Being widely-regarded as the greatest football player of all-time is something Lionel Messi has become accustomed with.
The one-club man – now in his 18th year at Barcelona – and Argentine international, is 32 and, by football averages, should be heading into the twilight of his career. And yet, average is not a word levelled at the already-legendary forward.
Look at Messi’s statistics and you’d be forgiven for thinking this was some fictional character from a children’s football comic strip. He has amassed 34 trophies – a record for a player at Barcelona – including 10 La Liga titles, four Champions League hauls and six Copa Del Rey wins.
He has the record for most goals in the Spanish top-flight (419), most goals in any European top-flight season (50), most Champions League hat-tricks (eight), and most assists in world football, since they had been recorded (292).
Celebrating the new season by breaking the 700 goals barrier for club and country, Messi has a record-equaling five Ballon d’Or awards, of which he won four in consecutive years from 2009 to 2012. He also holds five European Golden Shoe awards, given to the player who scores the most goals out of each of the top-flight league in Europe.
Yet, arguably, Messi’s most impressive thing isn’t his football prowess at all; it’s his demeanour. He is a total family man – a person who realises how much he is adored and never allows himself to become affected or carried away with fame, fortune or talent.
Players, managers and fans alike all testify what a genius of a footballer he is, yet the man himself has never wavered from cherished, sane, core beliefs. At the heart of that is humility, to the extent that he never views back goals, assists or performances… “unless my son wants to watch them!” as he reveals to RSNG…
RSNG You seem the sort of person who is reluctant to accept credit or praise unless you cannot escape it? LIONEL MESSI, WORLD’S GREATEST FOOTBALLER ‘It is flattering, of course, but it is not something I feel I need to embrace. Of course I am aware of my own ability, and I think in many ways that is enough for me.’
‘If my football makes other people happy then that is fine, just as it makes me very happy. But, you know, people have other things in their lives… it is true! I think we should celebrate what is good, but at the same time we don’t need to go over it because it is at that point it becomes a bit uncomfortable for me.’
RSNG How do you feel when players who you admire say wonderful things about you? Do you feel moved, or does it feel natural? LM ‘The honest truth about it is that I don’t like watching videos of myself. I’m not one for looking at them. I actually feel embarrassed when I see myself playing on television, I just don’t like to see myself and I never watch the repeats of games I play in when they are shown.’
‘The only way I see them again is through the images which are left in my mind and the experience I get from having played in those matches. However, when I am with my son, I am getting a little bit more used to watching videos of myself, as he does like watching his dad.’
RSNG I can imagine that must be incredible for your son? LM ‘Thiago is beginning to live it, what football generates, being in the stadiums – live the game. He does get really upset when we lose, for example the game against Liverpool or the Copa Del Rey final. Not only does he live it, but he suffers because of it.’
‘He really wants to be with me and by my side because he knows that I feel exactly the same way in defeat and that is something which is really beautiful.’
‘With Mateo, it’s not the same because he is still very much a baby. He realises the difference between winning and losing, but he does not care, haha! It’s not really important to him.’
Every time I lose, or the team loses, it hurts like it did the very first time I felt it when I lost a match but I just assimilate it in a different way now
RSNG The way fame and fortune is nowadays, you surely can’t be able to live a normal life. Or can you? LM ‘No, the truth is that I can live something of a normal life, yes. Every morning my wife and I take our children to school, usually we are able to see them playing in the playground. In the afternoons, they have a different activity to do and they have many friends, especially Thiago.’
‘I also have a great relationship with the parents of Thiago’s friends. I live in Barcelona and I am always able to walk around and go to the same places. People are very used to seeing me about and I can walk through the neighbourhood.’
‘My children's school is very close to my house and the neighbours know who I am and are used to seeing me frequently.’
RSNG You say that your son knows that you take defeats badly and those who really know you, know that it hurts you when you lose. But is that sense of hurt still as profound at this stage in your career? LM ‘Every time I lose, or the team loses, it hurts like it did the very first time I felt it when I lost a match. But I just assimilate it in a different way now, that’s all.’
RSNG Surely the distraction of having a child must take away some of the pain? LM ‘I would be lying if I said he didn’t. It’s easy to take a different view when you have people in your life – family – and your sole focus isn’t just football. And that’s important.’
‘Your priorities in life definitely shift over time, but when I am on the football pitch all I want in the world is to win the match, and it hurts deeply when that doesn’t happen.’
‘Once I get home and see my wife and my children, the pain does die down a little.’
RSNG So becoming a parent has changed your ideas on life a little? LM ‘I would say so, yes. When I am alone with my family or I am with only Antonella, I do feel better. Before that, I would come home and lock myself away from everyone. I didn’t want to watch television, I didn’t want to eat, I didn’t want to talk to anyone at all.’
‘Now that I am a parent, I feel the need to change my attitude and my face and to spend time enjoying life outside of football with my children. Just looking at my children and being with them, makes that so easy to be positive and forget about what has happened on the pitch.’
‘I mean, obviously, I do still feel exactly the same pain when I lose a match or we don’t win, but I handle it much better now than I used to, especially since the children were born.’
That’s what life is all about – how you recover from not achieving the things that you would like or the things that you want to succeed in
RSNG Being in a Barcelona team that has been so successful over the years, you are still not satisfied with not having won a title with your country, Argentina. Everyone can see how determined you are far that to happen? LM ‘I’m happy they can see that, because I want to finish my career having won something with the Argentine national team. I have tried so many times and have tried as hard as I could, meaning that I am not comfortable with each opportunity to win something that passes by and we end up empty-handed.’
‘I simply do not care about the people who think that I do not care and those who also feel like I shouldn’t be playing for the national team, not to mention all of the bad comments that they direct my way. My way of dealing with those and the setbacks that I have with the team, is to simply get back up and try again.’
‘I would like to think that that is a good message to send out to all of the children and young people who support me in my career. They support me not only in my career, but also in my life.’
‘That’s what life is all about – how you recover from not achieving the things that you would like or the things that you want to succeed in. You fall, you get up and you try all over again and most importantly, you fight to try and achieve your dreams.’
RSNG Do you realise that with children who support you, you have something special there? LM ‘It has always been a part of my life. Before I was well-known in my career through playing football, I have always been fond of children. I like children and I like sharing things with them. It’s so amazing to see their faces and also their reactions.’
‘It’s even better having children of those ages as well, and I totally get what they feel when they see me.’
RSNG When you were that young child yourself growing up in your hometown of Rosario in Argentina, and dreaming of becoming a footballer, did you dream what you have achieved, or has the reality even surpassed those thoughts? LM ‘The reality has completely surpassed the dreams. No question about that, whatsoever. My dream was to simply be a footballer and to play as a professional. I used to go and watch Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina and my dream was to play for that club in their ‘Coloso’ stadium. (Also known as the Marcelo Bielsa Stadium). However, life took me in another direction.’
‘So, in the beginning, I was happy just to have achieved my dream of becoming a professional player. But the reality of what has happened in my life and in my career, has totally exceeded everything that I ever dreamed of.’
RSNG Do you have fun playing football? LM ‘Yes, absolutely. The day I find football loses its fun for me, is the day that I retire. I enjoy the training sessions, the matches, the competitiveness of it all. I still enjoy the game as much as I did when I was a child. Obviously, there is far more at stake and a lot more responsibility for me now, but that never stops me having fun.’
RSNG For the hugely famous person that you are, you are such a quiet person and you never create a fuss? LM ‘I do not like being the centre of attention. I can relate to my childhood friends and I still speak to them. I like to speak to them and the people who I grew up with in our neighbourhood before I moved to Spain, as well as all of my family.’
‘I always talk to those people who we have in our close circle of friends and family. Those are the people in my life who have helped me become the person that I am, today.’
RSNG Do your children play football? LM ‘Yes, both of them do. Both of them play for the club, Barcelona, and it’s a special children’s football school. There, they can play with all of the children of the other children of the players and staff who play and work for Barcelona.’
RSNG Do you have to pay for that privilege? LM ‘Yes, we pay, haha! Thiago has been playing there for two years and Mateo began there this year.’
RSNG Do you go along with them? LM ‘Yes, I love it. They train on Mondays and Thursdays. Luis Suarez has a boy called Benja, who is the same age as Thiago, and they train together. So, we all go there together, watch the kids train and drink all afternoon! Suarez’s son is left-footed, but Thiago is not. In fact, both of my children are right-footed.’
RSNG Does Suarez’s son like to fight? LM ‘Haha! He certainly looks like him, but he has more quality than his dad, haha! Seriously, Luis’s son is a very good player.’
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