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Why play Messi in meaningless game?

Watch as Lionel Messi reacts after being injured during Barca's Champions League match.
Watch as Lionel Messi reacts after being injured during Barca's Champions League match.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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The blind pursuit of a contrived record may take the world’s greatest player out of action for weeks. Lionel Messi was injured in an inconsequential match for Barcelona.

What a nightmare.

That’s how Spanish outlets summed up the calamitous events in Barcelona, where Messi got entangled with Benfica goalkeeper Artur after entering the game in 58th minute and hurt his priceless left knee, forcing him off in the 88th minute.

Injuries are inevitable. They’re an occupational hazard. But they are preventable, however, when the player’s services are not needed. Messi was only deployed for the sake of pursuing an obscure record, one that was hyped up because there was nothing left for the little genius to break.

Messi has scored 84 goals in the 2012 calendar year – not the 2012-13 season, mind, for that would make it an actually meaningful record, since we measure soccer in seasons, not years – just one less than West Germany and Bayern Munich’s Gerd Muller scored in 1972. After Wednesday’s bout with Benfica, he had four games left to break the record, after a Copa del Rey game (which would have been his fifth) was postponed to the New Year.

Yet in spite of Barcelona already being through to the UEFA Champions League knockout round and needing absolutely nothing from the Benfica game, he was inserted by manager Tito Vilanova for the mere sake of padding his goal tally in a meaningless game.

It happens in all sports. Players on the brink of records, or in danger of falling below historical averages are played in games logic would deny them; or they’re simply removed from games they should be a part of.

Usually, everybody gets away with it, too.

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But when someone is injured like Messi was, it calls into question the sense of it all. Messi might still prove fine and his injury incapable of tethering him to this earthly existence. And all this will be written off as senseless speculation and so much panic. But the point stands all the same: what possible good could come of Messi playing in this game?

His schedule is overcrowded as it is. He will be expected to play twice a week through May, at least. Given the perpetual and unrelenting onslaught on his legs, any respite is a blessing, no matter how much he despises sitting a game out. The record he is pursuing exists only because Messi, at 25, had already shattered every other scoring record known to man and new parameters were needed to frame his greatness against.

And so the stats men dove into the archives and dug out a set of statistics that Messi didn’t happen to stand atop of, and a new record was invented. When we run out of records, after all, there’s no objective way of telling how good somebody is. And in our stats-driven sporting sphere, we lose interest when we cannot compare and contrast. And when interest is lost, merchandising and marketing opportunities are lost and the money stream quickly dries up.

So it was important for Messi to break another record, however dubious its origins and historical validity. And it was important for Messi to play, consequences going unconsidered.

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Early word is that the injury isn’t serious. If it is, however, and it prevents him from breaking the record he was brought onto the field to do, there will be a great irony in the matter. Like something out of a Greek tragedy, or Russian literature.

And Messi – and his nonsensical would-be record – would simply be a victim of the machinery that makes him and what he does important.

But that’s okay. We’ll just find another record to get excited about and look to another lamb to sacrifice in the service of our ever-shortening attention spans.

More Stories From Leander Schaerlaeckens

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