Opinion / Culture

A Very Messi Christmas Tale

Carlos Barrera
Carlos Barrera

Friday, December 16, 2022
Nelson Rauda

Leer en español

When Catholics want to canonize someone, an expert panel assembles to study the matter, with the goal of attributing impossible things to a person. There’s no scientific method nor logical way to prove that a prayer to someone who has been dead for decades caused someone to heal or sparked some unexpected economic upturn. To non-believers, it’s ludicrous. And yet, on these days when things are going so well for Saint Lionel Messi and the sun is shining the brightest in Argentina, many of us —protestants and other heretics alike— are attributing impossible things to the small Argentinian forward. Here’s mine: Messi has turned New York City into the most amicable place in the world.

“Any time three New Yorkers get into a cab without an argument, a bank has just been robbed,” says comedian Phyllis Diller. The city regularly reminds me of its infamous discourtesy when people push past me as they plow through the boisterous Midtown streets, when an annoying posse of teenagers lobs wads of paper on a crowded train, or when the cashier at UPS asks me if I can’t read when I give her a piece of paper that should have gone in the box.

But something different happens when I wear that sky blue and white Argentina shirt, emblazoned with Messi’s number 10.

I wore it for the first time on September 27, when the South American heavyweight pounded Jamaica 3-0 at Metlife Stadium, their last stop before the World Cup. When a Metropolitan Transportation Authority worker saw scores of dazed fans at Penn Station trying to stumble our way back to New Jersey, she rounded us up and shepherded us to the correct train, a few blocks away. I helped an Argentinian man who could not muster a shred of English to buy his boarding ticket. On the way, one of his compatriots offered me a beer. Ten minutes later, another two kept watch for their thoroughly inebriated friend as he relieved himself between train carts of the need to find a restroom.

I’ve seen Americans’ faces brighten, too, even though soccer is not king in this country. A tall, bearded man with a serious grimace made small talk with me on a Harlem street. I was on my way to a bar where friends of mine —a New Zealander, two Indians and a trio of Americans— were cheering on Messi in the semifinals against Croatia, where he chewed up and spit out the best defense of the tournament.

As I left the bar, a mailman asked me if I was a Messi fan. He told me that he was more of a Cristiano Ronaldo guy, referring to the Portuguese superstar who has spent years as the Steph Curry to Messi’s Lebron James. He liked Ronaldo better because he’s closer to Africa, where he’s from. I told him Ronaldo suffers from the grave misfortune of being the world’s second-best player. We talked for a few minutes and agreed on our soon-thwarted desire that Morocco eliminate the French. He smiled and we hugged goodbye. I felt the small-town warmth at 30 degrees fahrenheit.

For the World Cup final on Sunday, I’ll wear the shirt again — not only because of the borrowed Argentinian citizenship that is stretching the globe, from Bangladesh to San Salvador, but because the shirt is undefeated: Argentina hasn’t lost a single game when I choose to wear it. That opening match against Saudi Arabia? I was watching at 4 a.m. in my pajamas. I’m not superstitious, nor do I intend to attribute impossible things to a person, much less an object. But I already put Messi’s shirt in the washer. Just in case.

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