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Insight

Messi and me

As the Argentinian opens a new chapter of his career at Paris Saint-Germain, Graham Hunter looks back at the story of his Barcelona years – having taken a front seat to watch it unfold

The first time I met and interviewed Leo Messi, well over 16 years ago, he had a mop-top haircut that owed something to the Beatles style of around 1964. He was shy, not quite sure of me and it was my first introduction to that beguiling part-mischief part-private-amusement look in his eyes that has never left him.

I didn’t know this kid was about to dramatically change my career, my life too if truth be told – and I didn’t really know how to translate him properly. What he made of my still rudimentary Spanish is a private matter.

His accent, his vocabulary, the way in which the Argentinian lexicon differs from workaday expressions in this country, all meant I had to call in the help of Sylvia, my Buenos Aires-born next-door neighbour, to get a true understanding of that first Messi chat. Maybe he’s just born to be elusive?

Messi’s boot sponsors at the time had hired an old warehouse in the fashionable Poblenou area of the city. There were a number of players on show and when I sat down with this budding genius there was no queue to get in; we were partitioned off from the rest of the hubbub by a casually draped curtain.

And get this: there was nobody hammering home the message “No more than five minutes… Keep it short… The player has to go…” That kind of occupational hazard. Heaven. That wee sly look of his. That’s what first hit me.

From that day to this, across a variety of interviews (length, tone, location, level of enjoyment) it is a constant. You can see it, too, in almost every one of his interviews that has been filmed. He’ll listen to the question and as the answer begins it’s as if he’s got a private joke, or some kind of amusing internal monologue going on behind one of the most famous faces in the world. I find it entrancing. What’s happening behind those eyes?

Timidity or youth seemed like they might be the answers for that amused, laconic expression that will come over his face every four or five minutes when he’s talking, but no more. So it’s not clear what the little amusing thoughts are that must be darting across his subconscious mind.

I far prefer those mental images, that memory, to the tearful one with which he departed La Liga – destination Paris. Fancy coming with me on a journey back across Messi’s magnificence, plus some of the hidden or less remembered corners?

You’ve watched Leo Messi’s career. You watched Rome ’09 and Wembley ’11, probably with a mixture of disbelief and wonder. In all likelihood you remember his brilliant half-pitch solo goal rob-and-run against Real Zaragoza in March 2010, as well as his quadruple (un poker) against Arsenal a month later and his re-poker (five) in a 7-1 win against Bayer Leverkusen in 2012. You lived the high life via his highlights. Wasn’t it uplifting?

But Messi’s has been a bumpy, extraordinary and, yes, occasionally controversial life. And having lived at such proximity – meeting him, interviewing him, writing hundreds of thousands of words about him – my career, my life, have been altered. I’ve either witnessed or been told about so much.

For example, long before the rest of us had the faintest idea he existed, just think: it was little Messi’s granny who hauled him along to his local club and insisted her grandson be picked to play against kids a handful of years older and, often, almost twice his height. “Are you totally mad?” demanded the coach. “Look how tiny he is! They’ll damage him!”

Messi blitzed it. Granny Cecilia took the wonder kid home and said to her daughter and son-in-law: “Buy Leo football boots – next week I’m taking him to training.” You’ll have grown accustomed, across nearly 750 career goals, to Messi pointing reverentially to the heavens when he celebrates; that’s in honour of Granny Celia.

And consider the medical condition, inherited, which meant that Messi might eventually grow to his current 5’ 7” (1.7m) unaided, but he’d probably not do so until his mid-twenties. That would have been ruinous for his career if left untreated and it’s now infamous that he needed growth hormones to stimulate his development.

In 1997, via health insurance, his family could temporarily afford to buy the correct doses. And while it was painful and daunting for a ten-year-old to cope with, Messi insisted that it be he who did the injecting. His parents and brothers all pleaded with him to let them help. But with that inner steel and determination that has become a hallmark of his life, Messi went off to his room and just got on with it.

Of the odyssey of stories about his move to Barcelona, one has fallen off the radar – sadly because it’s both extraordinary and moving. The late Joan Lacueva, one of the club’s directors, recognised that if coach Charly Rexach was right and Barça had landed a genuine phenomenon then, while people bickered and prevaricated over signing a 13-year-old from overseas, the growth-hormone programme must not grind to a halt. Without a single guarantee that the mess over Messi’s future would be sorted out in Barcelona’s favour, but conscious that this Argentinian kid needed help, he stepped up.

Journalist Graham Hunter (top right), Ronaldinho took the young Messi under his wing when he first arrived at Barça (right)

“I spoke to our medical department and their advice was that Leo restart treatment as soon as possible; given that Messi wasn’t yet signed for Barça, I couldn’t justify using club funds – so I paid,” he explained to me, long after his act of generosity. He’d dipped into his own pocket and voluntarily laid on €1,000 for a month’s treatment.

It was late 2003, early 2004, when Messi was 16, that a trio of Brazilian-born players was beginning to be shown up by this little Argentinian sprite during games of ‘foot-volley’ at training. In 99% of cases across football history the senior pros would have closed ranks, pushed the new kid around a little and tested out his capacity to be bullied. They’d have felt threatened.  

Instead Ronaldinho, Deco and Sylvinho, almost literally, adopted him. He was invited to sit at their table, they showed him the ropes, they praised him unstintingly to the media, they went after any opponent who tried to hack him in matches. They instantly formed a Praetorian Guard for the emperor-to-be. Back in the day, Messi told me, “Ronnie helped me a lot and went out of his way to take care of me. I’ll never forget the attention he gave me. He was one of the best playing partners I’ve ever had and he made everything easy for me. He’s a truly great person, my friend, and we are constantly in touch.”

Another ally came along in 2008. Because the first thing that Pep Guardiola did when he took over, with Barcelona taking part in a training camp in Scotland, was go to war with his club’s big chiefs – on behalf of Messi.

The club, having performed so poorly (by their standards) in the Liga the previous season by finishing limply in third, were required to qualify for the Champions League. Their tie against Wisła Kraków clashed with the Beijing Olympics football tournament. Barcelona, petrified that the Poles might eliminate them, argued that the Olympics were not part of the FIFA calendar and, therefore, banned Messi from participating. Argentina’s FA took the case to FIFA, who backed them, but Barcelona raised the stakes, invoking the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Barça won.

Messi was bereft. Guardiola, who barely knew him at the time, stepped in. Having won Olympic gold with Spain back in 1992, the Catalan sympathised. He argued against president Joan Laporta’s decision, persuaded the board and sent Messi skipping off to China.

The other ‘greatest’ goal scored atypically was, of course, against Real in the Champions League semi-final of 2011. Pepe had been sent off and Barcelona led 0-1 at the Bernabéu, with Messi having already clipped in from Ibrahim Afellay’s cross


In five matches, aged 21, he scored twice and provided three assists, including one for the winner in the final against Nigeria. Gold. “Pep Guardiola backed me,” Messi told me subsequently. “I’ll always be grateful to Pep for that. He made the call, he was comfortable with it and he wanted the best for me.”

And the best is what he got. Though here’s an under-appreciated fact: this man, with the most famous left foot since Maradona, this genius who’s gifted us nearly 750 goals, scored two of his absolute best with his head and his right foot.

The first came in the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United, when Xavi’s little cross-lob picked him out between two gargantuan defenders, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, and allowed Messi to loop a header over Edwin van der Sar. As the forward leapt up, he craned his neck and head backwards in order to miracle-nod the clinching goal in his first Champions League final. And his entire body was so tensed in anticipation that his foot contracted, like when you make a fist out of your hand, and his boot simply dropped off.

Like Cinderella, he would get to the ball – and head it over an enormous Dutchman – but his slipper slipped off. Look for the pictures of Messi celebrating: boot in hand, beaming face. It’s a detail that still fascinates me all these years later.

The other ‘greatest’ goal scored atypically was, of course, against Real in the Champions League semi-final of 2011. Pepe had been sent off and Barcelona led 0-1 at the Bernabéu, with Messi having already clipped in from Ibrahim Afellay’s cross. Next, Sergio Busquets played pit-a-pat with him near the halfway line and off went this impish little typhoon to create anarchy – and joy. And the finish past Iker Casillas? Off his right foot. Not off his magic wand. Just another of those Messi details.

I interviewed Messi after Barça beat AC Milan in 2013. He’d opened the scoring in a torrid match and afterwards I asked him what had been in his head running up to take the spot kick, given that the past two penalties he’d missed had meant exit from the Champions League semi-final and a 0-0 draw in the Spanish Super Cup final. “I just thought of how big [Christian] Abbiati was, how agile around the goal he had been last time we played him – and I thought about how little space there seemed to be around him.”

Not the answer I’d expected from the world’s greatest, coolest player – who’d actually tucked the chance away earlier that evening.

“That wee sly look of his. That’s what first hit me. What’s happening behind those eyes?”

I’ve interviewed him when he’s been furious (not with me), almost a literal black cloud hanging over his head. I’ve also interviewed him when he’s been dressed in only a towel and T-shirt, in the doorway of the UEFA post-match doping test room under strict surveillance. That was odd.

But I’ll close this short canter through Messi’s career with the tale of the training ground bust-up that sparked one of the most flamboyant and outrageous five-month periods of football that Europe has ever seen.

It was Friday 9 January 2014, two days before an away trip to San Sebastián and David Moyes’ Real Sociedad. Barcelona’s South American stars, still jet-lagged, had flown back from Christmas in the lovely sunshine of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. They’d not trained much, so this was a key session. There were shouts for a foul, which wasn’t awarded, during the bounce-game to finish the session. The decision went against Messi’s team.

It was already a well-known fact that if you annoyed Messi in training, anything from a stinging retaliatory foul, colourful language or a sharp burst of four goals against you would be the immediate result – until he cooled down. This time an argument between the star player and hard-line, take-no-stick manager Luis Enrique started at a growl, grew into snarls and ended with players separating them.

Many years later, Luis Enrique himself admitted that “until we resolved things there was some tension”. Messi – plus Neymar, Gerard Piqué and Dani Alves – were all dropped to the bench. Barcelona lost 1-0 to La Real at Anoeta; Real Madrid were top by four points with 17 matches played, having already won the first Clásico 3-1.

Messi didn’t turn up to training on the Monday so Xavi, club captain, intervened and urgently sought a detente. A home match against Atlético was imminent and no one was sure whether the smell of cordite and testosterone meant Barcelona’s season was already over.

But, as you know, this story is about Messi and the fact that he wasn’t just born with unusual talent. He’s also a bundle of explosive competitive fibres – which is why the subsequent journey went from crisis point via catharsis to perhaps the greatest end to a season in the history of Barcelona.

In the league, Barcelona lost just one of the next 21 matches, scoring 65 times. The little No10 tucked away 28 of them and only failed to score in three of those remaining games.

Spanish champions by two points – ahead of Real Madrid.

In the Copa del Rey, Barcelona scored 22 times in seven straight victories; the hero of this story scored or made eight of them. The final, wouldn’t you know it, was at Camp Nou. And not only were Athletic Club soundly beaten, but many consider that Messi, darting in from the right wing and Fred Astaire-ing his way past a host of red-and-white shirts, scored his greatest ever Camp Nou goal.

Seven nights later it was Juventus in Berlin. Another Champions League final, the very pantheon of club football. Since that training-ground incident, Barcelona had scored 14 times in winning six of their remaining seven Champions League matches (only losing in Munich, but going through against Pep Guardiola’s magnificent German champions 5-3 on aggregate). Messi made or scored six of the goals that ultimately took the club to a win over the Turin giants.

So in total, after the explosive, possibly ruinous row with Enrique, Messi scored 35 times in 34 matches between January and the first week of June. All meaning that his captain, Xavi, the man whose diplomacy rescued Messi and Enrique, finished his 17-year Barça first-team career with the fabled treble.

Leo, from all of us whose daily lives were made just a little magical thanks to your sorcery, “Gracias, maestro.” Now go and do it all again in Paris.

The first time I met and interviewed Leo Messi, well over 16 years ago, he had a mop-top haircut that owed something to the Beatles style of around 1964. He was shy, not quite sure of me and it was my first introduction to that beguiling part-mischief part-private-amusement look in his eyes that has never left him.

I didn’t know this kid was about to dramatically change my career, my life too if truth be told – and I didn’t really know how to translate him properly. What he made of my still rudimentary Spanish is a private matter.

His accent, his vocabulary, the way in which the Argentinian lexicon differs from workaday expressions in this country, all meant I had to call in the help of Sylvia, my Buenos Aires-born next-door neighbour, to get a true understanding of that first Messi chat. Maybe he’s just born to be elusive?

Messi’s boot sponsors at the time had hired an old warehouse in the fashionable Poblenou area of the city. There were a number of players on show and when I sat down with this budding genius there was no queue to get in; we were partitioned off from the rest of the hubbub by a casually draped curtain.

And get this: there was nobody hammering home the message “No more than five minutes… Keep it short… The player has to go…” That kind of occupational hazard. Heaven. That wee sly look of his. That’s what first hit me.

From that day to this, across a variety of interviews (length, tone, location, level of enjoyment) it is a constant. You can see it, too, in almost every one of his interviews that has been filmed. He’ll listen to the question and as the answer begins it’s as if he’s got a private joke, or some kind of amusing internal monologue going on behind one of the most famous faces in the world. I find it entrancing. What’s happening behind those eyes?

Timidity or youth seemed like they might be the answers for that amused, laconic expression that will come over his face every four or five minutes when he’s talking, but no more. So it’s not clear what the little amusing thoughts are that must be darting across his subconscious mind.

I far prefer those mental images, that memory, to the tearful one with which he departed La Liga – destination Paris. Fancy coming with me on a journey back across Messi’s magnificence, plus some of the hidden or less remembered corners?

You’ve watched Leo Messi’s career. You watched Rome ’09 and Wembley ’11, probably with a mixture of disbelief and wonder. In all likelihood you remember his brilliant half-pitch solo goal rob-and-run against Real Zaragoza in March 2010, as well as his quadruple (un poker) against Arsenal a month later and his re-poker (five) in a 7-1 win against Bayer Leverkusen in 2012. You lived the high life via his highlights. Wasn’t it uplifting?

But Messi’s has been a bumpy, extraordinary and, yes, occasionally controversial life. And having lived at such proximity – meeting him, interviewing him, writing hundreds of thousands of words about him – my career, my life, have been altered. I’ve either witnessed or been told about so much.

For example, long before the rest of us had the faintest idea he existed, just think: it was little Messi’s granny who hauled him along to his local club and insisted her grandson be picked to play against kids a handful of years older and, often, almost twice his height. “Are you totally mad?” demanded the coach. “Look how tiny he is! They’ll damage him!”

Messi blitzed it. Granny Cecilia took the wonder kid home and said to her daughter and son-in-law: “Buy Leo football boots – next week I’m taking him to training.” You’ll have grown accustomed, across nearly 750 career goals, to Messi pointing reverentially to the heavens when he celebrates; that’s in honour of Granny Celia.

And consider the medical condition, inherited, which meant that Messi might eventually grow to his current 5’ 7” (1.7m) unaided, but he’d probably not do so until his mid-twenties. That would have been ruinous for his career if left untreated and it’s now infamous that he needed growth hormones to stimulate his development.

In 1997, via health insurance, his family could temporarily afford to buy the correct doses. And while it was painful and daunting for a ten-year-old to cope with, Messi insisted that it be he who did the injecting. His parents and brothers all pleaded with him to let them help. But with that inner steel and determination that has become a hallmark of his life, Messi went off to his room and just got on with it.

Of the odyssey of stories about his move to Barcelona, one has fallen off the radar – sadly because it’s both extraordinary and moving. The late Joan Lacueva, one of the club’s directors, recognised that if coach Charly Rexach was right and Barça had landed a genuine phenomenon then, while people bickered and prevaricated over signing a 13-year-old from overseas, the growth-hormone programme must not grind to a halt. Without a single guarantee that the mess over Messi’s future would be sorted out in Barcelona’s favour, but conscious that this Argentinian kid needed help, he stepped up.

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Journalist Graham Hunter (top right), Ronaldinho took the young Messi under his wing when he first arrived at Barça (right)

“I spoke to our medical department and their advice was that Leo restart treatment as soon as possible; given that Messi wasn’t yet signed for Barça, I couldn’t justify using club funds – so I paid,” he explained to me, long after his act of generosity. He’d dipped into his own pocket and voluntarily laid on €1,000 for a month’s treatment.

It was late 2003, early 2004, when Messi was 16, that a trio of Brazilian-born players was beginning to be shown up by this little Argentinian sprite during games of ‘foot-volley’ at training. In 99% of cases across football history the senior pros would have closed ranks, pushed the new kid around a little and tested out his capacity to be bullied. They’d have felt threatened.  

Instead Ronaldinho, Deco and Sylvinho, almost literally, adopted him. He was invited to sit at their table, they showed him the ropes, they praised him unstintingly to the media, they went after any opponent who tried to hack him in matches. They instantly formed a Praetorian Guard for the emperor-to-be. Back in the day, Messi told me, “Ronnie helped me a lot and went out of his way to take care of me. I’ll never forget the attention he gave me. He was one of the best playing partners I’ve ever had and he made everything easy for me. He’s a truly great person, my friend, and we are constantly in touch.”

Another ally came along in 2008. Because the first thing that Pep Guardiola did when he took over, with Barcelona taking part in a training camp in Scotland, was go to war with his club’s big chiefs – on behalf of Messi.

The club, having performed so poorly (by their standards) in the Liga the previous season by finishing limply in third, were required to qualify for the Champions League. Their tie against Wisła Kraków clashed with the Beijing Olympics football tournament. Barcelona, petrified that the Poles might eliminate them, argued that the Olympics were not part of the FIFA calendar and, therefore, banned Messi from participating. Argentina’s FA took the case to FIFA, who backed them, but Barcelona raised the stakes, invoking the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Barça won.

Messi was bereft. Guardiola, who barely knew him at the time, stepped in. Having won Olympic gold with Spain back in 1992, the Catalan sympathised. He argued against president Joan Laporta’s decision, persuaded the board and sent Messi skipping off to China.

The other ‘greatest’ goal scored atypically was, of course, against Real in the Champions League semi-final of 2011. Pepe had been sent off and Barcelona led 0-1 at the Bernabéu, with Messi having already clipped in from Ibrahim Afellay’s cross


In five matches, aged 21, he scored twice and provided three assists, including one for the winner in the final against Nigeria. Gold. “Pep Guardiola backed me,” Messi told me subsequently. “I’ll always be grateful to Pep for that. He made the call, he was comfortable with it and he wanted the best for me.”

And the best is what he got. Though here’s an under-appreciated fact: this man, with the most famous left foot since Maradona, this genius who’s gifted us nearly 750 goals, scored two of his absolute best with his head and his right foot.

The first came in the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United, when Xavi’s little cross-lob picked him out between two gargantuan defenders, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, and allowed Messi to loop a header over Edwin van der Sar. As the forward leapt up, he craned his neck and head backwards in order to miracle-nod the clinching goal in his first Champions League final. And his entire body was so tensed in anticipation that his foot contracted, like when you make a fist out of your hand, and his boot simply dropped off.

Like Cinderella, he would get to the ball – and head it over an enormous Dutchman – but his slipper slipped off. Look for the pictures of Messi celebrating: boot in hand, beaming face. It’s a detail that still fascinates me all these years later.

The other ‘greatest’ goal scored atypically was, of course, against Real in the Champions League semi-final of 2011. Pepe had been sent off and Barcelona led 0-1 at the Bernabéu, with Messi having already clipped in from Ibrahim Afellay’s cross. Next, Sergio Busquets played pit-a-pat with him near the halfway line and off went this impish little typhoon to create anarchy – and joy. And the finish past Iker Casillas? Off his right foot. Not off his magic wand. Just another of those Messi details.

I interviewed Messi after Barça beat AC Milan in 2013. He’d opened the scoring in a torrid match and afterwards I asked him what had been in his head running up to take the spot kick, given that the past two penalties he’d missed had meant exit from the Champions League semi-final and a 0-0 draw in the Spanish Super Cup final. “I just thought of how big [Christian] Abbiati was, how agile around the goal he had been last time we played him – and I thought about how little space there seemed to be around him.”

Not the answer I’d expected from the world’s greatest, coolest player – who’d actually tucked the chance away earlier that evening.

“That wee sly look of his. That’s what first hit me. What’s happening behind those eyes?”

I’ve interviewed him when he’s been furious (not with me), almost a literal black cloud hanging over his head. I’ve also interviewed him when he’s been dressed in only a towel and T-shirt, in the doorway of the UEFA post-match doping test room under strict surveillance. That was odd.

But I’ll close this short canter through Messi’s career with the tale of the training ground bust-up that sparked one of the most flamboyant and outrageous five-month periods of football that Europe has ever seen.

It was Friday 9 January 2014, two days before an away trip to San Sebastián and David Moyes’ Real Sociedad. Barcelona’s South American stars, still jet-lagged, had flown back from Christmas in the lovely sunshine of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. They’d not trained much, so this was a key session. There were shouts for a foul, which wasn’t awarded, during the bounce-game to finish the session. The decision went against Messi’s team.

It was already a well-known fact that if you annoyed Messi in training, anything from a stinging retaliatory foul, colourful language or a sharp burst of four goals against you would be the immediate result – until he cooled down. This time an argument between the star player and hard-line, take-no-stick manager Luis Enrique started at a growl, grew into snarls and ended with players separating them.

Many years later, Luis Enrique himself admitted that “until we resolved things there was some tension”. Messi – plus Neymar, Gerard Piqué and Dani Alves – were all dropped to the bench. Barcelona lost 1-0 to La Real at Anoeta; Real Madrid were top by four points with 17 matches played, having already won the first Clásico 3-1.

Messi didn’t turn up to training on the Monday so Xavi, club captain, intervened and urgently sought a detente. A home match against Atlético was imminent and no one was sure whether the smell of cordite and testosterone meant Barcelona’s season was already over.

But, as you know, this story is about Messi and the fact that he wasn’t just born with unusual talent. He’s also a bundle of explosive competitive fibres – which is why the subsequent journey went from crisis point via catharsis to perhaps the greatest end to a season in the history of Barcelona.

In the league, Barcelona lost just one of the next 21 matches, scoring 65 times. The little No10 tucked away 28 of them and only failed to score in three of those remaining games.

Spanish champions by two points – ahead of Real Madrid.

In the Copa del Rey, Barcelona scored 22 times in seven straight victories; the hero of this story scored or made eight of them. The final, wouldn’t you know it, was at Camp Nou. And not only were Athletic Club soundly beaten, but many consider that Messi, darting in from the right wing and Fred Astaire-ing his way past a host of red-and-white shirts, scored his greatest ever Camp Nou goal.

Seven nights later it was Juventus in Berlin. Another Champions League final, the very pantheon of club football. Since that training-ground incident, Barcelona had scored 14 times in winning six of their remaining seven Champions League matches (only losing in Munich, but going through against Pep Guardiola’s magnificent German champions 5-3 on aggregate). Messi made or scored six of the goals that ultimately took the club to a win over the Turin giants.

So in total, after the explosive, possibly ruinous row with Enrique, Messi scored 35 times in 34 matches between January and the first week of June. All meaning that his captain, Xavi, the man whose diplomacy rescued Messi and Enrique, finished his 17-year Barça first-team career with the fabled treble.

Leo, from all of us whose daily lives were made just a little magical thanks to your sorcery, “Gracias, maestro.” Now go and do it all again in Paris.

The first time I met and interviewed Leo Messi, well over 16 years ago, he had a mop-top haircut that owed something to the Beatles style of around 1964. He was shy, not quite sure of me and it was my first introduction to that beguiling part-mischief part-private-amusement look in his eyes that has never left him.

I didn’t know this kid was about to dramatically change my career, my life too if truth be told – and I didn’t really know how to translate him properly. What he made of my still rudimentary Spanish is a private matter.

His accent, his vocabulary, the way in which the Argentinian lexicon differs from workaday expressions in this country, all meant I had to call in the help of Sylvia, my Buenos Aires-born next-door neighbour, to get a true understanding of that first Messi chat. Maybe he’s just born to be elusive?

Messi’s boot sponsors at the time had hired an old warehouse in the fashionable Poblenou area of the city. There were a number of players on show and when I sat down with this budding genius there was no queue to get in; we were partitioned off from the rest of the hubbub by a casually draped curtain.

And get this: there was nobody hammering home the message “No more than five minutes… Keep it short… The player has to go…” That kind of occupational hazard. Heaven. That wee sly look of his. That’s what first hit me.

From that day to this, across a variety of interviews (length, tone, location, level of enjoyment) it is a constant. You can see it, too, in almost every one of his interviews that has been filmed. He’ll listen to the question and as the answer begins it’s as if he’s got a private joke, or some kind of amusing internal monologue going on behind one of the most famous faces in the world. I find it entrancing. What’s happening behind those eyes?

Timidity or youth seemed like they might be the answers for that amused, laconic expression that will come over his face every four or five minutes when he’s talking, but no more. So it’s not clear what the little amusing thoughts are that must be darting across his subconscious mind.

I far prefer those mental images, that memory, to the tearful one with which he departed La Liga – destination Paris. Fancy coming with me on a journey back across Messi’s magnificence, plus some of the hidden or less remembered corners?

You’ve watched Leo Messi’s career. You watched Rome ’09 and Wembley ’11, probably with a mixture of disbelief and wonder. In all likelihood you remember his brilliant half-pitch solo goal rob-and-run against Real Zaragoza in March 2010, as well as his quadruple (un poker) against Arsenal a month later and his re-poker (five) in a 7-1 win against Bayer Leverkusen in 2012. You lived the high life via his highlights. Wasn’t it uplifting?

But Messi’s has been a bumpy, extraordinary and, yes, occasionally controversial life. And having lived at such proximity – meeting him, interviewing him, writing hundreds of thousands of words about him – my career, my life, have been altered. I’ve either witnessed or been told about so much.

For example, long before the rest of us had the faintest idea he existed, just think: it was little Messi’s granny who hauled him along to his local club and insisted her grandson be picked to play against kids a handful of years older and, often, almost twice his height. “Are you totally mad?” demanded the coach. “Look how tiny he is! They’ll damage him!”

Messi blitzed it. Granny Cecilia took the wonder kid home and said to her daughter and son-in-law: “Buy Leo football boots – next week I’m taking him to training.” You’ll have grown accustomed, across nearly 750 career goals, to Messi pointing reverentially to the heavens when he celebrates; that’s in honour of Granny Celia.

And consider the medical condition, inherited, which meant that Messi might eventually grow to his current 5’ 7” (1.7m) unaided, but he’d probably not do so until his mid-twenties. That would have been ruinous for his career if left untreated and it’s now infamous that he needed growth hormones to stimulate his development.

In 1997, via health insurance, his family could temporarily afford to buy the correct doses. And while it was painful and daunting for a ten-year-old to cope with, Messi insisted that it be he who did the injecting. His parents and brothers all pleaded with him to let them help. But with that inner steel and determination that has become a hallmark of his life, Messi went off to his room and just got on with it.

Of the odyssey of stories about his move to Barcelona, one has fallen off the radar – sadly because it’s both extraordinary and moving. The late Joan Lacueva, one of the club’s directors, recognised that if coach Charly Rexach was right and Barça had landed a genuine phenomenon then, while people bickered and prevaricated over signing a 13-year-old from overseas, the growth-hormone programme must not grind to a halt. Without a single guarantee that the mess over Messi’s future would be sorted out in Barcelona’s favour, but conscious that this Argentinian kid needed help, he stepped up.

Journalist Graham Hunter (top right), Ronaldinho took the young Messi under his wing when he first arrived at Barça (right)

“I spoke to our medical department and their advice was that Leo restart treatment as soon as possible; given that Messi wasn’t yet signed for Barça, I couldn’t justify using club funds – so I paid,” he explained to me, long after his act of generosity. He’d dipped into his own pocket and voluntarily laid on €1,000 for a month’s treatment.

It was late 2003, early 2004, when Messi was 16, that a trio of Brazilian-born players was beginning to be shown up by this little Argentinian sprite during games of ‘foot-volley’ at training. In 99% of cases across football history the senior pros would have closed ranks, pushed the new kid around a little and tested out his capacity to be bullied. They’d have felt threatened.  

Instead Ronaldinho, Deco and Sylvinho, almost literally, adopted him. He was invited to sit at their table, they showed him the ropes, they praised him unstintingly to the media, they went after any opponent who tried to hack him in matches. They instantly formed a Praetorian Guard for the emperor-to-be. Back in the day, Messi told me, “Ronnie helped me a lot and went out of his way to take care of me. I’ll never forget the attention he gave me. He was one of the best playing partners I’ve ever had and he made everything easy for me. He’s a truly great person, my friend, and we are constantly in touch.”

Another ally came along in 2008. Because the first thing that Pep Guardiola did when he took over, with Barcelona taking part in a training camp in Scotland, was go to war with his club’s big chiefs – on behalf of Messi.

The club, having performed so poorly (by their standards) in the Liga the previous season by finishing limply in third, were required to qualify for the Champions League. Their tie against Wisła Kraków clashed with the Beijing Olympics football tournament. Barcelona, petrified that the Poles might eliminate them, argued that the Olympics were not part of the FIFA calendar and, therefore, banned Messi from participating. Argentina’s FA took the case to FIFA, who backed them, but Barcelona raised the stakes, invoking the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Barça won.

Messi was bereft. Guardiola, who barely knew him at the time, stepped in. Having won Olympic gold with Spain back in 1992, the Catalan sympathised. He argued against president Joan Laporta’s decision, persuaded the board and sent Messi skipping off to China.

The other ‘greatest’ goal scored atypically was, of course, against Real in the Champions League semi-final of 2011. Pepe had been sent off and Barcelona led 0-1 at the Bernabéu, with Messi having already clipped in from Ibrahim Afellay’s cross


In five matches, aged 21, he scored twice and provided three assists, including one for the winner in the final against Nigeria. Gold. “Pep Guardiola backed me,” Messi told me subsequently. “I’ll always be grateful to Pep for that. He made the call, he was comfortable with it and he wanted the best for me.”

And the best is what he got. Though here’s an under-appreciated fact: this man, with the most famous left foot since Maradona, this genius who’s gifted us nearly 750 goals, scored two of his absolute best with his head and his right foot.

The first came in the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United, when Xavi’s little cross-lob picked him out between two gargantuan defenders, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić, and allowed Messi to loop a header over Edwin van der Sar. As the forward leapt up, he craned his neck and head backwards in order to miracle-nod the clinching goal in his first Champions League final. And his entire body was so tensed in anticipation that his foot contracted, like when you make a fist out of your hand, and his boot simply dropped off.

Like Cinderella, he would get to the ball – and head it over an enormous Dutchman – but his slipper slipped off. Look for the pictures of Messi celebrating: boot in hand, beaming face. It’s a detail that still fascinates me all these years later.

The other ‘greatest’ goal scored atypically was, of course, against Real in the Champions League semi-final of 2011. Pepe had been sent off and Barcelona led 0-1 at the Bernabéu, with Messi having already clipped in from Ibrahim Afellay’s cross. Next, Sergio Busquets played pit-a-pat with him near the halfway line and off went this impish little typhoon to create anarchy – and joy. And the finish past Iker Casillas? Off his right foot. Not off his magic wand. Just another of those Messi details.

I interviewed Messi after Barça beat AC Milan in 2013. He’d opened the scoring in a torrid match and afterwards I asked him what had been in his head running up to take the spot kick, given that the past two penalties he’d missed had meant exit from the Champions League semi-final and a 0-0 draw in the Spanish Super Cup final. “I just thought of how big [Christian] Abbiati was, how agile around the goal he had been last time we played him – and I thought about how little space there seemed to be around him.”

Not the answer I’d expected from the world’s greatest, coolest player – who’d actually tucked the chance away earlier that evening.

“That wee sly look of his. That’s what first hit me. What’s happening behind those eyes?”

I’ve interviewed him when he’s been furious (not with me), almost a literal black cloud hanging over his head. I’ve also interviewed him when he’s been dressed in only a towel and T-shirt, in the doorway of the UEFA post-match doping test room under strict surveillance. That was odd.

But I’ll close this short canter through Messi’s career with the tale of the training ground bust-up that sparked one of the most flamboyant and outrageous five-month periods of football that Europe has ever seen.

It was Friday 9 January 2014, two days before an away trip to San Sebastián and David Moyes’ Real Sociedad. Barcelona’s South American stars, still jet-lagged, had flown back from Christmas in the lovely sunshine of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. They’d not trained much, so this was a key session. There were shouts for a foul, which wasn’t awarded, during the bounce-game to finish the session. The decision went against Messi’s team.

It was already a well-known fact that if you annoyed Messi in training, anything from a stinging retaliatory foul, colourful language or a sharp burst of four goals against you would be the immediate result – until he cooled down. This time an argument between the star player and hard-line, take-no-stick manager Luis Enrique started at a growl, grew into snarls and ended with players separating them.

Many years later, Luis Enrique himself admitted that “until we resolved things there was some tension”. Messi – plus Neymar, Gerard Piqué and Dani Alves – were all dropped to the bench. Barcelona lost 1-0 to La Real at Anoeta; Real Madrid were top by four points with 17 matches played, having already won the first Clásico 3-1.

Messi didn’t turn up to training on the Monday so Xavi, club captain, intervened and urgently sought a detente. A home match against Atlético was imminent and no one was sure whether the smell of cordite and testosterone meant Barcelona’s season was already over.

But, as you know, this story is about Messi and the fact that he wasn’t just born with unusual talent. He’s also a bundle of explosive competitive fibres – which is why the subsequent journey went from crisis point via catharsis to perhaps the greatest end to a season in the history of Barcelona.

In the league, Barcelona lost just one of the next 21 matches, scoring 65 times. The little No10 tucked away 28 of them and only failed to score in three of those remaining games.

Spanish champions by two points – ahead of Real Madrid.

In the Copa del Rey, Barcelona scored 22 times in seven straight victories; the hero of this story scored or made eight of them. The final, wouldn’t you know it, was at Camp Nou. And not only were Athletic Club soundly beaten, but many consider that Messi, darting in from the right wing and Fred Astaire-ing his way past a host of red-and-white shirts, scored his greatest ever Camp Nou goal.

Seven nights later it was Juventus in Berlin. Another Champions League final, the very pantheon of club football. Since that training-ground incident, Barcelona had scored 14 times in winning six of their remaining seven Champions League matches (only losing in Munich, but going through against Pep Guardiola’s magnificent German champions 5-3 on aggregate). Messi made or scored six of the goals that ultimately took the club to a win over the Turin giants.

So in total, after the explosive, possibly ruinous row with Enrique, Messi scored 35 times in 34 matches between January and the first week of June. All meaning that his captain, Xavi, the man whose diplomacy rescued Messi and Enrique, finished his 17-year Barça first-team career with the fabled treble.

Leo, from all of us whose daily lives were made just a little magical thanks to your sorcery, “Gracias, maestro.” Now go and do it all again in Paris.

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