This is what sporting genius looks like. It is less about the big moment, the actual goal, than it is about the lead up to it.
Paulo Dybala’s first goal against Barcelona was a wonderful marriage of footballing magic and pragmatism. The balletic pivot and spin, the finessed finish into the far post around several defenders without looking up after receiving the ball; having the vision of the goal, the position of the defenders and goalkeeper in his mind before even receiving the pass, and the technique and audacity to bury such a difficult attempt, is unbelievable enough that the only remaining rationalization is to see the field where it happened as a land of magic realism.
But in that same fabulous world exists the fact that everything Dybala did to score that goal was efficient. He took one touch to control, turned, and shot without looking, because if he were to take any more touches, if he had taken the time to look or try to create space, if Dybala had hesitated, the chance would have gone.
It was as ruthlessly robotic as it was divine:
An Argentinian stole the show in Juventus vs. Barcelona, and it wasn't Leo Messi. Hi, Paulo Dybala. https://t.co/MLoxxchXQw— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 11, 2017
Dybala did the only thing that was possible at that moment, but it takes a genius to see that small window. It’s ordinarily closed to most people and footballers. The reasonable thing would have been for him to get a better angle or to pass it off to a better-positioned teammate. But he could see beyond the immediate answers.
He could see a path not revealed to ordinary people and players. It’s hard to even determine if he had planned to shoot before getting the ball or if at that precise moment when the ball touched his right foot, a greater power — in the manner that many great artists attribute their best works to the spiritual world, to being possessed by the art itself or some grand emotion — overrode his thinking brain and took control of his body.
The second goal, though, is such a lovely display of sporting intelligence. It’s in the way that Dybala makes the run toward Mario Mandzukic knowing that the Croatian is looking to cut the ball back into the box. It’s that when the pass is deflected and heads toward the edge of the box, away from his path, Dybala, at full speed, changes his run and curls out while shifting his hips, as to still keep the ball on the outside of his shoulder, before striking it.
The intelligence is in how he uses Gerard Pique as a reference point on how much bend to put on the shot. And there’s intelligence in putting so much force in the shot that a usually sure-handed Marc-André ter Stegen was beaten at his near-post.
Lionel Messi is the Albert Einstein of the footballing world. What Dybala did, Messi had done a hundred times over. Messi has scored those type of goals so many times that his genius has become standard operating procedure. He exists in that plane that normal footballers aren’t even allowed to glimpse. And because Dybala has shown that he has a similar ability, because he is diminutive, left-footed and an Argentine, he inevitably falls under the shadow of the man whose team he put to the sword with two goals.
This comparison is one that Messi himself knows all too well. When he was first starting to see the code in the Matrix, he was labeled the next Maradona. As were Pablo Aimar, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Ariel Ortega, Franco di Santo, and numerous others. It took him a lifetime of doing the impossible to be known as his own person.
Now after banishing the ghost of Maradona, he is just Messi. But his own shadow looms over the next generation as Maradona’s did to him and his contemporaries. Now there are the new Messis — any small player with a mazy dribbling style: Maxi Romero, Juan Manuel Iturbe, Claudio Nancufil, Ryan Gauld, Lorenzo Insigne, Jose Angel Pozo. The closer Messi gets to retirement, the more intense the search for his heir.
Dybala fits the stereotype perfectly. What’s more, he’s productive enough to justify the label. Out of all the new Messis, he’s the closest to the real thing. Just as out of all the new Maradonas, Messi’s resemblance was almost uncanny. Dybala’s two goals against Messi’s Barcelona only works to strengthen the belief that he is Messi reborn. If Juventus are to knock out Barcelona, the drive to see the achievement as a passing of the torch from Messi to Dybala will be hard to suppress.
When asked about the comparison before the game against Barcelona, Dybala pleaded for his own life. Asked about being Messi’s successor, he responded:
"People have to know that I am not Messi. I am Dybala and I want to only be Dybala, although I understand that there are comparisons. There's only one Messi, as there was only one Maradona. You can't replace players like them, and it's a huge burden that people have expectations about me. I will try to give maximum effort in every game — including those that Leo can't play for the national team."
Dybala is a legitimate superstar. He is great in his own right. The two goals that he scored were not Messiesque; they were goals of Dybala. Just as everything that he’s done this season or the season before do not need the reference or comparison of Messi, they should only be attributed to the beardless Argentine who looks a few years away from puberty.
Dybala has earned the right to be his own person and player. Genius may take the same forms on the field; it may take the shape of similar goals or dribbling style. But each individuals have the right to be themselves.
There was no new or old Maradona, there was just Maradona. There is no new or old Messi. Messi is Messi and will always be. And Dybala is Dybala. What Dybala is, though, is an incredibly talented, intelligent, and celestial left-footed Argentine with a knack for clutch and surreal goals.
To compare him to Messi is flattering, but it only serves to burden and diminish Dybala. It takes away his own path, degrades his individual achievements by constantly putting them in the context of Messi’s, and does nothing to appreciate the wonder of watching Dybala play.
The specter of Messi can only serve to distract from the great little moment of changed runs, switched hips and a perfectly bended ball that puts Juventus in the driving seat to progress to the next round. There is no need to invoke any other player. Paulo Dybala is full of wonder all by himself.