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The under-appreciated comedy of Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi gives a thumbs up

Lionel Messi is never described as such but he’s a very funny footballer. Most of that comedy comes from embarrassing opponents: He can’t help but make a joke of everyone he plays against. In Barcelona’s match against Real Valladolid, he had two prominent instances, three minutes apart, in which he embarrassed someone so badly that it was not hard not to laugh at their inability to stop him.

The first instance came from his first goal. The stupendous free-kick. Standing 30 yards from goal, Messi, as he’s done so much during the later stages of his career, curled the ball perfectly over the wall and into the top corner at the near post. It was the 50th free-kick goal of his career, and was standard Messi brilliance. We can fill in the blanks of our praise with the same superlatives we’ve used for the previous 49.

What is funny about the goal is what the goalkeeper, Jordi Masip, does to try and prevent it. As soon as Messi hits the ball, Masip sprints across goal. Most keepers normally shuffle, in order to face the ball and be in a position to stretch as far as possible. But because Messi’s strike has so much pace behind it, Masip finds himself basically running across the face of goal in order to get to it in time. It's hilarious to see a goalkeeper abandon all convention and perform a mad scuttle from one post to the other just to have a chance at a save. His failure makes it even funnier. He knew he didn't have a chance trying to save it the normal way, threw protocol and shame out the window, and it made no difference.

Messi’s second jape occurred in the 35th minute, in Barcelona’s defensive third. Messi and Arturo Vidal were being trapped on the left wing by three defenders. Vidal, who was closest to the touchline, managed to find some space and pass the ball to Messi inside and in front of him. As Messi was about to receive the ball, Óscar Plano, the midfielder, tried to close him down from behind. Messi didn’t even look to see Plano, but he could sense him there, and as the ball came in, he touched it with the outside of his left boot and spun it right between Plano’s legs.

What elevates the moment to pure comedy is Plano’s despairing reaction. He stands in mute dejection, like someone who’s just had his money taken by the school bully he’d worked so hard to avoid.

Messi’s at an age where he can’t quite pull off moves his younger self could, and seeing him try is also very funny. The laughter that results isn’t malicious or even regretful. It’s actually more heartening than anything. To watch Messi, who often seems superhuman, demonstrate that his body isn’t quite as fast or sharp as it used to be grounds him back in the real world. So does his stubborn refusal to stop himself from attempting what is now impossible, even for him. He sometimes laughs along as well, and that helps.

In the 64th minute, Messi was driving into the Valladolid box from the right. He was one-on-one against defender Mohammed Salisu. As Salisu squared his hips, Messi cut outside. It should have beaten Salisu, but he managed to stretch out his left leg and poke the ball away. The tackle left Messi yelling to the heavens and grinning.

A few years ago, Messi would have breezed past Salisu in that position with the same move. The only reason Salisu managed to get to the ball is because today’s Messi is slower than yesterday’s. At 32, and for all of his powers, there’s nothing Messi can do to get that missing physicality back. But he hasn’t adjusted to his new reality. At least, not totally. So, he does his natural moves, the ones he used to shred opponents for more than a decade, except now they’re in slower motion and defenders can actually keep up.

Seeing signs of footballing mortality from Messi isn’t funny per se, but watching him play himself into a position that he forgets he’s an old man (at least in footballing terms) is. It’s fun — even rejuvenating — to see old man momentarily possessed by his younger self.

Messi’s still capable of beating opponents on the dribble, but these days there’s a better chance for them to recover. And when they do, and take the ball from him, he laughs, because rather than lamenting his missing years, he’s enjoying himself. You can almost hear him saying something like, “If this was like three years ago, you would have never caught me”, to the defenders. He knows how lucky they are to be playing him these days, where sometimes he shares the embarrassment he used to dish out to everyone but himself.