Tommy Twardzik

#10: For the Love of Football

Messi pointing toward the sky in celebration.

Soccer was my favorite sport when I was young—elementary school age. I used to see it on TV as I browsed through channels and would watch a few minutes of those little men running across an enormous field of grass. I played in the local youth league but that was nothing like what I saw on TV. I could see the edges of the field on which I played. I was fast at that age and that was more important than any kind of skill on the ball. I loved playing soccer and I was pretty good.

I maintained to anyone who asked, however, that soccer was my favorite sport to play while football—NFL football—was my favorite sport to watch.

I also thought that, like every other major sport I followed, the U.S. league was the league to watch (oh naiveté). I thought that the MLS was like the NFL, the NBA, the MLB—the center of the sport, the league everybody else was already watching and the one with all of the biggest stars (This Freddy Adu guy everyone’s talking about—he must be the best in the world! 1)

Maybe that’s why I didn’t watch much soccer, even though I loved playing it.

I didn’t get it, then. I wasn’t interested in the world outside my neighborhood when I was eight. And no one set me straight because no one I knew was watching international soccer.

But I get it now. And I’m lucky that I got started when I did, too. Luckier than I could have known as an eight-year-old.

May 1, 2005

I’m excited for the end of the school year and summer. I’m a stupid kid. I have no idea that, across the Atlantic, a kid only seven years older than me is scoring his first goal for the Barcelona senior team.

Lionel Messi has arrived.

May 1, 2019

I’m sitting at my desk at a marketing agency in Manhattan, listening to the commentary as Barcelona lead Liverpool 1–0 in the Champions League semifinal at Camp Nou. The game is hidden behind other work-related windows on my screen, streaming from Spain to space to a tiny window in the corner of my computer.

I’ve gotten pretty good at working while listening for the ebb and flow of the crowd noise and the changing inflections of the commentators’ voices. I usually know when to pop the game window to the front to watch for a few seconds as an attack builds before I get back to work. I’ve seen many goals this way: crowd noise rising, that sudden edge in a commentator’s voice as he says “Here comes [insert player] down the sideline, crossing it innnnnnn…”

This time, though, I missed it.

There was no buildup to hear. No excited commentators; they were fooled, too. The teams had lined up for a set piece from too far away. It was crossing distance, not shooting distance. The commentators waited calmly and the crowd quieted with anticipation.

So as it happened in real time, I didn’t notice. The words didn’t register as the kick-taker placed the ball down and the wall lined up. The stadium waited. The commentary team kept chatting. I kept working.

In my ears, it went from quiet set-piece anticipation to thunder from the stands and the commentator shouting, “Oh my goodness! OHHH my goodness!”

I snapped to the window and saw Messi sitting on the grass pumping his arms and absorbing the shocked, struck-by-lightning energy from the crowd. Tens of thousands of people wearing both teams' colors had their arms over their heads, literally bowing down to him.

It was goal 600.


I’m jittery as I write this, feeling that strange kind of adrenaline that even televised sports manage to produce.

I’m thinking, I haven’t even watched soccer for that long. I don’t know the legends or buy into the superstitions. A bit more than two seasons, maybe, of seriously following the sport. (There was that ’14 World Cup, too, and the brief hype around the USMNT. Ha. So long ago…)

I’m a skeptical person. I don’t trust hype, usually.

But soccer gives me a feeling, gets my heart going like few other things. And I like to think that bandwagon-jumping is inapplicable when the greatest player in the history of the sport. I’d still begrudge a friend suddenly becoming a Patriots fan this season. But you can’t blame a person for being a LeBron fan, or suddenly watching U.S. Open matches because Serena Williams is playing.

The fact is, I wouldn’t watch Barcelona without #10. I don’t think Barcelona are my team. I’m not even sure I’m ready to pick a team, yet. So when I’m cheering for Barcelona goals in the Champions League, it’s not because I want Barca to win the trophy. It’s because I want Messi to win the trophy. Again.

There’s little point in writing about what he does. He scores. All of the time, in every way possible. It’s better to watch it. That’s what I do. But he also does the kinds of things that make writers want to write. He causes moments, experiences.

Hat Trick

Let’s reflect on Messi’s 2019 hat trick away at Real Betis.

It started with a now-signature Messi free kick. And it ended with something I’d never seen before. Again, I’ve watched only a few seasons of international soccer in my life. But when he floated that ball over the keeper’s hands and banked it off the crossbar like it was a bumper at a bowling alley, I heard the same feeling in the commentators’ voices.

I didn’t even recognize it as a chip shot when it went in. Honestly, I couldn’t figure out exactly what had happened. The ball came back to Messi after he’d passed it away and then it mysteriously changed directions off his foot. I thought it was a cross. Or a mistake. And then it slowly arced over the keeper—who obviously was not able to calculate such an angle to prepare for a shot—and the stadium was delirious.

What in the world was that?

It was like an optical illusion—like, in FIFA, when you miss an easy shot or run your defensive player straight past an oncoming attacker because of the sideways TV camera perspective.

That kind of thing—it’s a unique moment. Here are a couple of veteran commentators who’ve probably been calling games for a decade or two, who have certainly been following the sport since they were kids, watching a guy who scores in almost every game do the same thing he always does. But he gets them anyway. He does it a little differently, in a way that’s just a bit closer to impossible, and instantly they’re at the same viewing angle as me. All of the context of the game, all of the legends and traditions and statistics and patterns drop away in a moment like that and leave nothing but the naked shock of witnessing a new thing.

We had shared in an experience of sublimity. It doesn’t take a career in journalism to appreciate it; the French guys said it best. It was pure, a snapshot with as much power as a decades-long rivalry full of legends. It was like a black hole: Barcelona could have lost that game but the result would have been sucked through the event horizon of that goal. It was the definition of an instant classic.

A moment like that also voids any claims of bandwagon-jumping. Barca fan or not, you have to love it. Its beauty was a universal truth. Ask the away fans.


That goal is why I’m lucky I fell in love with soccer when I did. I might’ve missed Messi’s 70-goal season and his Champions League trophies. But I’ll still see enjoy experiences like his Betis hat trick and his free kick against Liverpool as long as he decides to lace up. People can argue about the greatness of Pele, Ronaldinho, Zidane and make spreadsheets comparing the stats and weighing the trophies. It doesn’t matter, in the end. I’m watching now, and I’m seeing unimaginable things happening at the feet of Lionel Messi. That brings me joy.

  1. I didn’t know, then, that Freddy Adu scored his debut goal in the MLS when he was 14. 14! And it’s nice to see that he’s still playing. ⤴️
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