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Understanding Lionel Messi’s Legacy Through the Soundtrack of Radiohead

The band from Oxfordshire, England, and the footballer from Rosario, Argentina, announced their greatness early and became era-defining artists. Their careers mirror each other in surprising ways.

Getty Images/Radiohead/Ringer illustration

When Lionel Messi recently signaled his intention to leave Barcelona, so many observers of the football world found themselves in a state of shock and sorrow. For years, people across the world have got up for work or for school, comfortable in the knowledge that his genius would illuminate their weeks. It didn’t just feel like the end of an era, but the end of the era. No matter that his legs are not as light as they once were, and that his aura is gently fading; it seemed only right that his legacy should fade forever at the place where his legend started, at the Camp Nou. And why not? For much of his life, that is where he has been a fixed point of the footballing firmament. Surely, Barcelona is where he must shine last?

Fortunately, Messi has decided that—for now, at least—he will remain at Barcelona, unwilling to drag his beloved club through a legal process that would undoubtedly have been long and brutal. Meanwhile, the mere threat of his departure, and thus the approaching final act of his career, has prompted several of us to begin the enormous work of assessing his legacy.

Because what is Messi? We still don’t fully know. The awards and accolades are overwhelming, and so—most importantly—are the moments. The lofted drive against Ecuador to take Argentina to the 2018 World Cup, the free kick against Real Sociedad in the rain that would not have been stopped by a 1,000-foot wall. The teardrop from the heavens against Betis. We know that he is no mere footballer, and that he has transcended his sport for a whole generation and has become an artist. But if Leo Messi is an artist of the rarest creativity and longevity, then which one would he be?

Fortunately, an answer may be found in one particular genre of music. We have long known that elite footballers have a special relationship with rock bands. The Spain national team, after winning the men’s World Cup in 2010, asked Kasabian to play their victory party. Alessandro Del Piero was so friendly with Oasis that he starred in their video for “Lord Don’t Slow Me Down.” But perhaps the most intimate spiritual link between the two worlds is that between a group from Oxfordshire, England, and a genius from Rosario, Argentina, since they have had strangely similar career paths. Put simply: By looking at the parallels between their journeys, there is a very, very good chance that Leo Messi is Radiohead. Here are nine reasons why:

1. The Early Promise

In music, as in football, greatness often announces itself early, but the artist is still too young to sustain an exceptional level of performance. It is fair to say that when Radiohead emerged in the early ’90s, they were already very, very good, but only the deepest enthusiasts could sense just what heights they might reach. In a sense, Messi’s first couple of seasons at Barcelona were like Pablo Honey, Radiohead’s first record in 1993, complete with thrilling moments, but mere cameos compared to what would come later.

2. The Breakout Hit

Every musician needs a hit song, but if it is too successful, it creates a shadow from which that artist cannot escape. (See: Mark Morrison with “Return of the Mack,” or Stiltskin with “Inside.”) When Radiohead released “Creep,” the debut single from Pablo Honey, it not only surged up the charts, but it also became an anthem for the disaffected outsider. Its reach was such that the band themselves tired of playing it, and perhaps even of being reminded of it. Messi’s hit song, the one that saw everyone around the globe take notice, was a hat trick that he scored at the age of 19. For Messi, scoring three goals in one game would be a routine occurrence—at the time of writing, he has amassed 54 in all competitions—but this hat trick was different. It arrived in La Liga against none other than Real Madrid, his final and equalizing strike as sensational as it was late, with Messi searing through the opposition defense as easily as a harpoon through a silk sheet. This achievement was Messi’s “Creep”: the feat that could possibly not be bettered, the deed that saw many consider him the natural heir to Diego Maradona. Yet, somehow, Messi would become the author of far superior works, including one just a few weeks later, against Getafe.

3. The Visionary New Producer

Every band needs a producer who will arrive and take their act to extraordinary new levels. Radiohead, during the recording of their second album, The Bends, met Nigel Godrich, a superb yet unheralded sound engineer from London. The first full-length record that Radiohead released with Godrich was the seminal OK Computer. In 2008, Pep Guardiola became Barcelona’s coach; his first full-length collaboration with Messi ended with Barcelona becoming the first Spanish club to win a treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey, and the UEFA Champions League. At 21 years old, Messi scored 38 goals in all competitions and won his first Ballon d’Or in 2009.

Radiohead’s creative leap from The Bends in 1995 and OK Computer in 1997, and the leap from pre-Pep Messi to post-Pep Messi is similarly astonishing. The Bends helped to define the year when it was released; OK Computer defined not only a genre but an era. Pre-Pep Messi was simply one of the best young wingers in world football; under Pep, he moved into the center of the attack, and the entire footballing universe duly set a new orbit around him. Under his previous coach, Frank Rijkaard, Messi was merely a superstar. Under Guardiola, Messi became interstellar.

4. The Stunning Evolution

Radiohead are famous for not only making outstanding records, but for exploring new directions each time. Following the euphoric reception of OK Computer, they could easily have turned out work of that nature for the rest of their careers. However, they refused to rest upon their laurels and recorded Kid A, a record released in 2000 that initially confused many, but some still regard as their peak. In May 2009, Pep Guardiola, not content with swaggering toward the throne in Spain and Europe, had his own Kid A moment. That’s when, on the eve of another game against the unfortunate Real Madrid, he converted Messi from a conventional center forward to a false nine.

In that match, Madrid’s defenders responded to Messi with the same bemusement of several eminent music critics upon first hearing “Everything in Its Right Place.” They were accustomed to Messi standing near them, but now he was in a withdrawn role, almost hiding in midfield. “What the hell,” they may have pondered, “was he doing all the way over there?” Yet to Madrid’s swiftly growing horror, they realized too late that Messi was precisely in his right place: He was utterly elusive, arriving in and leaving the final third whenever he pleased, and impossible to anticipate and thus to nullify. In a performance that would immediately pass into legend, Messi scored twice and Barcelona went on to win 6-2.

It can be argued that the creative shift from OK Computer to Kid A saw Radiohead change their relationship with the space around them. If OK Computer was a record defined primarily by presence—witness, say, the bombast of “Karma Police” and the ominous clatter of “Climbing Up the Walls”—then Kid A was a record whose soul seemed defined by absence, containing so many distorted vocals and barren soundscapes (and even a song called “How To Disappear Completely”).

By the same token, it can be contended that Messi’s career went from being defined by presence (the all-action forward who was always in your face) to being defined by absence (the ethereal assassin who, just before he struck, would drift away from your radar).

5. The Brilliance Taken for Granted

In the years following Kid A, Radiohead released Amnesiac and Hail To The Thief, two of the best albums any band has ever released. The former gave us “Pyramid Song,” and the latter “Sit Down. Stand Up,” yet many Radiohead listeners would not even put these records in the band’s top three. Messi had a similar problem. Like Radiohead, he has so often produced exceptional work that it has become regarded as a matter of routine. For the last 12 seasons, he has scored at least 31 goals each year; in the 2011-2012 La Liga season, he scored 50 goals in 37 matches and 73 goals in 60 matches in all competitions. When you are doing things like that on a regular basis, it is no surprise that even some of your biggest fans start to skim over your most exhilarating material.

Take The King of Limbs, Radiohead’s album from 2011, which comes in at just over 37 minutes, but has more excellent ideas (and songs, frankly) than most records twice that length. A song on The King of Limbs, “Feral,” gets relatively little acclaim, but when you hear it live, it is a subtly rousing dance tune. Barcelona’s 2017-18 season, when the team claimed a double of La Liga and Copa del Rey titles, may well end up being Leo Messi’s “Feral”: It was a campaign in which he scored a mere 45 goals in 54 matches, but so many supporters were so saturated by success (and stung by disappointment in the Champions League) that the magnificence of Messi’s work in those 12 months didn’t fully register. It is quite possible that, if you asked his hundred most knowledgeable fans to come up with their list of his 10 best goals, they would each come up with entirely different selections.

6. They Make Most Sense When You Witness Them Live

When you listen to Radiohead’s “Idioteque” on record, it is merely outstanding. When you experience it in person, it is a terrifying lament, a hymn to apocalypse, a cloudburst of relief. When you see Messi play on TV, he is merely mind-blowing. When you see Messi play in person, it is like watching Beethoven write sheet music in real time; it is like peering over Michelangelo’s shoulder as he puts the final brushstrokes on the roof of that chapel.

Yes, that’s the difference.

7. Genius in Simplicity

Perhaps Radiohead’s finest album is 2007’s In Rainbows—the one on which, for the most part, they kept it deceptively simple. The themes and lyrics are largely free from the mist of ambiguity. The arrangements, most notably the chords on “Videotape,” are almost courageously spare.

By the same token, you could argue that Messi’s best performance was one when he didn’t even score, when he kept his game so simple that the entire match seemed to flow through him. That occasion would be—with apologies yet again to that team in white—against Real Madrid in November 2010, when Barcelona triumphed 5-0. This game was Messi’s In Rainbows, when he allowed himself only two extravagant moments: a swirling first-half strike against the post leaving Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas stranded, and a second-half assist for David Villa, a pass that fell as lightly and beautifully into his path as sunlight across a meadow.

8. The Sustained Excellence

Radiohead have been performing at an elite level for a very, very long time. They released their first studio album in 1993; almost 25 years later, they are still somehow managing to improve, turning up in 2016 with the near-peerless A Moon Shaped Pool. “Spectre,” the theme song they wrote and submitted in 2015 for the James Bond movie of the same name, is easily one of their best pieces of work. Yet, in a striking act of oversight, it was rejected as too “melancholy” by the production team. Messi has been on a similarly remarkable run, having delivered continuous excellence for well over a decade. Like Radiohead, much of his late-era brilliance—say, his sublime first leg showing against Liverpool in the 2018-2019 Champions League—was not met with the rewards that it deserves.

9. More Than a Trophy Cabinet

In the case of both artists, their influence on their field goes beyond mere trinkets. Radiohead have claimed six Grammys, while Messi has four Champions League titles and six Ballons d’Or. Both winnings are respectable numbers for artists of their talent, but don’t tell the full tale of their impact. Radiohead’s legacy can be judged, in part, by the number of covers and remixes that they inspire: They have attracted the affection, and in several cases, some of the best work, of musicians as diverse as Robert Glasper, Osunlade, Lianne La Havas, and The Realistic Orchestra. Messi’s legacy cannot be reduced to numbers. Instead, he has directed or denied the tides of footballing history. For many years, he has been Real Madrid’s reckoning; at times, his on-field feats have single-handedly prevented Barcelona’s house of cards from collapse; and, most recently, he has emerged to call out the shameless electioneering of President Josep Bartomeu. Messi is now 33, and some might feel that they have already seen the very best of him. But judging by the reception to his interview with Goal, he has clearly not lost the ability to surprise. I might be wrong—many observers of Messi might be wrong— but it seems a good bet that, in the coming seasons, he will still produce a few more creations on the level of “Spectre.”