Lionel Messi

'Messicide' - the aftermath of the tackle that almost ended Lionel Messi's career

It's nearly 10 years since the Argentine's ankle folded in on itself and football fans drew a deep breath

 
6:00pm on Wednesday 24th June 2020
By
Paul Macdonald

September 19, 2010.

Barcelona are facing Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon, the start of their third (and arguably best) season under Pep Guardiola. Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique have scored in the first half and Barca are 2-1 to the good as we enter injury time.

Another Atleti attack is broken up and Messi sets his sights on the corner flag. He quickly flicks around Luis Perea to collect at the other side, but Tomas Ujfalusi arrives at warp speed to his left. He careers straight into the Argentine, sending him rolling two, three, five, 10 times across the pitch in agony.

UJFALUSI TACKLE

At first, it's not immediately obvious that the tackle is particularly dangerous and indeed the Barcelona players are not surrounding the referee in search of justice.

But Fernandez Borbalan knows what he has seen and brandishes the red card with haste. Ujfalusi is confused and argues his case. Borbalan refuses to even engage in eye contact. It's all happened a little too quickly.

While Messi is taking off his boot and sock to show instantaneous swelling, the replay is shown.

Ujfalusi's impact into the side of Messi is like that of a small car hitting a wall. His last step is a big one - to give the defender some benefit of the doubt, it appears as if he is trying to step in front of Messi to initiate a 'professional foul', as we might call it. But his step in fact crunches down completely on Messi's right ankle while he is in full flight.

Messi is no stranger to rough treatment. Despite those who would like to compare the roughhousing Diego Maradona received to modern-day defending, Messi has had his fare share of ultra-aggressive antagonists coming after him. But by any standard, this tackle was at best utterly reckless and, at worst, potentially career-ending. Indeed, there are many parallels between this and the Butcher of Bilbao, Andoni Goikoetxea, whose lunge on Maradona shattered his ankle in 1983 and almost ended his career.

MESSICIDE

The reaction afterwards would have been worse in these days of social media, but even back then, Ujfalusi's impression on the ankle - crushing his entire body weight down on top and folding the foot underneath Messi's frame at a 90 degree angle - was on the front page of every sports newspaper in Spain.

Team-mate David Villa called it a 'horrifying, brutal challenge', while boss Pep Guardiola criticised the referee and demanded more protection for his players, not just Messi.

Ujfalusi was public enemy No. 1, vilified and subject to vitriolic criticism. In ESPN, journalist Graham Hunter referred to the Czech as 'a street thug'. Marca's front page - notoriously partisan towards the Madrid clubs - had the banner headline 'CHILLING' under a picture of the incident.

Catalan-based Sport ran with 'HUNTED', while El Mundo Deportivo accused Ujfalusi of 'MESSICIDE'. Indeed, in combination with an unsavoury tackle Cristiano Ronaldo had received when facing Mallorca a few weeks prior, an entire debate about the protection of players was instigated. Marca's editorial line read: "It's time for measures to be taken, time for the impunity to end.

"There should be zero tolerance."

Ujfalusi, it must be noted, was a player who had just been sent off for only the second time in his career, but he had kicked the wrong player at the wrong time, and Atleti president Enrique Cerezo petitioned for him in the stereotypical 'not that type of player' case for the defence.

But the Czech's public non-apology a few days later did absolutely nothing to pour water on the biggest national news story of the week.

He said: “I wanted to apologise. It was not my intention to hurt. I wanted to play the ball and had the misfortune to hit Leo when I came down on his leg. Yes, it was scary to see his ankle bent, but it was not my intention to hurt.

You're almost there, Tomas.

But he just had to add more: “In the picture it becomes clear that I am touching the ball before injuring his ankle. There were harder tackles than mine.”

Hmmm. As it was, Spain's Competition Committee made the call to suspend Ujfalusi for the minimum two matches, despite the option to ban him for an entire month being available to them and, needless to say, the Barcelona media pack were not even slightly done with this.

El Mundo Deportivo's columnist Luis Racionero seethed: "The only thing this maggot [Ujfalusi] should do is shut up and disappear. The Competition Committee should kick him out of the league, but that putrid committee packed with Madridistas is delighted for people to destroy Messi.

Fellow writer Claudio Chaves said simply, "Tomas Ujfalusi can go to hell."

And after all that, despite Messi suffering internal and external ligament damage, he was back two weeks later as if nothing had ever happened.

From the type of tackle that could have ended Messi's entire season - which would likely have meant no second Champions League, no Man Utd procession at Wembley, no semi-final goal versus Madrid that is among the greatest ever scored - he barely missed a beat.

And when Ujfalusi and Atleti arrived at Camp Nou in the following February, he predictably scored a hat-trick, Ujfalusi's flowing locks bobbing around in his wake in every instance.

The actions of the defender are barely remembered now, particularly given the chaotic four Clasicos in 17 days at the end of that season which pushed Guardiola to the limit in his verbal jousting with Jose Mourinho, and set a new low bar for prejudiced, sensationalist coverage.

But if Ujfalusi's foot lands at a different angle, there's a chance he is remembered with the same animosity as the Butcher of Bilbao and we are potentially robbed of some of Messi's moments of greatness.

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