“Without my teammates I would be nothing”
In a rare in-depth interview, Lionel Messi opens up about fatherhood, fame and Mourinho
Leo Messi arranged to meet the press at 9am and arrived half an hour early. It was a chilly morning and the Argentinean feels the cold, leading the club employees present to offer him a sweater, which he refused: “I’m fine.” At 25 years of age, Messi is to become a father within a month -- a boy, to be called Thiago -– and he is clearly happy.
Question. They say you like to sleep a lot, but you arrived at 8.30am. Are you getting ready for sleepless nights when Thiago arrives?
Answer. I’ve always liked to sleep, but I sleep less and less these days. I like the siesta. But I’m well-prepared for when Thiago arrives.
Q. You obviously picked up the siesta thing in Barcelona…
A. I learned everything here. I came here when I was 13, I grew up here, went to school here… I learned pretty much everything in Barcelona. I’ve always said I’m very grateful because that’s how I feel.
Q. Do you feel that you’ve given back to Barcelona with interest everything you received as a kid?
A. No, I don’t know… I always wanted to show my commitment to the club. Maybe at the beginning it was more obvious, but now it’s normal. This is my home, my club. I owe everything to Barça and as I’ve always said, I’m happy here.
Q. You’ve said that you’re not bothered how many goals you score, that you prefer titles. Is there anything that bothers you especially?
A. I prefer to win titles with the team more than individual prizes or scoring more goals than anybody else. I’m more interested in being a good person than being the best footballer in the world. After all, when all this ends, what do you take with you? When I retire, I hope people remember me as a decent person. I like to score goals, but also to have friends among the people I have played with.
Q. Are you also not concerned about winning a fourth Ballon d’Or?
A. Prizes are nice. I’m grateful for them, of course, but at the end of the day these things concern you [the press] more. You’re always on about whether this player is better than that player. Xavi or Iniesta? Who can say? I have been lucky to find myself at this Barcelona team, with such great players. This team will go down in history for everything it has won. The team makes me a better player. Without my teammates I would be nothing -- I would have won nothing.
Q. What makes you angry?
A. I hate losing. In life? In life, poverty. I come from a country where you see it everywhere. There are many kids that have no choice but to go out in the street and beg or to work from a very young age.
Q. And the famous bubble footballers live in? Are you not oblivious to these things?
A. No. How can you be oblivious? We are privileged in how we live. I’ve never wanted for anything, except missing the rest of my family when I was in Barcelona alone with my dad. But reality is much different. Lots of dads have difficulties bringing their kids up… I know.
Q. You have a foundation to help underprivileged kids.
A. We work to educate kids, to get them off the streets through education and sport. We work with Unicef, schools and hospitals… It feels good to be able to help.
Q. Your fame means you are always under the spotlight. Is it suffocating?
A. No, because I never act. I’m the way I am on and off the pitch. I don’t mind being looked at because I am always the same person. It’s been a while since I started to be well-known and the initial embarrassment passes.
Q. Is your style of play coached, do you practice it?
A. I don’t know, I don’t think so… I’ve played like this ever since I was a kid.
Q. That’s what Tito Vilanova said.
A. What did he say?
Q. He said that, to his surprise, you do the same thing now as when you were a kid, but against the best players in the world, not 14-year-olds.
A. It’s true my playing style hasn’t changed much, but obviously I’ve learned things about the game. It helped coming to Barcelona and training with the youth teams. Just yesterday I was watching kids of seven training near us and the way they are taught is different to anywhere else in the world. They teach you from a young age to keep the ball, tactics, to understand the game. These kids were playing the same way we do!
Q. They say that when you found out that Vilanova would replace Pep Guardiola, you just smiled, but that smile made the whole club calm.
A. It’s possible that I smiled because I was pleased that Tito would be coming in. I’ve known him since I was a kid and the team has spent five years with him and Pep. Tito was the first [coach] to play me; up until then I had always been a substitute, or not in the team, and he made me more or less a starting player in that [junior] team. I know him. He’s a normal person, open. He’s up front; he says what he thinks. I like that.
Q. Do you remember your first game for the youth side?
A. No, but I remember soon afterward I injured my shin.
Q. Is it true that [Gerard] Piqué used to defend you when you got kicked about?
A. Yeah, he was the biggest even then and the rest of us were small. Papá looked after all of us.
Q. You never settle for just one goal. Are you going for a hat-trick of kids?
A. I don’t know… The more the better. However many come!
Q. One of the most surprising things is how difficult it is to knock you over, and you don’t dive…
A. That also comes from when I was a kid. I was always like that, I always tried to finish the move. I don’t know, I’ve never been one for diving, I never looked for it.
Q. Do you talk much on the field?
A. No, I don’t talk much [laughs].
Q. Referees and opposition players don’t agree…
A. Ah, I talk a lot with them. With my teammates it’s not necessary. We’ve been playing together for so long we understand each other with a single look.
Q, And your argument with [David] Villa. Isn’t Barcelona an idyllic locker room?
A. I’ve already said I don’t look for problems where there aren’t any. There was nothing in it. Ours is a locker room that works beyond the sporting aspect, it’s spectacular. Nobody knows how well we all get on. And after so many years together that’s not easy.
Q. Have you got over the disappointment of not playing in the 2006 Champions League final?
A. I owe a lot to [then coach Frank Rijkaard]. He was the first to trust in me; he gave me my debut. He knew why he left me out and although I didn’t like it or know the reason why, later I understood. Everything that came afterward is thanks to him.
Q. Which game against Real Madrid do you remember most?
A. I remember all the ones we won. It’s the best feeling, beating Real, because of the history between the two clubs. It is a great team. I guess the semifinal of the Champions League at the Bernabéu, because of what the game meant.
Q. You score quite a lot against Iker Casillas. Do you not like him or what?
A. No, quite the opposite. I’ve been lucky enough in the last few clásicos to score. I hope it continues. Iker is a great keeper, one of the best. I’ve scored against him but he’s kept plenty out as well. He’s very good, very quick.
Q. What do you admire about Mourinho’s Real?
A. On the counterattack, they can kill you. They have really fast forwards and the connection between defense and attack lasts five seconds and ends in a goal. They don’t to need to be playing well to score three goals. I’m lucky to know Higuaín and Di María. “El Pipa” [Higuaín] can be having a quiet game, take two touches and score two goals. Real can score out of nothing.
Q. What do you think of Mourinho?
A. I can’t say. I don’t know him; I’ve never spoken to him. I can only talk about what he’s achieved. I know his players speak well of him, but I don’t know him.
Q. Mourinho opined that Barça’s soccer is boring and Spain is a defensive team.
A. Spain plays almost the same way as we do. You can’t get the ball off them. As a player it’s great to play like that. I played against Spain and I was always chasing the ball without taking it off them. It happened in Madrid, in Murcia… When we played them in Argentina, it was a different matter. I’ve never run so much without having the ball as I have when playing against Spain.
Q. Is it your dream to win the World Cup in Brazil?
A. I’d love to, because of what it would mean for Argentina and for me personally.
Q. Will you retire without wearing the shirt of [boyhood club] Newell’s Old Boys?
A. Ha, I don’t know! I’ve always said I’d like to play in Argentina, for what it would mean, because of the way the game is there, because it was my dream to debut in Primera before I came here. That’s unfinished business but I don’t know. It’s a while off yet.
Q. An Italian journalist said after interviewing you that he felt the same as the defenses that try to mark you: “You prepare everything, you figure out where he’s going to go, what he’s going to do, you feel ready and then, in the end, he gets away from you.”
A. And he left thinking “I didn’t get anything out of him [laughs]!” No, I always say what I think but I don’t see any need to get involved in any trouble. I’m not interested in looking for problems or conflicts. I don’t see the point in saying bad things about people you don’t know at all. I prefer to be respectful to others, nothing more. But you lot try, eh…? But I don’t want to get involved in all that.