Yesterday, as the Nigerian and Argentinian teams at the World Cup waited together momentarily in the tunnel before emerging onto the field for the second half, the Nigerian goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama reached out to Lionel Messi and patted him on the back.
Nigeria had stood on the brink of being the first, and only, team from Africa to qualify for the round of 16. The Super Eagles, the reigning African champions, required just a point from their match with Argentina to secure qualification. But one man, Messi, had stood in their way.
Despite facing one of the top players of all-time, Nigeria keeper and vice-captain Vincent Enyeama had not been worried, as a press report published the day before the match related.
“To tell you the truth I’m never afraid of footballers,” the keeper said when asked if he was scared of facing Messi.
“Messi is one of the best players on the planet, but it’s not a game between him and me, it’s a game between Nigeria and Argentina,” Enyeama added.
“Everybody knows he’s made a lot of progress since the last time we played against each other in 2010.”
“Messi is a genius, one of the best footballers the world has produced, but tomorrow’s game is against Argentina, not just him.”
Enyeama was on top of his game as he kept out several Messi attempts and pulled out save after save to keep the South Americans out. But Messi scored on a well taken free-kick on Enyeam in the first half just moments after the keeper had saved a glorious free-kick into the top corner from 25m. That ball arced like the sun, untroubled and unstoppable. Enyeama did not even bother to dive.
It was not as if the two players did not know each other. In June 2010, Enyeama denied the Barcelona star a number of scoring chances at the World Cup in South Africa; it earned him the man of the match accolade, although Nigeria lost 1-0 to Argentina.
“I think I watched almost 20 games of him playing in the Spanish league,” the keeper said at the time, “and I knew what I needed to do to stop him, that’s why each time he tried to beat me, I knew which direction he was going to hit the ball and how he was going to do it.”
“So, for me, studying almost 20 games played by Messi helped me a lot.
“I just feel wonderful with the way I played, but I feel horrible because we lost. I wish Messi had come to talk afterwards, but he is the best player in the world and he wouldn’t come to the player he doesn’t know to congratulate him,” quipped the then 27-year-old.
Fast forward to 2014.
Perhaps Vincent was congratulating Messi in the tunnel on his brilliant shot.
In response, Messi instantly reached out, put his arm around his opponent, and embraced him.
What were the words that passed between them?
We may never know. No one seemed to think the mutual gesture of respect and friendship important enough to ask.
The commercial broadcasters and pundits were too wrapped up in taking the high moral road over a bite of an Italian by an Uruguayan player to comment on the best shot of World Cup 2014. Violent physical aggression was made the global topic of the day, as if it is the norm of competition between nations in modern sport, with acceptable limits.
But two photographers did notice.
The top picture above, taken at the beginning of the match, as does this shot (left) taken in the tunnel at mid-game, shows there’s plenty of mutual respect between the two competitors.
Small gestures perhaps.
That these moments were overlooked in the international hullabaloo orchestrated about Luis Suarez is not fortuitous. The role model “critically” highlighted is Suarez-Chiellini, not Enyeama-Messi. The diversionary “debate” focused on the persona of “a serial offender” (and one from Latin America) – not on the ethics of sport nor the laws of the game.
There are two concepts of sport – amateur and professional. These two ideas contend every day, I wrote at the time of the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
The reality is that the world today is witnessing a clash between those who are for and those who are against the highest ideals of sport, just as there is there is a clash between sport as the people’s right, as a source of health and well-being for all, or sport as a market commodity, a source of personal wealth, and a proclamation of international superiority.
This clash is between the creation of societies, where the public interest must prevail, and the creation of nation-states, where it is the human factor/social consciousness that is at the centre – and not the destruction of the norms of civilized behaviour and human dignity, according to neo-liberal prescriptions.
– Tony Seed