If you watched the game, or even if you didn’t…
Rohit Brijnath in this morning’s Straits Times.
FIFTH minute. Busquets to Leo. Leo to Xavi. Xavi to Leo.
Calm chess pieces on a football field. Trigonometry in boots. Take your pick.
Leo touches the ball with the outside of his left boot. It bounces gently. He’s in a crowd now, he can feel the breath of five men. Three behind, two in front. Like Jack Reacher in a fight.
He has no time. No space. You think. He counts time differently, in smaller, almost slower fractions. He sees space differently, he sees gaps that haven’t opened yet, he sees tackles before defenders have even considered them.
The ball leaves his left foot without violence. This is not unusual for his game is infinitely quieter than Cristiano Ronaldo’s. His goals are rarely thunderous, they are deft.
The ball is in the top left corner of the net. The goalkeeper can only appreciate it, not save it.
It’s brilliant, it’s not enough. It’s never enough with him.
Leo can score (53 goals in 42 games this season), he can win, and they still ask: Leo, more. Leo, again. Leo, a goal today. Leo, tomorrow, too. For every rebuttal through a dribble, dart, twist, flick, chip, there’s always another absurd feat to challenge him with.
Oh well, they say once: Leo’s never scored in England. Then he did. Oh dear, they say weeks ago: He’s never scored against Italian opposition from open play. He has now. The irony of genius is that the finer you play, the more records you set, the more improbable a feat you achieve, the more ludicrous it all turns. He has to keep impressing, till he can’t any more.
Maybe Leo knows this. Maybe it’s why he made those charming, almost self-mocking ads for HerbaLife. He bowls a batsman by side-volleying a cricket ball. He converts a basket by flicking a left-footer over a basketballer. It’s like Leo laughing at himself.
At the end, Leo for once he doesn’t look a kid, but a stubbled, exhausted man. His mind is unreadable, but his team, and him, play not with a familiar arrogance all night but as if they are wounded, proud, angry, desperate.
A declining team? A team that passes without purpose? A player lesser these past few months than Ronaldo? Sometimes history is motivation, sometimes athletes just want to shut us up.
Critics flip-flop with their respect. Not opponents who know reality, who chase the ball and then can’t keep it. They know it’s foolish to undermine Barcelona, even if their defence is made of toothpicks, or underestimate Leo.
All night defenders bring Leo down to earth literally. But then, with a half-smile, they haul him up, as if sheepishly admitting, you had me there, so please understand I just had to trip you. It’s almost the best moment of the night.
Till Leo scores again. He slides left. He has a defender before him. As he strikes the ball, the defender thrusts his right leg out, a gap opens up between his legs, the ball goes through, into the corner of the goal.
Is it luck? Or is it anticipation, and idea, and precise response? Has Leo read the lunge, calculated that a space will open between the legs, understood the goalie might be fractionally unsighted, and thus strikes the ball low?
Is this genius?
But the night’s best moment is yet to come. At around halfway through the second half, he has a free kick outside the box. He places the ball, shifts in his red-laced boots. And he hits the wall.
Huh! Leo misses! He can miss! The anti-climax, on this particular night, is stunning, almost funny yet it is lovely. Yes, he’s not perfect, he’s just more perfect than anyone else in football on most given nights.
Celebration is under way and then it will start again. The challenges. Well, we’ll see if he can take Barcelona to the Champions League title; let’s wait and watch if he can outplay Ronaldo after two recent Real defeats. Again, and again, a man imprisoned by his own brilliance must find ways to keep playing with freedom.
But this is what genius wants. The opportunity to parade a skill. And maybe to go home and listen to a commentator offering simple homage – as happened on Tuesday night after the first goal – with a one-word prayer:
“Leo, Leo, Leo, Leo, Leo.”
Sometimes there is nothing else to say.