The Polanski Problem

My wife thinks Lionel Messi, the undisputed greatest soccer player in the world right now, looks like a young Roman Polanski. She loves Polanski, or his early movies at least, and when I watch Messi’s Barcelona, she pays a bit more attention than usual. “Is Polanski playing?” she’ll ask. Then Messi, as if he’s listening, will zig-zag across a minefield of defenders, the ball impossibly stuck to his feet. I call this “doing a Polanski.”

I was thinking about Polanski and Messi before this World Cup and was overcome with a sudden sadness. I cannot explain it, except to say it has something to do with Ronaldinho, the undisputed greatest soccer player in the world ahead of the 2006 World Cup. Ronaldinho was one of the most dazzling talents the game had ever seen. He could juggle the ball through crowds of defenders with a goofy smile on his face, then flick it into the back of the net. At 26 years old, he was on the cover of every magazine (including Play where I was working at the time), and was poised to take over the World Cup, if not the world. He didn’t.

There have been others who were hyped and fell. Some, like Ronaldo the First (or Fat Ron) shined and burned out, cut down by injury or depression. Some like Freddy Adu never made it at all. These players didn’t drug and rape adolescent girls. Their wives weren’t killed by maniacs, but there is something Polanski about them, some lethal combination of promise and pathos. I’m worried for Messi’s future, that he won’t have a great World Cup – He’s never been as good for Argentina as he is for Barcelona – and that four years on, he’ll be lost to us, or lesser. And we’ll move on to the next one.

Messi starts at a standstill and stabs the defense quickly and precisely. He darts to the left, probes forward, backs out a little, darts left, probes forward, backs out a little, then darts through. His threatening staccato recalls the young drifter in Polanski’s “Knife in the Water,” who obsessively stabs the spaces between his fingers with a sharp knife. The defense tries to collapse around Messi, but they cannot. He is already gone, like the disappearing drifter.

Messi is a little guy with an explosive burst. Most people, when they switch from standing to running, use their whole bodies to get into gear. They lunge, they squat, they coil up. Messi’s legs just go, like Fred Flintstone’s, with his upper body straight up. He takes millions of tiny steps, and is suddenly somewhere else. The Spanish-language commentators on Telemundo call Messi, “la pulga,” the flea. There does seem to be something other than human about his movement, and his potential for movement, like he has his own physics.

Polanski is a volatile little guy too, but his explosiveness is violent, like in Chinatown when he cuts Jack Nicholson’s nose. His movies always harbor some deep malevolence under the surface calm. Messi’s attack is kind by contrast. He seems like a kid at play, but then, we never know what the future holds.

Barely three minutes into that Argentina’s first game against Nigeria on Saturday, Messi did his first Polanski of the tournament. He collected the ball on the left. Nigerians swarmed around him. Suddenly he was at full speed and in the penalty area. How did he get there? He went through them, one, two, three, like a knife through water. It was just a taste of the Messi that we’ve come to love, and to expect, and I hope we can keep him forever, though I know we cannot.

The sped up chase scenes in Polanski’s Fearless Vampire Killers are the Messi-est I’ve seen.

— Emily    Jun 16, 10:41 AM    #

well said Aus

— Tyson    Jun 17, 10:56 AM    #


Leave a Reply