The glamour and glitz of FIFA’s annual Ballon d’Or awards ceremony is often described as football’s equivalent of the Oscars and, as Lionel Messi accepted the coveted golden ball for a record fourth time in a striking polka-dot Dolce and Gabbana suit, the comparisons were obvious.
On the back of his latest award, Messi, with world record of 91 goals in a calendar year to his name in 2012, is being hailed once again as the world’s greatest. On the strength of his record and his performances, even such a subjective assessment is difficult to argue with, but Messi has also won much acclaim for his modest manner off the pitch. Paying tribute to Barcelona teammate Andres Iniesta, who finished third in the poll, the Argentine said the award should have gone to the midfielder for supplying him with so many passes to score from.
Messi is also, perhaps above all for some, an entertainer. In a world where the game is seen more and more as a source of multi-millions, the role of sport as entertainment is often forgotten. Of all the players in the modern game, Messi exemplifies the notion of sportsman as showman with his magical, mesmerising runs at defenders and his endless knack of putting the ball in the net time and time again.
A ‘60 Minutes’ feature on CBS in the US last weekend (seen below) provided an insight into Barcelona for an American audience that would, for the most part, be relatively unfamiliar with ‘soccer’, in deference to the more established American sports. Putting El Clasico into context – “there’s even more hot blood flowing than when the Yankees play the Red Sox” – the programme highlighted the Barcelona academy, La Masia, as a model for growing the sport in the US and featured Messi as its star graduate: “the best player in the world, many say the best ever.”
With a narrative tone of awe and wonder, the piece describes the phenomenon of Barca and the magic of Messi. A game at Camp Nou is show time and the Argentine the star performer – football as art or showbiz. Camp Nou is ‘the cathedral of football’, while Messi himself is variously compared to Picasso and the Messiah, whilst Barca’s passing game likened to symphonies and paintings. Interviews with Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique bring out the life skills and values instilled at La Masia from childhood. “I enjoy football in the same way as I did when I was a little kid,” says Messi.
A crucial part of the global appeal of Messi lies in his ability to thrill crowds, lift the gloom and brighten people’s day in difficult times, a man who plays with a smile and puts them on the faces of others. The name and the image of the boyish Messi as a spellbinding and inspirational performer is also the perfect foundation for commercial success in a global market, as the presence of David Beckham at LA Galaxy has shown.
The explanation of why Barcelona is ‘more than a club’ – the Catalan dimension and the member-owned structure – is neat, even with its possession of the world’s second highest grossing Nike store, but Barca are not so altruistic as to shun chances to promote their brand worldwide. Their failed bid for a MLS franchise in Miami in 2008 showed that they don’t always get it right. But with Messi, they can hardly go wrong.