Later we would all say, “I was there. I saw it happen.” At the time, when he was brought on as a substitute, it was actually a welcome break, a chance for the first of the 35,000 spectators to hurry out of the stadium before the final whistle and beat the rush. It was October 16 2004 and there were still eight minutes left to play at the Olympic stadium in Barcelona. Barça were leading Espanyol 1-0 in the Catalan derby. Barcelona’s substitution was calculated to give them an extra half a minute’s dawdling time before securing their victory. The crowd munched sunflower seeds and murmured questions: “Who is this? What’s his name? Never heard of him … someone from the B team – what on earth…? A child!”
His number 30 shirt was untucked. One last time he pushed his long black hair behind his ears, as if trying to tidy away his nerves. He was 17 years young and 5ft 6½in short. His cheeks were flushed bright red. The crowd grumbled and chucked sunflower-seed husks to the floor. There’s nothing happening here, we might as well go home. He ran out on to the pitch. And then the atmosphere took on a new note: a murmuring laugh rose from the throats of the spectators, who didn’t even realise that they were laughing, that they had lost the power of speech altogether. Before anyone could so much as string a thought together, Leo Messi, the young man in the number 30 shirt, had done the physically impossible. With two of Espanyol’s defenders – and no space whatsoever – in front of him, he simply dribbled between them, the ball stuck to his feet like a sixth toe.
It was just eight inconsequential minutes at the end of a game, but his debut in professional football had me and the stranger on the terrace next to me instinctively shaking hands, with all the pathos of men who believe they have witnessed an event that has bound them together for ever. We were there. We had seen him.
We all know that overwhelming feeling when we see a footballer for the first time and are struck by the conviction that we have never seen anyone like this. The truth is that it happens to us every other month, and that all other such players − Nicolas Anelka or even Michael Owen, for instance – go on, at some point, to prove that they are only human after all. But the joy of seeing Leo Messi dribble lingers. “Where did that little devil come from?” asked Fabio Capello, now England’s coach, in the autumn of 2005. Years later, Josep “Pep” Guardiola, FC Barcelona’s coach, said: “Messi is the only footballer who can run faster with the ball than without it.”
When Leo Messi, from Rosario in Argentina, appears for FC Barcelona at Wembley on Saturday in the final of the Champions League against Manchester United, the 23-year-old should be a familiar entity: world footballer of the year for 2009 and 2010, Champions League winner in 2006 (although injury ruled him out of the final) and 2009, and scorer of 52 goals in 53 games so far this season. And yet, every time you watch him play, you feel as if you are witnessing a one-off event. I have been watching him for six years now. I have listened to him as part of a group of Barcelona reporters a good 30 times. And yet still, when I sit with teammates of his – the likes of Victor Valdés or Andrés Iniesta – and his name is mentioned, a spark lights up our eyes. One night, after he had scored four goals against Arsenal, I was going home from the Camp Nou with my friends. Caught up in Messi euphoria, we spontaneously began to kick around a tin can, at about midnight, right in the middle of the Diagonal, the main road out of downtown Barcelona, and I realised what it was: Leo Messi makes people happy.
The best footballer of all time, people say … And as you watch him defying the laws of gravity as he dribbles around the opposition, it’s impossible not to think of that other short, great Argentine dribbler. Leo Messi is the updated version of Diego Maradona. And yet a comparison between the two only reveals how different they are from each other, how radically football has changed. In his game and in life, Maradona remained a street urchin. Messi gives us the illusion that the wild spontaneity of street football still exists, and yet he is the well-planned, carefully cultivated model student of a football academy, raised by top coaches. He can decide games on his own. But with his passes and zealous defence, he is also a generous team player.
Is he better than Maradona? The only thing that interested me in October 2004, after his first eight minutes, was “Who is this Messi?” The Spanish footballer Toni Calvo laughed when I asked him that question on the telephone. “Meet me tomorrow after the training session at the Mini Estadi,” he said. The next morning, a single spectator watched FC Barcelona B train − 18- and 19-year-old young men, who had been promised that the future belonged to them. For four years, Leo Messi had been a teammate of many of those. Toni Calvo and Leo Messi, one attacking from the right flank, the other from the left, were the best of friends.
“Just a moment,” said Calvo after the training session, as he wiped a red plastic seat clean with a handkerchief and sat down. “Friends on the football field – Leo didn’t go to the cinema or anywhere else.” He didn’t even seem to own a pair of jeans, said Calvo, his own jeans fashionably ripped and a fake diamond in each ear, wild locks tamed with gel. Teammates only ever saw Leo Messi in his training kit because football was all that interested him.
Messi was 13 when he first appeared on the training pitch at the Barcelona youth academy. He was noticed immediately: he was about 4ft 8in tall. There are taller nine-year-olds. But it was precisely his short stature that had brought him to Barcelona. The doctor back in Rosario had prescribed him growth hormones, without which, the doctor said, he would never reach above five feet. The treatment cost $900 a month, and in Argentina that was a working-class wage. His father, a steelworker, thought that, with Leo’s talent, there must surely be a football club willing to share the costs. They couldn’t find one anywhere in Argentina.
An agent organised a trial in Barcelona. “One evening I was standing with my squad of 14-year-olds when this little tyke came in,” said the then Barcelona youth coach, Rodolf Borrell. “Basically, Messi played that first evening just like he does today. Always straight at goal, never chickening out. Without meaning to, he insults his opponents with the ease with which he coasts past them.” Barcelona’s sports director at the time, Carles Rexach, watched every training session. “He was a god even then,” says Rexach, “but only four people knew it.”
Because Rexach had no other paper to hand, Barça gave Messi a contract on a paper napkin. At the age of 13, Leo Messi began to support his entire family; his parents and three siblings moved to Barcelona, but after a year his mother moved back to Argentina with her daughter – she did not feel at home in Europe. Today, he lives with his father and two brothers in a house near the beach in Castelldefels, on the outskirts of the city. They live off him and for him. This dependence, and perhaps also the long, idle hours, when being brothers is all they have to do, has affected their nerves. “Leo doesn’t notice anything,” the oldest brother, Rodrigo, once admitted, “but I often worry. What if something happened to him? What if someone did something to him?” This paranoia perhaps explains why Leo’s other brother, Matías, was stopped by the police in Argentina, in 2008, with a pistol in his jacket pocket. Leo Messi himself seems to have little interest in such things.
In fact, he has a pleasant lack of interest in the world, which protects him from the blandishments of the football circus. The only thing that interests him about football is the moment he is playing it. Leo Messi doesn’t pay any attention to the names of his opponents; he barely remembers his own games, no matter how good they were, and rarely watches football on television – he quickly gets bored of it. Other professionals – such as the chief ideologist of Barcelona’s style, Xavi Hernández – live football, soaking up all the information they can and mulling over tactics and moves. Messi only feels football. “When I have the ball at my feet, I don’t think, I just play. On the football field, my only thought is: ‘Give me the ball!’ I don’t invent dribbles. I don’t work out any moves. Everything simply comes from instinct.”
The invisible achievement is how his coaches have tactically channelled the instinct of this genius without Messi himself realising it. When Frank Rijkaard, his first coach with Barcelona’s first team, put him on the right wing, “I was seething with rage,” said Messi. He is a left-footed player. As a young player, he had always played on the left flank or in the centre behind the strikers. He saw this move as a punishment. And yet from this inspiration of Rijkaard’s emerged the Messi who would conquer the world. Rijkaard placed the left-footer on the right flank so that he would not cross the ball (like most wingers) but could cut inside with it, towards the goal.
Other players considered Rijkaard a coach of Buddhistic placidity. Messi said, “I cried a lot because Rijkaard was so hard with me.” Rijkaard’s successor, Pep Guardiola, increasingly placed tiny Messi, a born playmaker, in the centre-forward position. At Barcelona, the centre-forward doesn’t just score goals, as is his role in most teams: he is playmaker, goalscorer and first man in a pressing game, rolled into one. Messi has become the complete footballer, a man who scores more than 50 goals a season, but who can drop into midfield to slice the opposition to pieces with 40-metre passes, and who is a Stakhanovite in his defensive work.
He has metamorphosed seamlessly from child into supreme sportsman. How can he be expected, in such a short period of time, to have reached the kind of maturity that will enable him to cope with such a transformation? When he has to talk about himself, he still likes to begin the sentence with “I am a person who…” This nicely demonstrates the reserve he has to overcome. He often wears tracksuits because “I don’t like going shopping”. When we spoke after a match at the Olympics in Beijing in 2008, a journalist called out from the back: “Leo, Luciana Aymar wants one of your shirts!” Aymar was Argentina’s pin-up hockey player. Messi dropped his gaze: he had turned bright red.
He is still somewhat childlike, but now, at 23, when he stands before us to speak at the Camp Nou, there is no mistaking that – in his uncharismatic, introspective way – he has become what he doesn’t want to be, a leader. “I don’t believe in that word,” he says. And yet quietly, shyly, he has taken up the challenge of the lead role at Barça, against his natural inclination. He has chosen the easiest and at the same time the hardest way: he leads through his deeds. “I’ve always been the smallest on the pitch,” he explains. “I don’t give directions. I don’t talk a lot. When I have something to say, I express myself with the ball.”
For some time now he has been going out with a girl, someone even shorter than he is. He wears suits more often, and he even looks good in them. He has grown up. “He has stayed normal,” says Gerard Piqué, one of Barça’s central defenders and team joker. A smile lit up Piqué’s face. “Just today,” he says, “Messi left his mobile in the dressing room. So I went and took the battery out.” And it didn’t cross Messi’s mind that someone might have taken the liberty of playing a joke on him? “He just said: ‘That’s funny, I just recharged my mobile, and now it’s empty again. Has anyone got a charger?’”
Tonight, in the Champions League Final, spectators all over the world will be watching with the same feverish curiosity as Lionel Messi’s colleagues do whenever they train with him. “There are people who think that in football everything has always been the way it is,” says Piqué, “and I say that every day Leo shows us something that nobody has ever seen.”
Ronald Reng is a German writer based in Barcelona. ‘A Life Too Short’, his biography of the late German international keeper Robert Enke, will be published by Yellow Jersey in the UK this autumn
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Jonathan Wilson on Messi’s place in the pantheon
Lionel Messi is only 23, yet already the question is not whether he will be a great, but how great a great he’ll be. He’s impish and brave, technically superb, imaginative and incisive; he is also an innovator, changing the shape of football with each darting jink.
Most of the other great creators – Ferenc Puskás, Pelé, Michel Platini, Diego Maradona – tended to play just behind a forward, operating in the space between midfield and attack. Messi plays in a similar area, but with the major difference that he has no forward ahead of him. Of the greats of the past, only Johan Cruyff could have been said to have done anything remotely similar. Messi is what, in modern terminology, is known as a “false nine”, a position he has defined.
A classic number nine was typically a robust goal-getter who demanded crosses he could attack with his head. Messi remains a slight, tousle-haired urchin in the best Argentine tradition. By drifting towards the midfield, he leaves a space his Barcelona teammates can attack. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but central defenders abhor them more: Messi’s movement breaks simple marking structures, creates gaps, allows Barcelona to attack from a swirl of angles.
Despite playing a key role as a decoy – something he does magnificently, because he is overwhelmingly a team man – Messi still scores hatfuls of goals. He missed out this season on the Golden Shoe – the award for Europe’s top scorer – to Cristiano Ronaldo, but it is he who has this year’s league winner’s medal, and he who might win a third Champions League today. Ronaldo, meanwhile, has spent much of the season firing in pot-shots from improbable angles, not even hiding his quest for personal glory.
Perhaps the most telling image of Ronaldo comes from Manchester United’s Champions League victory in Moscow three years ago. As his then teammates celebrated, he sat on the pitch, alone. He had scored United’s goal in normal time, but was partly to blame for Chelsea’s equaliser. In the penalty shoot-out that United went on to win, he missed. The victory was not about his own glory, so he sulked.
Contrast this with Messi, who, last season, scored a hat-trick in successive games. The build-up to the next match, against Osasuna, was dominated by questions about whether he could become the first player since the war to score three successive trebles. He never came close, double-marked in a tetchy game turned Barça’s way by a late Zlatan Ibrahimovic goal. The first player to congratulate Ibrahimovic was Messi; it is that attitude, as much as his talent, that sets Messi apart. “His importance is incalculable,” Cruyff said, “not only for his ability to carry the team on his back, but to perform at his very best when it’s most needed, and to be generous at the appropriate moments.”
Jonathan Wilson is the editor of ‘The Blizzard’, a new football quarterly: www.theblizzard.co.uk