EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- His feet are tiny.
Seen from this distance, from up on the concourse, even shod in those emergency-orange boots, his feet seem too small to be the cause of all this ardor, all this animal panic. Every time the ball comes into his reach -- or merely drops within range of the blazing Renaissance halo we paint around him -- half the crowd rises to make its noise. The other half holds its breath.
Lionel Messi has come to New Jersey.
To the American defenders, he is a rumor, at once everywhere and nowhere, a thing bouncing between them without origin or destination. He is gossip, insinuation, a wisp of
spreading outrage. Four men converge on the spot he just stood. Another collides with him, hard, but Messi rolls away unhurt. Again. Again. He is a pinball, a whippet, a ricochet. He is knocked to the turf. Lies motionless. Rises. He stands completely still in the cold, head down, unseen and unseeing, a man waiting for the bus, until he springs away, the ball riding his instep.
The ball follows him like a dog. When it wanders, he calls it and it comes to him. They confer briefly. He scratches it behind the ear. He sends it rushing ahead.
It is a privilege of my work that over the years I've seen many great players doing many great things. Turns out I've lived in the Great Age of Sports, and I've spoken to some of the greats and I've shaken their hands and we've talked about mechanics and practice, about ambition and work and desire, about sweat and obsession and sacrifice, about fathers and mothers and coaches and winning and losing and keeping the weight on the balls of your feet.
I've seen the magic up close without ever once understanding the trick.
Nicklaus. Jordan. Bolt. Ali. Feller. Schumacher. Maybe the best who ever lived. Maybe the Greatest Of All Time. Maybe. Or maybe just the best across the century of our self-regard. Across our modernity and the age of our conceits. Sports hyperbole is as old, after all, as Homer and "The Iliad."
So is alchemy. How genius turns the merely human into gold. Into greatness. If you get it, no explanation is necessary. If you don't, no explanation is possible. What they do and how they do it remains perfectly inexpressible, and therefore unexpressed. Even to themselves. They simply do. They simply are. The act is reason enough for the act; the gesture explains the gesture. The rest is bookkeeping.
We squint down at the numbers, at these echoes of the insensible, trying to make order of what they've done, trying to tally the sums of their poetry in our ledger of the ordinary. Trying to marshal our arguments. It can't really be done. We add, subtract, multiply and divide; but at the end of things, the heart decides. It's the only hall of fame that matters.
In soccer, for example, history now presents us three names. Pele. Maradona. Messi. Two with a standing claim to the title "Greatest Of All Time." One just waiting for his paperwork to clear accounting.
Lionel Messi is so good that even winter has come back to see him.
The New Meadowlands are frozen, and a scouring March wind carries away the cheers and the music and any hope of soft spring. The twilight sky is as blue and sharp as a blade. The U.S. versus Argentina feels like Packers-Lions '65.
Below me, across the grass, Messi floats like smoke.
And that's as far as I can take you in the present tense.
After two days, I can think of no further way to describe what I was seeing, to draw for you his partnership with the ball, or explain his command of orbital mechanics or Newtonian physics. He is a suspension of cause and effect. He creates his own reality. As all Greats must, he defies science and language and must be seen to be believed.
In order to understand what I saw Saturday, I will send you not to YouTube, where the growing archive of Messi's genius resides, but here, to "The Red Balloon." A movie about the inanimate and transcendence and love. Rent it. It is the only explanation I have ever seen for what he can do with a football.
Lionel Messi in the age of Lionel Messi.
As small as he is, and as ordinary looking, you expect him to be crushed by the weight of our expectations.
Rather, somehow, he lifts us all.
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.