Over e-mail exchanges about an entirely different topic, an Argentinian friend shared a link to a video of one of the Argentine writer Hernán Casciari's famous essays, "Messi es un perro."
Years ago, I had shared the video, which is narrated by a fan, with my grandfather (as I do with most things about Argentinian soccer). He said the writer was a moron for comparing Messi to a dog. But, even though it is not the most elegant comparison, I liked it.
In college, I took courses in Latin American literature and practiced translation. It was a way of getting my family—particularly my grandparents, who do not speak English—to understand what I was studying. I am not a professional translator by any means. But, as a writer of Argentinian descent, I took a crack at adapting Casciari's famous essay into English for an American, soccer-curious audience.
Note: This essay was initially published on Casciari's blog in June 2012—way before Messi's tragic departure to Paris Saint-Germain—and adapted for his book Messi Es Un Perro y Otros Cuentos de Futbol (Messi is a Dog and Other Soccer Stories), which you can listen to on Spotify.
If I were to answer quickly, I would say it is for my daughter. For my wife. Because my family is in Cataluña.
But, if you were to ask me seriously why I still live here, in Barcelona, in these miserable and mundane times, it's because I'm just a 40-minute train ride from the greatest soccer in the history of the world.
What I mean to say is: if my wife were to leave for Argentina with my daughter this very moment, I would divorce her and stay in Barcelona until—at the very least—the final of the Champions League.
Because there's never been anything like this on a soccer field, not in any age, and it's very likely we'll never see it again.
It's true; I'm writing this on fire. This week, Messi scored three goals for Argentina, five for Barcelona in the Champions League, and two more for Barcelona in the league. Ten goals in three games of three entirely different competitions.
The Catalan press won't talk about anything else. For a moment, the economic crisis isn't the lead item on TV. The internet explodes. And, in the midst of all this, this very strange idea happens to come into my mind. It's difficult to explain. That's why I'm writing this: to see if I can give it wings.
It all started this morning.
I was watching videos of Messi's goals on YouTube. I couldn't stop myself. And I felt guilty about it. Because I was supposed to be editing the sixth edition of the magazine, and I should've been focusing. But instead I clicked on a compilation of clips I hadn't seen before. I assumed it was just like the millions of others. But I realized quickly it was not.
The clips were not of Messi's goals, his best plays, his assists. It was a strange compilation: hundreds of images, each two or three seconds long, of Messi receiving very hard fouls and not falling. No diving or complaints. No pleading for a free kick or a penalty. In each frame, he follows the ball with his eyes while maintaining his balance perfectly. He makes inhuman efforts so that a foul isn't called or a yellow card given to the opponents who harass him. There are ferocious kicks, obstructions, stomps, and trips. Defenders cheat. Grab his jersey with malice. I had never seen the clips all together like this. Messi dribbles and is kicked hard on the shin, but he continues. They strike him on the heel; he stumbles but won't fall. They grab him by the jersey; he shakes them off, breaks free, and keeps running.
There was something so familiar about those images. I placed each fragment in slow motion and I understood: Messi's eyes are always focused on the ball—not the game or what is happening around him. In modern football, there are moments in which flailing to the floor can mean securing a vital penalty for your team or getting an opposing center back yellow-carded to make it more easy to go on a counterattack. In these fragments, Messi appears not to understand those unwritten rules or anything else about football.
He looks to be entranced. Hypnotized. He only desires the ball in the opponent's net. You have to look very closely at his eyes to see it: how they become narrow, as if squinting to read the closed captions on a TV. He focuses on the ball and he won't lose sight of it, even if his opponents stab him.
Where had I seen this look before? It was all too familiar, that gesture of absolute focus. I paused the video and zoomed in on his eyes.
And that's when I remembered: those were the eyes of Totín when he lost his mind over the sponge.
As a boy, I had a dog named Totín. He wasn't a smart dog. Thieves broke into the house and he watched them carry the television out the door. The bell rang and he didn't seem to hear it. I vomited on the floor, and he didn't come to lick it up.
Nevertheless, when someone (my mother, sister, myself even) grabbed the kitchen sponge—a plain, yellow sponge to wash dishes with—, Totín would lose his mind. He wanted that sponge more than anything else in the world. He would die just to take that yellow rectangle into his doghouse. I would show it to him in my right hand, and he'd fix his gaze on it. I would move it from one side to the next, and he never shifted focus. He couldn't stop watching it. It didn't matter how fast I moved the sponge: Totín's neck mirrored the movements; his eyes went Japanese, attentive, intellectual. Like Messi's eyes, which stop being the eyes of a prepubescent teenage boy and, for a fraction of a second, transform into the scrutinous gaze of Sherlock Holmes.
I discovered this afternoon, watching that video, that Messi is a dog. A hound. Or rather, a man-hound. That's my theory, and I apologize if you've read until this point and were expecting something else.
Messi is the first dog to play soccer.
It makes a lot of sense that he cannot understand the rules. Dogs don't dive in front of an onrushing car. They don't argue with the referee when a cat escapes underneath the neighbor's fence. They don't ask for a second yellow against the delivery man. In the early days of soccer, humans were also like this. They chased the ball and nothing else: there were no cards, no offsides, no suspensions for an accumulation of yellows, away goals didn't count as double. Before, men played like Messi and Totín. Then, afterwards, soccer transformed into something quite strange.
Now, in this very moment, everyone in the world seems to be more fascinated by the bureaucracy of sport. The rules of the game. After a key match, there's a week's worth of discussion over codes, principles, and regulations:
Did Juan intentionally get a yellow to skip the next match and play the derby?
Did Pedro really fake a foul in the penalty box?
Will they invoke clause no. 208 to let Pancho play, since Ernesto is playing for the u-17s?
Did the team manager have the groundskeeper over-water the grass so the their opponents would slip and crack open their skulls?
Did the ballboys disappear when the match went 2-1 then reappear suddenly when it was 2-2?
Will the club appeal the double-yellow for Paco in the Court of Arbitration for Sport?
Did the referee correctly discount the minutes Ricardo lost protesting the yellow against Ignacio for arguing that Luis was wasting time before he threw in the ball?
No, sir. Dogs do not listen to the radio or pay attention to the sports papers. They can't tell whether they're playing in a pointless friendly match or a cup final. Dogs just want to bring the sponge back to their beds, even when they're dead tired. Even when they're being eaten alive by ticks.
Messi is a dog. He breaks records from other decades because man-hounds like him only played soccer until the 1950s. After that, FIFA invited us to discuss laws and codes. We forgot that what was really important was the sponge.
Then, one day, out of nowhere, this sick kid showed up. Like one day a sick monkey stood upright and initiated the history of man. Except this time it was a boy from Rosario with unique abilities—unable to put two sentences together, visibly antisocial, and incapable of basically every aspect of human cunning. But with the astonishing power to control a round, inflated ball and take it across a green plain to a fabric net. If they let him, I'm certain he wouldn't do anything else. Dribbling that white sphere and shooting it between three posts, like Sisyphus, over and over again.
After the game when Messi scored five times, Guardiola said, "The day he wants to, he'll score six." It wasn't praise. It was a diagnosis of his disease. Messi is sick. It's a rare sickness that gets me emotional, because I loved Totín and right now Messi is the last living man-hound. And it is for getting to see that sickness in person every Saturday that I remain here in Barcelona, even though I'd rather be somewhere else. Every time I climb the stairs of the Camp Nou and see the glow of the field, I tell myself the same thing: you are very lucky to love a sport so much, be a contemporary of its best version, and—on top of that—live so close to the field where he makes his magic happen.
I revel in my double fortune. I treasure it. I am nostalgic for the present every time Messi plays. I'm an obsessive lover of this place and this moment in history. Because, it seems to me, on the Day of Judgment we'll all stand in line together, every person who has been and will be. And a group will form to talk about football. One man will say: I studied in Amsterdam during '73. And another will say: I was an architect in Sao Paulo in '62. And another: I was a child in Napoli in '87. And my father will say: I traveled to Montevideo in '67. And another will say: I heard the silence of the Maracaná in '50.
Late into the night, everyone will share stories of the battles they saw. And when there is no one left to speak, I will stand up and say quietly: I lived in Barcelona in the age of the man-hound. And you will hear a pin drop. There will be silence. Everyone besides me will bow their heads. And God will appear, dressed for judgment. And signaling he will say: You, tubby, will be saved. Everyone else, hit the showers.
You can read Casciari's English translation here to compare how mine and his differ. If you're interested in other translated texts, reach out to me to start a conversation.