One of the underrated pleasures of following a team and its players is in picking up on the small tics and tendencies, the rare but repeated actions and habits that less dedicated fans might not notice. An example of this diehard Barcelona fans probably recognize is the right-footed Lionel Messi goal.
The entire planet knows about Messi’s left, a foot so refined its very existence constitutes nearly irrefutable evidence for the theory of intelligent design. But less heralded is Messi’s right, which, to describe it as his “weaker” foot, would be like describing Malice as the “weaker” rapper in the Clipse. Messi greatly favors his left foot when controlling and dribbling and shooting, but every so often he’ll belt in a worldie with his right. Seeing this, the more casual fan might start in surprise. But the most ardent Barça and Messi devotees, the ones who’ve seen some ungodly number of his more than 600 matches for club and country, will see it and feel a unique blend of awe and recognition, a secret exhilaration reserved only for those who really know.
On Wednesday, Messi scored one of those right-footed bangers. Late in the first half of a friendly match against Girona, Messi collected a pass on the left side of the penalty arc, spun around to face the goal, and with his right foot kicked the shit out of the ball, sending it curling and rising into the upper-left corner of the net.
It would’ve been a spectacular hit no matter who had struck it. That it was Messi hitting it with his off leg made it all the more remarkable. That it was Messi doing something rare but, to those who’ve committed themselves to following Barcelona over the years, recognizably him, made it even more rewarding.
Of course, a golazo in a meaningless friendly could never overshadow the biggest news to come from Messi in recent weeks, which is his failed attempt to leave Barcelona. At the end of August, Messi sent a fax to the club expressing his intention to trigger a clause in his contract that would nullify the remaining year on the agreement, after which he could sign with a new club this offseason for free. Barça had a different interpretation of the clause in question, holding that the specific date upon which Messi could’ve nullified the contract had already past, and so the forward was still bound by the agreement. So, unless a potential suitor presented Barcelona a check for a cool €700 million, the club had no intention on letting their homegrown star leave.
After what felt like months of speculation about why Messi wanted to leave, and if his interpretation of the clause would hold up legally in light of the pandemic-related extension of the season, and if Barça would accept a compromise transfer offer to make the problem go away, Messi admitted defeat just over a week after sending the fax. In an interview with Goal, Messi explained that, while he was in fact desperate to leave out of frustration with the state of the team and the mismanagement of the club, he would rather suck it up and stick out the final year of his contract than to take Barcelona to court and make the situation truly ugly. So Messi couldn’t get out because of the pandemic, Barcelona can’t spend big to improve the team around him because of the pandemic, and there’s absolutely no telling where any of this goes from here.
Being a Barcelona fan over the past decade-plus has been to benefit from one of sports’ great constants: Barcelona had Messi. Having Messi, you were in for breath-taking brilliance every single match. Having Messi, you were going to see him score lots of goals—mostly with his left, but every so often with his right, too. Having Messi, you were going to win way more often than you would lose. Having Messi, you were almost certainly going to lift a trophy or three by season’s end. Having Messi, even “bad” seasons were going to be great.
Today, Barcelona’s fundamental constant is now an uncertainty. As a Barcelona fan myself, this is a difficult thing to come to terms with. I don’t know how much longer Barcelona will have Messi. I don’t know if the Messi Barcelona still have now will be as driven and committed to be the Messi of before during what might be his final season in Barcelona. I don’t know if the team around him is capable of presenting Messi the complimentary parts his prodigious but highly specific skill set requires in order for him to perform at his peak even if he is fully motivated. I don’t know how many goals Messi will score for Barcelona, or if he’ll win any more trophies in the only shirt he’s ever worn. I don’t know if I’ll ever again see Messi score a cracker with his right foot while playing for this team, and if I’ll feel that ineffable sense that comes from having watched somebody do something for so long that I feel I have come to know them, and in this knowledge having come to know something about myself, too.
I don’t know how much more there is to come from Messi and Barcelona together. But what I do know is, however much there is left, I’ll be there, watching.