No sport celebrates failure quite like soccer. Take a look at any list of the all-time great teams, and among the trophy winners you will find (to name only the two most famous examples) the Dutch team of the 1970s, runners-up in back-to-back World Cups, and Brazil’s 1982 World Cup side that failed even to make it to the knockout stages of the tournament. These teams are not celebrated because, as some in this country have suggested, those who play soccer lack the proper winning mentality. These teams are celebrated because soccer is just as much about how you play as it is about whether you win or lose. And those two sides played the game as well as any team that ever won a trophy. Of course, winning is important, and there are schools of thought within the game which insist that winning is all-important. But the school of thought that insists the opposite—that winning in ugly fashion, when it really comes down to it, removes everything from the game that makes it worth playing in the first place—has always boasted more students. All of this is really just to make the same, simple point: Winning, in soccer, is not enough. It has never been enough. Soccer, more than anything, is a game about how you win. And that’s why it’s the best sport.
To illustrate this point, consider the two best players in the world right now: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. On one hand, you have Ronaldo, one of the most brutally effective and efficient players I have ever seen. His combination of speed and power is, as has become very clear over the last few years, essentially unstoppable. Everything about him oozes whatever that special stuff is that the genuinely elite athletes seem to ooze. There are times when watching Ronaldo is like watching a grown man stroll onto the pitch of a local under-11s game and take it too seriously. It is remarkably easy to forget, in those moments, that the players he appears to be jogging past are themselves professional athletes at the very top of their respective games.
And then, on the other hand, there is Lionel Messi. He is 5 foot 7 and 148 pounds, was diagnosed at the age of 11 with a growth hormone deficiency, and seems constantly to be wearing the expression of a man who wishes you were looking at someone else. And yet, somehow, he is one of the two best players in the world (I think he is the best, and by some distance, but that’s a debate for another day) and one of the best of all time. When Messi is at his best, it’s like he’s the only player on the pitch that’s moving. Everyone else just stands, confused into stillness, sort of thinking about running, but more concerned with trying to figure out whatever it is that Messi figured out five seconds earlier. And then he’s gone.
The comparison between Messi and Ronaldo is interesting because (despite them being almost identical, statistically speaking) Messi (if this is a generalization, it is only a very small one) is a much more popular player than Ronaldo. Granted, some of the reasons for this have little to do with soccer (e.g., Ronaldo is arrogant, too selfish, etc.), but the main reason, I submit, is much more fundamental. Messi is more popular than Ronaldo because he shows us ways to play the game we had never even thought were possible. He is living proof that soccer is as much about how you play as it is about whether or not you win—which is why people watch it and why it is fun to play. For all of Ronaldo’s brilliance (and there is plenty of it), there is a sense that those who prefer watching him to Messi are missing the point. Ronaldo, due to his exceptional physical gifts (and an even more exceptional commitment to honing those gifts), is most effective when he is able to reduce the game to a merely athletic contest. Messi, in contrast, is most effective when he is able to expand the game, to play it in such a way that his opponent hasn’t even thought about. If Ronaldo makes us wonder where the limit to our potential lies, then Messi makes us realize that to talk about limits at all is just to ignore a whole other realm of possibility.
There is an analogy to be made here to tennis and to the comparison between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (or, for that matter, any other successful power baseliner of the last decade). Nadal leads his head-to-head with Federer 23–10. Federer has won more majors than Nadal, but fewer since Nadal won his first, and has never beaten Nadal in a five-set match on his best surface, clay. Why, then, is Federer considered by so many to be the better player? The answer, I think, is almost completely aesthetic. Simply put, Federer plays the game the way we all want to watch it played. If you ignore all the stats and the head-to-heads, it really comes down to this: No one wins (has ever won, possibly never will win) a first-round match—at any tournament, on any surface—against an unseeded qualifier, in straight sets, with quite the same beauty and elegance as Roger Federer. To watch Federer at his best is to simply forget that there’s a debate to be had at all. Everything beyond the court he’s playing on just fades away. It must be admitted that there are moments in which Nadal induces a similar response, but they are much less frequent. There is something about the way he approaches the game, all power and bulging biceps, that just doesn’t lend itself to transcendence the way Federer’s approach does. It is as if he (just like Ronaldo) wants to beat the sport into submission with the sheer power of his athleticism. But that is, as Federer (and Messi) seems to have realized, to do a disservice to the sport. This much, I think, is right. However, what the analogy fails to capture is the extent of the difference between Messi and Ronaldo.
Earlier, I said that there was a comparison to be made between Federer and Nadal or any other power baseliner of the last decade. But Federer is also a power baseliner, just a particularly elegant one. His game has more variation than Nadal’s, but the fact remains that Federer has won all 17 of his majors on the strength of his ground strokes. And, just like Nadal, his best shot is his forehand. Federer and Nadal may appear, at times, to have completely contrasting styles, but their styles are really just variations on the same theme. However, I want to suggest that Messi is playing a completely different tune than Ronaldo. He’s doing things Ronaldo doesn’t even try, has no need to try, and, in some cases, has probably never even thought of. And, in a sport in which goals are so hard to come by, this variation is essential.
As is often the case with these things, The Simpsons made the point best. There is an episode from the show’s ’90s heyday in which Springfield hosts a soccer match between Mexico and Portugal. The game kicks off to rapturous cheers from the crowd, but the cheers quickly die down (and then completely out) as three of Mexico’s players pass the ball slowly between them, seemingly with no intention to attack. Kent Brockman, disinterested, bored, calls the game: “Halfback passes to the center…back to the wing…back to the center. Center holds it…holds it…holds it.” Cut to the Hispanic announcer in the booth next door, reporting the same events, but on the edge of his seat, screaming into his microphone, barely able to contain his excitement: “Halfback passes to center. Back to wing. Back to center. Center holds it, holds it, HOLDS IT.” At that point, the crowd starts a riot, but the point has already been made. In less than a minute, the scene captures everything about the way soccer is understood and misunderstood.
It’s not that the game is boring; it’s that to understand the game, to enjoy it, is to appreciate those parts of it in which it appears, to the uninitiated, like nothing is happening. Soccer is so amazing because it has developed in such a way that the act of scoring has come to be viewed only as a bonus. The real beauty of the game—and this is what Messi embodies in a way Ronaldo’s reductionist style cannot—is in what leads up to the goal, in aspiring to what is possible in the lead-up to a goal, and in making us (if only because of how hard it is to score) understand that the entire game exists in that space of possibility. As I said, winning in soccer, as it is in all sports, remains the ultimate vindication. But in soccer, unlike any other sport, winning is only vindication. It is what is being vindicated that really matters.