PHYSICALLY THERE IS NOTHING REMARKABLE ABOUT THE YOUNG MAN WEARING THE OVERSIZED Adidas warmup jacket with the Argentine Football Association crest over the heart. At 5' 7", with his slight build, he does not resemble a professional athlete, at least not the American kind. And though his hairstyle reminds one loosely of Justin Bieber, nobody would mistake him for that pop star or any other. Which all goes to explain why, on a cold and cloudy afternoon in late March, Lionel Messi could stroll undisturbed through midtown Manhattan, checking out FAO Schwarz Toys on Fifth Avenue, ducking into Dolce & Gabbana and marveling at the electronic billboards in Times Square. "To be able to walk peacefully in New York, crossing the street without anybody running after me ... it was really nice to be an ordinary kid," Messi told the Argentine sports daily Olé.
Only in the U.S., where soccer is a niche sport, could the best footballer on the planet feel like a regular guy. And there's no doubt he's been the best for some time now. Forget his back-to-back FIFA World Player of the Year awards or the fact that Messi is also the highest-paid footballer for a second straight year, poised to earn almost $45 million this year in salary and endorsements. Just watch him play. He is everywhere—his nickname, La Pulga (the Flea), attests to both his size and his quickness—and does everything: stripping the ball from opponents, setting up offensive plays with deft passes or give-and-gos, dribbling, scoring.
Now disregard, for a moment, Messi's undivalike knack for recovering possession and his rare ability to consistently beat defenders off the dribble. Being an extraordinary passer and finisher alone makes him the kind of double threat that only a handful of players in history—Pelé, Diego Maradona, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Johan Cruyff—have been at the highest level of the game. This season Messi, who will turn 24 this summer, broke the Spanish record for goals in a season (he had 50 through May 15) while also leading La Liga in assists (18). And, as if that weren't enough, he's constantly improving. Witness how he's turned himself into a free-kick specialist. He has had so many incarnations that he would get mobbed in Tibet.
Messi's sense of anonymity in New York City was short-lived: Once a couple of online stories revealed that he was roaming the city unnoticed, security had to whisk him through the lobby of the Westin Jersey City on March 25 to get him on the Argentina team bus for a practice before a friendly against the U.S. The lobby was overrun by camera- and pen-toting fans. Outside, the hotel's entrance barricades were about to give way amid screams of, "Messi! Messi!"
A day later that same chant reverberated through the New Meadowlands Stadium when Messi was carried off the field during the first half of the game after leaping to contest a header, crashing into 6' 4" U.S. defender Oguchi Onyewu and landing with a swollen left eye. Nearly 80,000 people had weathered the cold hoping for a close-up look at Messi's signature slalom runs, the kind they usually see only on GolTV, Fox Soccer Channel and YouTube. "Mes-si! Mes-si! Mes-si," the fans cheered as he returned to the field, and he repaid them by finishing the full 90 minutes, racing time and again through a forest of U.S. jerseys. In the 61st minute he received the ball at midfield and, in full stride, turned 180 degrees to shake midfielder Michael Bradley, then flew away from a two-hand grab by defender Carlos Bocanegra and bounced off forward Landon Donovan. With the ball still glued to his feet, Messi was gunning for goalkeeper Tim Howard when the referee stopped play to call a foul on U.S. midfielder Maurice Edu and give Messi a free kick outside the U.S. box.
"His ability to keep the ball in tight spaces while he's running through defenders" is unparalleled, says Clint Dempsey, a standout for the U.S. and for Fulham in England's Premier League who himself hacked down Messi during the 1--1 draw at the Meadowlands. Donovan goes even further: "There's likely no defender in the world who can defend [Messi] one-on-one."
By all accounts Messi's ability to go around and through players as if they were traffic cones is innate and not the result of the excellent coaching in Barcelona's youth system, which he joined as an undersized 13-year-old when the club offered to pay for an expensive growth-hormone treatment that doctors in Argentina had recommended for him. But precisely because some Barcelona officials thought him too small, they tested young Messi in a game with players a year older than he was.
"I was expecting to see a scared kid, given how tiny he was," says Carles Rexach, then the sporting director at Barcelona and the man responsible for signing Messi, "but on the field he completely transformed himself. As soon as the game started, he was very involved, wanting the ball and hogging it, with a lot of nerve and no fear of failing. I only needed to see five minutes. What he does individually, you can't teach; it's a gift he has."
If Messi's hometown club—Newell's Old Boys, in the Argentine industrial city of Rosario—had picked up the tab for the hormone treatment, it would have saved him the heartache of abandoning country, relatives and friends at such a young age. Eventually he would have left Rosario to join an elite team in Europe. Perhaps his game today would resemble that of another one-man wrecking crew, Cristiano Ronaldo, but Messi would not be the well-rounded player beloved by his Barcelona and Argentina teammates.
"When he started here, he wanted to make the play of the century every time he got the ball," says Rexach. "In Barcelona he learned when to get it done individually and when as a team. This is a collective and possession game. If you try to dribble every time, you're going to lose the ball a lot and grow very tired. Now Messi knows when to make his extraordinary plays and when to play one- or two-touch in order to rest while waiting to pick the right moment."