorges Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar. Anyone who even has an inkling of football would have, most certainly, heard the name of Messi. Those more familiar with the beautiful game would be aware of the ridiculous records that he has set, the feats that he has achieved, the trophies that he has won, individual and collective, and so forth.

While his achievements are quantifiable, to a limited extent, in terms of goals, assists, trophies, and in the numerous new forms of statistical and analytical data catalogue tools that are emerging with the speed of light in the football industry, his greatest accomplishments still remain in the qualitative and emotional realm – he is a professor of joy and jubilance; a distributor of dreams; an inspiration to millions; a poet of bodily, sporting, and physiological aesthetics.

Messi’s astonishing or as the commentator Ray Hudson might put it, “magisterial” goals and moments of sheer excellence on the greens of a football turf are unforgettable and hence, very well documented, whether it be the dribbling wondergoal against Getafe in 2007 or against Real Madrid in the 2011 Champions League semifinal or against Athletic Bilbao in the 2015 Copa Del Rey final or that herculean header against Manchester United in the 2009 Champions League final or the outrageous chip against Real Betis in La Liga in 2019 or against Bayern Munich in the 2015 Champion’s League semifinal or the motley of searing free kicks that he has scored over the years. Honestly, the list is unending.

However, I want to emphasize that there is magic present in most, if not all, games that Messi plays in; that this magic is his every game reality; that he, in a way, defamiliarises football through his ability and body. This magic does not only exist in the dumbfounding, jaw-dropping goals that he scores or the killer assists that he makes (although it is most perceptible in such moments) but it also percolates through his whole manner of playing. It even resides in the seemingly less productive or significant things and movements that he performs on the field.

He stands at 5 feet 6 inches and visibly does not have the towering physique of an ultra-athlete that is fast becoming the norm of the game. He often slouches, bides his time by walking during a game, but his strolls are purposeful. While sauntering, he usually reads the game, mentally maps his surroundings, and acquires a nuanced kinesthetic awareness of his region. He does not have one of the fastest brains in the game for no reason.

Messi speaks the loudest when he has the ball at his feet. One of my friends said that his feet possess a strong spiritual connection with the ball. With the ball, he behaves like a child who just would not let go of his favourite toy. The thirty-four-old has championed the skill of dribbling and demonstrates it in its easiest, simplest form. He hardly performs flamboyant tricks, rather he makes efficient use of speed, time, and space by cunningly manipulating them. He can accelerate and stop dead and go again with rapid quickness. He shimmies, skims, skitters, skips, scampers with the ball at differing speeds and intensity in differing contexts, but is always oriented to solve some footballing problem. Repeatedly, with a drop of a shoulder or a twist of his body or a sudden change of direction, he opens newer perspectives and avenues to exploit on the field, making the viewer feel like a fool for not perceiving earlier that this move was also a possibility, that this route could have also been a reality. Similarly, the range of passes that he pulls off combined with his incisive vision that again and again opens the football field, like it is mozzarella on a pizza, show the diversified points of view that are visible to him, and with actions, he makes them visible to others as well. This is what is meant by defamiliarising events on a football field.

From his interviews and social media presence, Messi comes across as a shy, humble, quiet person in his private life but on the pitch, he is La Pulga Atomica, which translates as The Atomic Flea. A week after the start of 2021 Copa América, Jonathan Liew wrote in The Guardian, “Even at his (Messi’s) advanced age, is there a more purely expressive footballer in the world right now? A footballer with a richer or more varied vocabulary? Perhaps it’s no surprise that when you can perform something to the proficiency and complexity of language, a lot of people will confuse it with talking.” Like Liew, many others have also stated that Messi talks and expresses through playing football. I would like to take this notion further and assert that – like many postcolonial (among others) authors who understand language’s limitedness and its inability to express something fully, yet they seek to expand the scope of language by using innovative ways and choosing genres like magic realism (among others) – Messi too, through his style of play, his movements, his use of his body, in a way, tries to broaden the scope of footballing language.

Pep Guardiola once said, “Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him, just watch him.” While Guardiola was implying that the genius of Messi was beyond description, he was also, through words and language, paradoxically describing the Argentinian. Articulating through paradoxes and by breaking binaries is another deconstructionist, postcolonial technique that writers regularly resort to when employing the conventions of the magic realist genre. And to comprehend what Messi does on the field, we are forced to make avail of paradoxes, contrasts, metaphors, and extra-terrestrial epithets because simple language fails us, even though he simplifies and unwraps football.

Eduardo Galeano, in his book, Soccer in Sun and Shadow appropriately pens, “The technocracy of professional sport has managed to impose a soccer of lightning speed and brute strength, a soccer that negates joy, kills fantasy, and outlaws daring.” However, Leo Messi, Barcelona and Argentina’s magical reality, drops his shoulder, shifts his body weight, and gracefully ballets pasts this assertion to stand for everything Galeano was longing for. Even in this contemporary football industry, Messi makes us feel the sport with such an intensity, such a passion that we are moved to express his play while, simultaneously, failing to do justice to it in our expression. 

Saurabh Nagpal is an aspiring sports journalist who loves cricket, football, and tennis, but a lot more than that also, beyond the field of sports. Follow him on Instagram @SportMelon_, Facebook @SportMelon, and Twitter @saurabhnagpal19

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