Football’s Man of Tomorrow
by Clerical Staff
Backed by a critically acclaimed (and popularly adored) film franchise, Batman is currently DC Comics’s most beloved superhero. Spare a thought, then, for his equally famous, albeit less in vogue, peer. For in truth, it is hard to write a good Superman story.
The Man of Steel may have won over the imaginations of impressionable 1940s children, but their initial wonderment strikes us as being equally naïve as that of the pioneering cinema-goers who fled in the wake of the images appearing before them on celluloid. This is in part resultant of the fact that Superman has fairly prosaic powers – super strength and flight are ten a penny in the Marvel and DC universes – but more than this it is because seeing him facing off against his rogue gallery quickly gets boring once you realise that he can do pretty much anything. Superman Returns really jumped the shark when our hero lifted an entire continent of kryptonite – if you can still lift a continent when your Achilles heel is exposed then perhaps it is not so much of an impediment. (This, incidentally, is why one of the primary aims of the Post-Crisis DC continuity was to depower Superman to a degree – the notion of fallibility was important to the strength of the story.)
Tellingly, DC’s most popular franchise character, Batman, is so fallible and flawed that upon consideration one could conclude that he is not only in the wrong, but even insane. Frank Millar’s grim portrayal of the Caped Crusader as a kind of Nietzschean übermensch hinted at the arbitrariness of the character’s ethical stance, whilst Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight offers a good account of how Batman’s presence engenders escalation. He’s not the hero that Gotham needs, but the hero that they deserve.
Watching Lionel Messi play football puts me in mind of reading a Superman comic. Not only is he clearly better than all of the other players with whom he shares the pitch, but he makes it all look so easy. It is painfully obvious that he can do almost anything that he wants on the playing field. Against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2011-12 Champion’s League he made it look like chipping the ball into the net was the easiest way to score possible, rather than being a deft skill. What Superman is to comics, Messi is to football. We encounter, therefore, a parallel problem: is Messi so good that he is boring? Does the seeming inevitability of his brilliance have a detrimental effect on the narrative of the game?
If we are in any way suggesting that conflict breeds drama and intrigue then it is, perhaps, no coincidence that if we were to look for a footballing counterpart to Batman we might be put in mind of Arsène Wenger. Wenger shares the Caped Crusader’s fundamentalist sense of mission and, like Batman, is not averse to training kids to further his message. If Wenger is amongst the most compelling figures in football then he is also a manager who is always struggling to enforce his principles whilst kicking against the pricks. He faces real challenges, powerful enemies and visceral obstacles.
Returning to Messi, then, perhaps we can take our lesson from the Man of Steel since, as we mentioned, whilst it is hard to write a good Superman story, it is not impossible. The most gratifying Superman stories are often when he is faced with a problem – this is why Lex Luthor is the best villain in his rogues gallery. As a cerebral villain Luthor possesses all of the moral flaws that Superman lacks and embodies everything that the Man of Tomorrow is opposed to. Brainiac and Mr. Mxyzptlk also offer interesting challenges that transcend both the limp contests offered by nobodies such as Prankster and slugfests with foes such as 90s pointy-rock nonsense Doomsday. If we look at Messi’s opponents we might observe that the challenge offered by most teams offer no real challenge to him. Within La Liga, Real Madrid and Messi’s arch nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo may provide a worthy challenge, but this challenge resembles more of a brainless brawl than a battle of wits. It is as if a 1990s comic writer invented Cristiano Ronaldo specifically to come along so that he and Messi could punch each other again, and again, and again…
Superman never really fought individuals – rather he fought against the very idea of evil. He stood for good, a concept which is so wholesome as to appear utterly unglamorous to cynical audiences unaccustomed to symbolism over realism. In a comparable way, Messi’s battle is not against Ronaldo, Mourinho or Madrid. Rather it is against everything that is wrong with football. It is against gamesmanship, against money, against ego – against whatever is bad. He plays for the very joy of football. To watch him in action is to fall in love with the game that he also embodies. Unlike Xavi, Messi is not soluble into the idea of FC Barcelona – he is bigger than this, he is better than this. He is not the player that we deserve, but he is the player that we need.