Hail the new king (cont.)
Posted: Friday December 7, 2007 11:02AM; Updated: Tuesday December 11, 2007 3:36PM
Away from the pitch, dressed as a civilian, with no ball in sight, Lionel Andrés Messi is unremarkable. Pale and on the short side -- but with ripped shoulders from working out at the gym -- he shows up for an interview in an anonymous room at Camp Nou, Barcelona's stadium, wearing a yellow T-shirt, jeans and white sneakers.
Without any piercings or visible tattoos, and with a haircut that lacks the faintest inkling of inspiration, Messi is the anti-Beckham. He is not a sex symbol; he is a soccer symbol. On the pitch, he is a god; outside of it, one more kid from Rosario, the industrial city 180 miles northwest of glamorous Buenos Aires.
How does one become so good at soccer? "Well," he says, with a thick Argentine accent that seven years in Barcelona have not changed a bit, "first of all you have to like it a lot." How much? "Well ... since I was 3 years old, I've been playing morning, afternoon and night. Inside the house as well. I would break things. My mom would get mad."
Does he continue playing inside the house? "I do," he says, with a slight and timid smile. (Messi is not Ronaldinho; his face lights up only when he scores.) "Yes, I'm still like that. At home, wherever, I have to have the ball near me, be able to touch it." Caress it, in the Brazilian style, as if it were a woman? Messi nods, but looks away to hide another smile.
Besides loving the game, Messi says, he had to work hard and sacrifice. Sacrifice? When he was making a living doing what he loved? He gets worked up for the first and only time in the interview, betraying a hint of indignation.
"Yes, sacrifice," he says. "I was 13 years old when I had to leave Argentina, leave behind my friends and a good part of my family to come to Barcelona. Though my parents came with me, it was hard at that age."
It was also necessary. Messi would have been even smaller and skinnier -- his nickname, after all, is Pulga, or flea -- had it not been for the human growth hormones doctors recommended for him as a kid. Those were prohibitively expensive for his family and the Rosario football club, Newell's Old Boys, that nurtured him as a player, but not for FC Barcelona, which ultimately paid for the treatment.
When Messi showed up at the Catalonian club in late 2000, coach and former player Carles Rexach watched only five minutes of his tryout before saying: We'll keep him. Messi had the physique of a 10-year-old but a prodigious talent that earned him his debut on the first team at age 16.
"The Barcelona youth system is one of the best in the world," he says. "They teach you not so much to play to win, but to grow as a player. That's why, as opposed to the experience I had in Argentina -- where it was more physical -- every day you would train with the ball. I barely did any running without the ball. It was an extremely technical training."