How fine the line is. So near, so far. It was the 84th minute, and Messi was on 84 goals when he was sent through. Artur came to meet him, and Messi stepped to the Benfica goalkeeper's left. He was about to score his 85th goal of 2012, equaling Gerd Muller's record for goals in a calendar year.
Yet another record: gone.
A moment later, Messi was on the ground. Soon, he was being carried off on a stretcher, arms folded across his chest and hardly moving. He hadn't scored. Maybe he wouldn't equal the record. Not tonight, not ever. As Messi went past Artur, they had clashed. The ball spun away, Messi reached it and curled it unconvincingly goalward, before falling to the ground. When he hit the turf, hearts hit throats. When he didn't get up, they, too, were paralyzed.
"I took a shot because I was in pain," Messi said Thursday. "I thought it might be the last time I kicked a ball in a long time."
He and everyone else. Barely a sound in the stadium, everyone stopped still. Looking, wondering. The news flew round the world. "Messi's down." Rarely has an injury had such an impact. There was a kind of moral panic, a sudden emptiness. As if football fans had gone into shock. Everyone was waiting. There was a drama about it, people hanging on. As if the entire world was his family, nervously pacing up and down the corridor outside the hospital ward, waiting for the doctor to come out and give them the news. Praying it wasn't serious.
A black cat had crossed Barcelona's path. Quite literally: there was the photo to prove it. The headline in the Catalan sports newspaper
The scramble for information began, the diagnoses too. Everyone was a doctor. The search for clues: Which way did he turn? Did he walk out of the stadium? What did teammates say? Messi was taken to a clinic for tests. Waiting. There was a search for someone to blame as well: should he have even played? It was, after all, a nothing game. Did he play just for the record? And why? Was that such a good idea?
"I'd do it again," Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova said.
"What happened yesterday could happen even in training," Messi said Thursday.
He was right of course: this was a fortuitous clash, not the breakdown of a player pushed to the limit. And one of the remarkable things about Messi -- and simultaneously one of the reasons why his departure on a stretcher had such an impact -- is that he can often appear superhuman. Not just because of what he does, but because he so rarely gets injured. Hardly ever since Pep Guardiola took over, in fact.
Before then Messi missed at least 10 league games a season; since then, his diet and routine changed, even if Messi says that the shift has been "exaggerated," he has barely missed a game. From 2,800 minutes in 2006-07 and 3,081 in 2007-08 to 4,089, 4,572, 4,768 and 5,436 in the four seasons since. Plus, 2,400 already this season. Only one injury has kept him out more than a week since October 2008; there were four in the two years before that. Now, it looked like he may be out for longer.
People began calculating what it meant. For the record -- how cruel that he should get so close and then have it denied to him -- and for Barcelona. And for everyone else. Real Madrid fans wondered if there was a chance that they would overhaul that 11-point gap. How would Barcelona look without the man who scored 50 league goals this season, has been top scorer in the Champions League for four years in a row and already has 21 league goals this season? When Messi has scored, Barcelona has won 89 percent of their games, losing just two percent; when he hasn't scored, they have won just 52 percent and lost 19 percent.
All the while they waited. The wait felt long but in fact it was over pretty quickly. And in the end, it was not such a big deal. "It looks like it's just a knock: Messi will be with us for some time," Vilanova said.
At 23 minutes past midnight, the medical report revealed that he just had some bruising on his knee. He might even be available for this weekend's trip to Betis. With four games left in 2012, the record was back on. So, more importantly, was Messi.
"I'm very happy because our beloved teammate Leo Messi is fine," goalkeeper José Manuel Pinto said, "luckily, it was just a shock."
But what a shock.
"It was just a scare," said
Sighs of relief were the media's stock-in-trade.
"What a fright!" wrote
There was relief, but there was also a slight sense of sheepishness. All that just for a bruise. Yet it was understandable: the potential for it to be worse was real and so was the fear, perhaps the clearest indication of just how important Messi has become. Everyone's property, everyone's player.
There is a Spanish idiom which on Wednesday night could be perfectly applied to Messi, to the image of him lying on the turf, to the silence that engulfed the stadium, to the pause, the wait, the concern, the impact one man had on so many. Rarely has the phrase been so appropriate.
Messi sneezed, and the whole world caught a cold.