A no-name defender from Almería kicks Lionel Messi. The undersized Argentinian with the brown flowerpot haircut is unhurt, and gets up wearing his usual blank expression. Nonetheless, half the Barcelona team berate the culprit.
Barcelona has a Messi strategy. The club is the proud owner of the European Footballer of the Year – the 22-year-old won the Golden Ball on Tuesday – but it knows that these things often do not last. Twice before in recent decades it has had the world’s best young footballer, first Diego Maradona and later Ronaldinho. Both left town prematurely. On recent visits to Barcelona, I asked club officials and a Messi adviser about Barça’s strategy to keep Messi in Barcelona and performing well for the next decade.
Getting Messi to shine is not easy. He rarely shines for Argentina. One of his former youth coaches says he is like the gifted student who gets bored in class. Messi finds even first-team training sessions so easy he sometimes switches off. Former manager Johan Cruijff, Barça’s grand old man, says Messi risks losing interest now he has extended his contract to 2016. It is hard to know what occurs under that flowerpot, because Messi is no orator.
His team-mates understand. In about 2003, Barcelona’s local boys sat down together and noted that they had won no big prizes. They resolved to stop tolerating selfish stars. Instead, they themselves would rule the side. So when Ronaldinho and Deco established a Latin American corner in the changing room, drew in the teenaged Messi, and started inviting him on nights out, Ronaldinho and Deco were doomed.
Joan Oliver, Barça’s chief executive, says Barcelona sold the duo largely in order to make Messi the team’s leader: “It was the idea: an era has ended, and a new one starts. In this era Xavi and Andres Iniesta have a very big role, but the main one is for Messi.”
Barcelona’s team is Messi’s support system. Pep Boade, Barcelona’s chief scout, told me that Josep Guardiola, the head coach, had “structured a Messi strategy. If John Terry kicks Messi, the whole team will protect him.”
Mr Oliver describes the deal as follows: “You have to, in some sense, build the team for him. But you have to make him conscious that he needs the team. You are offering him the best opportunity in the soccer world. As long as it remains this way, it’s hard for him to leave.” Pablo Negre, commercial director of Leo Messi Management, says the player understands: “If Messi did not play with those players, it would be impossible that he would win the Golden Ball.”
Part of the deal is that the great individualist learns collective football. Last year, Frank Rijkaard, Barça’s then manager, told me: “I’ve seen games where, for 90 minutes, it looked as if he was playing one against 11, and he kept getting kicked, but we only won 1-0, or it was 0-0, or we lost. He was making leaps forward by seeking variation: one time you dribble, another time you give the ball back and go deep. He was becoming more effective by doing less.”
But the Messi strategy includes life off the field too. When I asked Mr Oliver for his strategy, he laughed and said: “The first thing is to try to make him happy.” He gestured over the sunny terrace where we were sitting in late November, overlooking town, and said: “Someone could try to study the relationship between climate and football clubs. For me it’s difficult to imagine a city more appealing than Barcelona.”
Messi apparently agrees. Mr Negre says: “Messi feels part of this city. It’s his intention to stay here all his life. But in any career, you don’t know what can happen.”
So far, the Messi strategy is working. Already the player has achieved more in club football than Maradona ever did. “I don’t go out much. I enjoy being alone at home,” he says in two sentences never spoken by Maradona. Nonetheless, Barcelona’s Messi strategy will get tested.