“Do you talk much on the pitch?”
“No, I don’t talk a lot.”
Interviewing Leo Messi is not an easy job. While he continues to astonish millions, if not billions, with his football, the Barcelona forward offers the inverse when the microphones are pointed in his direction. It is not so much that Messi reaches for the nearest cliché when answering questions, it is that he would simply rather not have to talk at all.
This week El Pais published a long, exclusive interview with Messi. He was a willing interviewee, delivering praise for his teammates and his Coach, dismissing any talk of a rift with David Villa, showing respect for Real Madrid and answering questions about his sleeping patterns and nappy-changing experience ahead of becoming a father. But he himself admitted he doesn’t like to get into trouble over anything he might say. He laughs off a story of an Italian journalist who said after interviewing Messi he felt as useless as a defender trying to mark him – nothing worked.
In conversation with El Pais, Messi did, however, briefly touch on what he considers the most important aspect about the Barcelona team, which in turn is reflected in his own game – ambition. In Messi’s case it is the desire to prove himself, no matter the stage.
In Leonardo Faccio’s biography Messi: El chico que siempre llegaba tarde (y hoy es el primero), the author recounts one scene early on in Messi’s career, barely months after making his Barcelona debut. Filming one of his first TV advert commitments in Buenos Aires, Messi had to scissor-kick a cross into a large sheet of glass for dramatic effect.
He sliced the first attempt. “We’ll be here all day,” whispered an assistant. Overhearing the comment and riled at having his ability questioned, the teenage Messi promptly smashed the pane of glass with his second shot. When the director announced he was happy with the take, Messi requested another chance, which he executed perfectly in one go. He had proved his point.
Faccio’s book is a brilliantly nuanced portrait of the striker. The journalist had only 15 minutes with the player. It is family, friends and acquaintances who tell the story. We see an introverted, disinterested young man who largely allows the media whirlwind to move along in the background while he rests at home and sleeps. ‘Messi slept in order to grow,’ writes Faccio of the hormone treatment Messi took as a young teen. His only interest is in playing – not talking about – football.
Having written himself into the history books, only hardline fundamentalists argue in favour of a more muscular option from the Spanish capital for the title of world’s best player. Yet in between the hat-tricks, the records and the silverware, and in the week that presents another Champions League outing ahead of his favourite challenge – against Real Madrid – there is perhaps only one remaining question about Messi’s football. When does it stop? How long can he continue to improve on his goalscoring record for?
In the past four seasons Messi has progressively surpassed his previous tally – from 38 to 47 to 53 to last season’s 73-goal haul, leaving Gerd Muller’s 1973 record in his tracks. His most iconic performances have come against Real Madrid. Across the globe, journalists complain that there simply are no more superlatives with which to describe another achievement or moment of sublime perfection from the Barcelona forward. And all the while, as Jorge Valdano once quipped, “Messi only creates headlines with his feet.”