For the moment, or at least until someone else builds an even bigger on-field outrage, Lionel Messi is the most interesting man in European sport.
Depending on who you ask, what happened ten minutes before the end of Sunday’s match between Barcelona and Celta Vigo was either business as usual, bratty theater for its own sake – in effect an unmistakable poke in the eye for Celta – or a tribute to an ailing legend from Barelona’s past. In print and on video replay, it appears to be a decision on Messi’s part to pass a penalty and let teammate Luis Suarez complete his hat trick. That’s the simplest explanation.
The not so simple response is fraught with the kind of vituperation more often associated with beauty pageants and small local elections.
Arguments were made by some observers that Messi intended the play to be a tribute to Johan Cruyff, a former Barcelona player and coach who executed a similar move in 1982. In October of 2015, Cruyff was undergoing open heart surgery when it was discovered he had lung cancer. After his diagnosis, the Dutch midliner became the face of the Catalan’s anti-smoking campaign.
According to Pete Jenson of the Daily Mail, Cruyff was watching the match while in treatment. Sitting nearby was his close friend, Tatxo Benet, who posted on Twitter that the football legend was excited to see Messi’s play.
Cruyff: "Messi gave me great joy with taking a penalty like that, football is supposed to be fun."— The Catalan Giant (@TheCataIanGiant) February 16, 2016
The brattiness was attributed to Messi and company using the penalty and pass as a way to appear flashy and far more skilled than their opponents. The act of outplaying Celta was construed by some as a way to assert their superiority.
The sentiments expressed by those who were on the pitch that day were more pragmatic. During the post-game press scrum, Andy West reported for BBC that Eduardo Berizzo, manager for Celta Vigo, waved away the notion that the decision was intended to cause offense.
At the same presser, Celta D-man Gustavo Cabral echoed his manager’s sentiment toward the unorthodox move.
“It bothers me because they scored a goal, not because of the way they scored it. It’s strange, something you don’t see much. We weren’t alert and we should take care of these details so they don’t cost us.”
FC Barcelona manager, Luis Enrique suggested that maybe critics were being a little provincial.
“In this country, kicking someone is more accepted than flicks and tricks. We are the first to respect our rival and our motivation is to win through football. If someone scored a goal like this against me, I would go to the middle of the pitch and get on with the game.”
Luis Enrique knew Messi penalty would cause debate. "Kicking players is more accepted in this country" https://t.co/dXBwwp3Wnu— SPORT English (@Sport_EN) February 15, 2016
Enrique offered the verbal equivalent to a shrug when asked about the over the top responses to the penalty.
“Some will like it, some won’t.”
That proved to be an understatement. It is hard to find a soul with the slightest investment in the game who doesn’t declare themselves either for or against “Team Messi.” Reaction from the media ran the gamut from studied analysis to histrionic declarations that Messi lacked respect for his opponents and the game.
The most enigmatic response came from Real Madrid forward Christiano Ronaldo, who told Ed Maylon of the Daily Mail, “I know why Leo has done it, but I’m not telling you. Think what you want.”
Supporters of the decision range beyond Barca fans. To many, it was all about the game and Messi’s pass to Suarez wasn’t anything more than an example of good football.
BBC Sport tracked responses to the controversy on social media, finding many fans of the game opined it was plays like Messi’s that made attendance worthwhile. If it was arrogance, they wanted to see more arrogance like that in the future from their favorite teams.
[Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images]