Erratic Argentina has one weapon every opponent fears: Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi, the world's best, leads the World Cup's most unpredictable team
Messi has has an uneasy relationship with Argentina coach Diego Maradona
He was so good in youth that viewers wondered if they were watching circus dwarf
This story appeared in the May 31, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated.
Lionel Messi is not happy. Why is not clear at first, because, as all Spain knows on this cool, sparkling November day, the 22-year-old Argentine soccer god should be ecstatic. Last night his club team, Barcelona, beat archrival Real Madrid before a home crowd of 90,000, and tomorrow looks to be even better: Word has leaked that Messi will be awarded the Golden Ball as 2009 European Footballer of the Year. His annual income, including endorsements, is $46 million. His team is dominating La Liga, the Spanish first division. His game is rounding into breathtaking form.
Still, look at him: hunched in a chair like a kid hauled into the principal's office, pausing after each question to glance at his manager-brother, Rodrigo, as if to say, Can you get me out of here? Now? The clock is ticking: This is shaping up to be the worst Q and A in history.
Adidas had offered up its soccer show pony for a 30-minute chat, but once it became clear that the discussion would touch on the Argentine national team and its tempestuous coach, Diego Maradona, a coolness set in. The 30 minutes were abruptly slashed to 15, and Messi spent the first 5½ giving clipped and preemptively bland replies. Now Maradona's name pops up, tucked into the idea that it must be both tiresome and flattering to be compared with perhaps the greatest player in history. Messi's face hardens: Here's the ball he's been waiting to boot out-of-bounds.
"What's tiresome," he says in Spanish, "is always being asked the same question."
The words hang in the air a few seconds; then Messi is asked how it has been to play for the man. "I'm sorry," the Adidas marketing man says, "we have to leave the Maradona questions aside. He's trying to change to another topic."
So Messi doesn't want to talk about Maradona -- his father's idol, the playing genius he eerily resembles, the combustible force who controls Messi's hope of winning the 2010 World Cup -- at all? "No," the sneaker man says. "Try to understand that he now is answering all these questions about Maradona, Maradona, Maradona. He's tired of replying always about Maradona."
Such news hardly comes as a shock. Their marriage has felt strained since September 2008, a month before Maradona took over, when he clucked, "Sometimes Messi plays for himself; he feels so superior that he forgets his teammates." The Albiceleste's campaign to qualify for the World Cup was a dispiriting slog marked by ever-changing lineups, bewildered stars and debacles like a 6-1 loss in Bolivia. Messi, who scored four goals in 67 minutes against Arsenal on April 6, mustered only one in 10 qualifiers under Maradona. Last October, after Argentina squeaked by Uruguay to make the field, Maradona held a press conference and told his critics to "suck it and keep sucking," for which he received a two-month ban by FIFA. Relief, elation, dread? By day's end, lovers of Argentine football had no idea what to feel.
No one looked more drained than Messi. Too often during qualifying he had appeared listless and had flown back to Barcelona in a funk. "Very down -- you could see it," says one Barça staffer. "[Argentina] was playing defensively, and he was alone up front. You had to wonder, Is Maradona sabotaging him?"
But Maradona wasn't the only one being ripped. Messi too was blamed for Argentina's woeful play, and he found himself living a paradox: Even as people around the world likened his work in Barcelona to that of magicians such as Pelé and Johan Cruyff, back home Messi heard only a chorus of skepticism. Fans and the media questioned not only his ability to produce under the ultimate spotlight but also his allegiance, his very Argentineness. As good as Diego? Win a World Cup like he did in 1986 -- then we'll compare.
"More than 100 players were called up for the national team, and only one was to blame?" says Messi's father, Jorge. "It's unfair. Leo has never gotten used to the situation here in Argentina. It's really tough for him to be in Barcelona, where he's really loved, and then come here and hear all that criticism."
In theory, of course, Maradona figured to be a vital resource for Messi. Who, after all, is better positioned to give advice -- superstar to superstar -- on the Argentine press and on the burden and joy of being the best player alive? Who better to warn Messi how hangers-on and yes-men (like the comically sycophantic band of "Sí, Diegos" who surround Maradona) can siphon off his money and speed the erosion of his gift? But when Messi is asked whether Maradona has ever taken him aside to offer a word on handling fame or fortune or any of the other pitfalls of his position, he doesn't bristle. This question he keeps in play.
"In truth," Messi says, "no."
Even when the topic shifts, Messi gives little away. He says he "dreams of winning all the titles," admits that he cried upon leaving home at 13 to play in Barcelona and declares, "I never get nervous before I play," but all of it is delivered in a curt monotone, with nothing resembling Pelé's playfulness or Cruyff's imagination. This is nothing new; reporters have been banging their heads against Messi's reticence for years. He is not so much hostile to the press as uninterested in the subject of himself; he barely lit up earlier today for the Adidas film crew, in town for an in-house interview, and the company is paying him $4 million a year.
Shyness can be underrated, however, especially at a time when every emerging jock is dancing and tweeting in a desperate grab to "become a personality" and "expand his brand." The fact is, with a talent as otherworldly as Messi's, charm would be a distraction. Miles Davis played a diabolic trumpet with his back to the audience, and that was more than enough; any hint of charisma would have blown the roof off the place. Maradona's career, meanwhile, played out like a war between a glorious body and a corrupted mind; when, in 1994, his days as an international player ended in disgrace after he failed a World Cup drug test, the personality seemed to have consumed the player whole.
Diamond earrings flashing, waistline ballooning, marriage falling apart, Maradona soon became a cartoon figure. He had an image of Fidel Castro tattooed on his left thigh and one of Che Guevara on his right arm, got his stomach stapled, wore a swastika-emblazoned T-shirt that condemned George W. Bush. His life became Argentina's favorite telenovela; his quotes entered the lexicon. "Keep sucking!" is a popular ringtone; it's no shock to hear Maradona barking, "¡Sigan chupando!" in a Buenos Aires bar and see men reach for their phones.
So it's refreshing to find Messi's off-field act to be conspicuously anti-Diego: mall haircut, hangdog slouch, no jewelry or body art. Throw in the nickname La Pulga -- the Flea -- and Messi comes off like the guy who rotates your tires. "Maradona swaggers," says Carles Rexach, a former Barcelona player and coach. "Messi doesn't want to be noticed."
Yet on the field no one else resembles Maradona more. It's not just that at 5'7", Messi is the same diminutive whirlwind, "able to dribble past people like they are not there," as Barça striker Thierry Henry puts it. There's also the uncanny coincidence that against the Spanish club Getafe in 2007, Messi unleashed a wonder score identical to Maradona's so-called Goal of the Century against England in that '86 World Cup: a 60-meter sprint past the same number of opponents (six), involving the same number of touches (13) and lasting the same number of seconds (13). Then, seven weeks later, Messi replicated Maradona's notorious Hand of God goal by punching in a score against Espanyol. "I make an effort not to compare them," says Jorge Valdano, director general of Barça's archrival, Real Madrid, "but the kid doesn't help at all."