The Barça forward was applauded by both sets of fans at Betis – not for scoring three times, but because of how he scored
Truth is, I don’t remember anything like this,” Lionel Messi said but nor do they and their reaction said more than words, long abandoned as inadequate. There were five minutes left of a perfect performance when he took the shot that transfixed them and then turned them. Not so much hit first time as coaxed, the ball rose softly and curved gently, granting them time to take it in, inviting them to halt everything and watch it orbiting alone, so they did. Only Betis goalkeeper Pau López moved, seeing it float by, just there but just out of reach, everything unfolding like a slow-motion replay from an arty TV director. Only this was live. The ball caressed the bar, landed in the net, and there was a collective intake of breath. And then, instead of a roar, an “oh”.
Oh. My. God.
Aissa Mandi and Marc Bartra held their head in theirs hands, which is normal for defenders who’ve just conceded but Barcelona centre-back Clément Lenglet did the same, a few metres away. So did Sergi Roberto, watching from further back, both barely able to believe it. López, 6ft 2in, hadn’t even been far off his line, but he had been beaten for a fourth time, three of them by Messi. There was no culpability, just compassion. Maybe even a hint of pride; at least you were beaten like that and by him. López got up and blew his cheeks out, eyes wide: did you see that?!
Oh, they saw. Messi’s team-mates ran towards him. Luis Suárez was laughing: that was just silly. Jordi Alba arrived, hands on head: what did you do?! On the touchline, Betis’s assistant manager Eder Sarabia whispered in the ear of coach Quique Setién, the pair powerless like López, convinced they had just been defeated by the best player in history. “There’s not much you can do against Messi,” Betis striker Loren Morón said. Not much except the only thing that felt right: applaud. As the ball went in, all around the ground, the fans – Betis’s fans – began to clap, 54,172 people on their feet. And as Barcelona’s players celebrated, that gave way to something else: soon, thousands of them were chanting Messi’s name, bowing before him.
Messi raised a hand, then pointed to the sky as he does. “I’m grateful,” he said later.
They were too. Not to have been beaten, but to have been there. At his home, Setién has a signed Messi shirt framed on his wall. “I’ve seen great players do wonderful things but not with the consistency and the ability to decide everything that Messi has. I don’t know if even Pelé had this consistency,” Setien said. “It’s every game, every single one. You feel lucky to have been around at the same time as him; to be able to watch him every Sunday.” Betis’s Mexican midfielder Andrés Guardado has a picture of his son Maximo with Messi at home. He’s also got 20 pictures of himself with Messi on the pitch; the problem, he says, is he hasn’t got the ball in any of them.
This Monday, he probably still hasn’t. Because if this could have been any given Sunday, that consistency eclipsing rather than exaggerating Messi’s ability, this Sunday was particularly absurd even for him. Above the match reports in AS, where Messi was given four stars out of three, there are four squares, four “awards” from each match: the crack, the terrible day, the dandy, and the hard man, each with a 20-word resumé. “I don’t know what to write in this box any more,” Santi Giménez wrote, “what he did had the Villamarín applauding. Go watch the video.”
There were echoes there of Pep Guardiola’s advice from the press room, years ago now: “Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him, just watch him.”