“The Straight Line Belongs to Men, the Curved One to God”

The Basílica de la Sagrada Família

The first architect of the Sagrada Família was a man of diocesan ilk and inspiration, exactly the kind of person you would hope and expect to build something prototypically beautiful and adhesive to the traditions and standards that the Catholic Church, particularly in Spain, would presumably place upon a person. He took the same approach to his projects, calculating and reasonably efficient, that you take to ordering monthly subscription boxes, or homing in on preferred brands of toothpaste. “This works, it addresses a problem, so I like it, and let’s stick with it for now, until and unless a problem arises.”

Francisco de Paula del Villar y Lozano was no slouch, having aided in the designs, re-designs and restorations of many important buildings in and around his native Catalunya[1]. He took on the project under the advisement of the Associació de Devots de Sant Josep, and when it got to be too much, his adviser Joan Martorell recommended Antoni Gaudí, an exceptionally devout Roman Catholic even by Catholic standards. The latter then spent the final years of his life figuring out what to do with the thing before, well, getting hit by a tram and passing away in 1926.

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On Saturday, Barcelona plays its first UEFA Champions League game since February 25, a second-leg turn against Napoli which is currently knotted at 1-1. It will be Barcelona’s first Champions League game at home since November 27, 2019, a term of over eight months but which I only know is eight months due to carbon dating.

In that game, a 3-1 Barça victory at a time when Antoinne Griezmann’s addition the previous summer still seemed like a natural fit, Lionel Messi had a foot in each goal, scoring one and assisting the other two. It was a quintessential performance for the then-32-year-old forward, but also one that has highlighted the struggles of the club at large in recent years, which shortcomings in La Liga have since magnified.

FC Barcelona is the team of Catalunya; anywhere you go, you can see that it has an impact on people, and that the people do not take any measure of success for granted. It was wildly apparent in Messi’s 700th game with the club, the victory over Borussia Dortmund featured the Argentine forward, as he so often and even increasingly is, as the talisman.

Settled in the western part of the city of Gaudí, getting to Camp Nou is an experience unto itself: you step onto the Metro, one of the more gloriously efficient and timely public transit systems you’re likely to have encountered if you are an American living in a city, along with hundreds of Catalans decked out in the familiar blues and reds of the local side. Chants increasingly break out in stations the closer you get to your destination; scarves abound.

Lionel Messi lines up a free kick against Borussia Dortmund, 11.27.2019

Parents either carry or hold hands with their small children, who are almost universally sporting Messi jerseys; upon arrival, riders pay mind not to step on these children, their tiny compatriots in soccer. Walking from the station to Camp Nou might include passing by La Masia, the breeding ground for many Culé heroes.

It being the largest stadium in Europe and fourth-largest in the world, let it not go without explicitly saying that Camp Nou is massive. Cognitively understanding that a single place can fit nearly 100,000 people comfortably is one thing; seeing that one thing with your own eyes in person is altogether another. Its unique curvature allows for the packing in of fans in one place where, opposite them, there are no seats. Built out of the necessity that becoming a fashionable soccer club required in the mid-fifties, seeing a sea of culés file in and fill the giant bathtub to its brim is an event almost divine, worth the price of admission – and the added tax of battling an international ticket app and, perhaps, your credit card company – alone.

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Enveloped in scaffolding, the Sagrada Família has eight complete spires, with an additional ten featuring in Gaudí’s design[2]. The tallest, representing Christ, is planned to reach 560 ft., making it the second-tallest point in all of Barcelona after the hill of Montjuïc[3] – Gaudí believed that a manmade creation should not surpass that of God. Even in progress, the functioning basilica is awe-inspiring; from any vantage point of reasonable height throughout the city, one can pick it out like a 757 in traffic on the interstate.

Despite the massive size of the lad externally, its interior may be even more audacious. The Latin cross layout gives way to the spire interiors, webs branching into the heavens and stretching down into the crypt below against each other, supported by massive columns. Its organ, which will eventually be several organs playable separately as well as individually, currently boasts nearly 1,500 pipes, a number expected to rise to somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000, or almost 2,000 more than the total number of goals Barcelona has scored in its 91-year history in Spain’s top flight.

In his own twist, Gaudí had the stained-glass windows which adorn the aisles increase in transparency with height: that is to say, the saint to which each window is dedicated is featured most prominently at the bottom of the window, leaving room at the top for more light to stream in. Around sunset, the white aisles suddenly become varying shades of red, orange, turquoise, green, violet; the symphony of colors to which he aspired begins to sing.

Gaudí even managed to leave space dedicated to Hell, vice and the Seven Deadly Sins; what good Catholic wouldn’t?

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Awarded the Ballon d’Or for a record sixth time long ago, on a December evening in Paris, Leo Messi has been at the very top of his profession since, oh, well, how long have you been talking about re-designing the closet since you now have the time? His excellence was apparent from the very minute Barça scouts laid eyes on him, elbowing him into a napkin contract that gave him necessary growth hormones and a place to clown kids his age and older for a few years before exacting his revenge on the best Spanish youths God could throw at him.

A taller, more traditionally well-adjusted person may have faltered, as so many are positioned to do, but not Messi, who has been without a position for more than a decade. The man once deemed “The Flea” has since evaded such derisive depictions of his diminutive figure.

He has evaded practically everything since 2005, with no plans of slowing down, even after marrying and having children and dodging other high-profile people in his mountainside home. Messi has enough time for all of this, somehow, suggesting his humanism after all of the divine works he has created and put forth.

At this point, it is not hyperbole to say that there is simply nothing Lionel Messi cannot do with a soccer ball, but watching him be the inspirational figure to, essentially, a beleaguered nation as well as his own beleaguered team is its own electricity, fit for reigniting bulbs you’ve long since forgotten were lingering in the frame of the closet. Congratulations on the closet re-design, by the way.

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Catalunya, if you haven’t heard, has been in the throes of discontent. The Spanish government continues to crack down on the Catalan people. The Spanish royal family, in turn, is not allowed in Catalunya, despite having luxury hotels named after several of its members. They do not return to the royal residence in Barcelona, which sits a stone’s throw from the Camp Nou. The next generation of soccer heroes are being run through the same cycles that Messi, Xavi and Iniesta were within the ostensible eye of the Spanish government, but none of them will ever see it, preferring to instead rely on the continued phases of Galacticos at Real Madrid to save face, no matter how Welshman and Castilian scapegoat Gareth Bale feels at the end of all this.

Spokespersons for Catalan independence are currently imprisoned for attempting to vote on Catalan independence. Barcelona supporters unfurled a banner in their support prior to the game against Dortmund, an opponent only on the field and not in ideology, and then sang their rally cry of “Indepencia!” at 17:14 of the game, which they always do in home matches. 1714 is the year when Spain first took home-rule away from Catalunya.

A peaceful protest at Camp Nou

By no means am I an expert on this, insofar as it might damage the structure of La Liga and the Spanish football pyramid, but enough other, more credible sources have written on it that for an outsider’s perusal. Protests emerged, and people debated the definition of “sedition” in Spanish and/or Catalan enough that it started to become an object of public wonder whether Barcelona, the soccer team, would have to formally stand and remove itself along with Barcelona, the city and Catalan landmark.

In 1943, in the midst of World War II and just after the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona lost to Real Madrid 11-1. It was essentially a protest loss, which is an unfathomable act for American sports audiences, but the Catalan side went down 8-0 at halftime after enduring truly dehumanizing efforts from Castilian people on its way into Estadio Chamartín[4], the team was shell-shocked and not particularly bemused with having to play in such an atmosphere.

After going down early, the team wanted to quit, but, per Sid Lowe’s outstanding Fear and Loathing in La Liga, “a colonel appeared in the dressing room and warned they had a duty to carry on. ‘He threatened us and said literally: “Go back out on to the pitch or you’re all going to jail.,” Calvet[5] said. Imagine being a part of a soccer team because you’re among the best players in the world, and then being confronted with the idea that you will go to prison if you do not underperform. Fascism works in myriad ways.

Yellow and red flags adorn the residences of Catalan residences from the coast into the mountains; “Llibertat presos politics”[6] graffiti decorates the walls of the Gothic quarter and elsewhere within the greater city. General Franco’s presuppositions regarding himself as the supreme ruler of a singular slithering portion of Iberia were laughable to Catalan residents, until he started killing them. Franco, of course, died aged and without an especially good plan for the generality of Spain in his wake at 82, posthumously deferring to King Juan Carlos I.

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Messi defies all of this. His Argentinian upbringing makes him just not-Spanish enough to be an outsider, while all of the Argentine press and his own home country continue to disavow the greatest player of the world’s most popular game. Who wouldn’t want to claim that man as their own?

As anyone born at least since Christ himself knows, being human comes with its faults. Messi isn’t perfect, as close to the sun as he can sometimes venture. A fault is met with a shrug; a foul is met with a, well, why wasn’t that called, Zebra[7]?

With Argentina, Messi is a man whose chair often arrives fully-assembled, when every other part has cartoonish instructions that are headache-inducing. He has had his chances, sure, but how can anyone blame him for attempting to build a staircase with only a butter knife and an iPhone app for a level?

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Montserrat – the “serrated mountain,” more or less, in Catalan, and not the font – stands atop a ridge within view of Barcelona, one that manages to shake itself away from the rear view mirror just in time to come in full view of the Pyrenees while driving north.

The Escolania de Montserrat is among the oldest boys’ choirs in Europe; they sing every day at 1:30 pm local time, in full view of the Virgin of Montserrat. They perform to the best of their whims, knowing a widely-beloved figure is watching over them, with prayer as their only shield. Older boys are stewarded out of the choir when their voices are too unbecoming of the choir’s standard. This can happen at any time, because time is a thief, particularly of exceptionally talented people in full view of everyone else.

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Especially as he ages beyond his prime and into the realm of “still the best in the world,” watching Messi is an exercise in what you believe, and what you can be talked into believing on sight. Leo Messi doesn’t bother to wait for anyone, and I’m not convinced that, despite his generally more favorable Champions League record, he is putting on a show. He just does as he feels he needs to, which can manifest itself in any number of ways.

When receiving a pass, it is common that a moment – not so much hesitation or outright pause as an exhale – occurs, during which a player settles into full control of the ball. Almost every player on earth, from the Pogbas and Rapinoes to Sunday morning amateurs, does this out of necessity. It is that extra touch that allows the very best in the world to either survey the field and decide what to do in nanoseconds or set into motion what they already knew they would do instinctually.

Each time Messi receives the ball, the crowd holds its collective breath, for it is in the coming moments that the possibility something the world has never seen and may never see again arises. Even the fan-run drum corps standing behind one of the goals, who never stop never stopping, become hushed by comparison, readying themselves for the outburst of pure joy that only their team, and their captain in particular, can elicit.

What has always set Messi apart is his ability to bypass that touch entirely. It’s a characteristic he shares with his erstwhile Barça teammates Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, both of whom were capable of keeping the ball tethered to either foot even in traffic. Eliminating such a standard move entirely is, even at the highest levels, a wildly intrepid reflex to have developed.

For Messi, however, it is even more noticeably drastic. His attraction for the ball is like the surface tension that allows a finger to draw a drop of water all over a table, leaving very little of a trail in its wake. Messi’s trail, in contrast, usually consists of four or five world-class soccer players scrambling over themselves like the bumbling, nameless henchmen in Bond movies.

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As with a lot of work worldwide, labor stopped in mid-March, for the first time since the Spanish Civil War, due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in Spain, an unintentional – perhaps providential? – nod to Gaudí’s own foresight. Some workers returned in July, the devout Spain having bowed to recommendations based in science. The completed basilica is still expected to debut in 2026, the centennial of its architect’s death, with additional artistic detailing work to continue for a number of years afterward.

Villar stuck around long enough to be at the helm when the crypt of the Sagrada Família was built; buried there are Gaudí, the man who took on the project after Villar as his final grand vision, and Martorell. That they all ended up in the shadow of what became Gaudí’s greatest feat, despite remaining a work-in-progress even now, is a testament in and of itself.

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Even after the explosions of unadulterated bliss every Barcelona goal produces, the collective feeling around Camp Nou following that win seemed more of relief than triumph. The benchmarks for success are high and would be wildly inappropriate for almost any other in Europe. Almost, that is, but for Madrid, the only team offhand I could think of that Barcelona could beat in any given competition and it be viewed as a feat on its own.

Insofar as one of the two dominant clubs in Spanish soccer can necessarily be said to fail, Barcelona has continually fallen short of its lofty expectations since its last treble in the 2014-’15 season. Those expectations, typically fan-inspired and Board of Directors-enforced, include but are usually not limited to: the domestic title[8]; the domestic cup[9]; and the Champions League[10].

Despite the team’s success in the first two competitions, it certainly hasn’t helped quell their fans’ low-hum rage that rivals Real Madrid won three consecutive Champions League titles immediately following the Blaugrana’s last; Barcelona parted with manager Ernesto Valverde in January, leaving Quique Setién in a less-than-ideal situation which even a Champions League title may not rectify at this point.

That some of the greatest players ever to exist in the world’s most popular sport – Neymar, Suarez, Xavi, Pique – get lost in Messi’s shadow is nothing of which to be ashamed. His work is ongoing, and may never be completed to his own standards, yet it stands as a testament to the very limits of human physical ability and creativity.

That Messi’s own peers aren’t really the Ronaldos and Pogbas so much as they are the LeBrons and Marquezes speaks the loudest volumes, across language boundaries and cultural differences.

Where Messi, the Argentine, finds himself outside of his adopted Catalunya finds itself may end up also being where he finds himself within it: caught in the same crossfire hurricane that appreciates greatness just short of self-declared autonomy.

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[1] The Catalan spelling is what we’ll go with, but there are others, depending on your affliction.

[2] One each for Jesus Christ, Mary, the Four Evangelists and the Twelve Apostles

[3] 566 ft.

[4] Madrid’s stadium before the Santiago Bernabeu opened in 1947

[5] Journalist Francesc Calvet

[6] “Freedom for political prisoners”

[7] I subscribe to the school of “Messi doesn’t dive,” though, in the age of VAR, it can be hard to separate his overt adventurousness from the likelihood that he understands the math and would like to be something akin to James Harden as he ages.

[8] Three times in five years since 2015

[9] Three times in five years since 2015

[10] Well…

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