Lifting the lid on Leo, Barça's most reluctant superstar

'Normal' off the pitch, a genius on it, club's new record scorer has changed little. But will it always be this rosy? By Pete Jenson

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lionel Messi did not hang around on Tuesday night. There were no post-match interviews after his record-breaking 233rd goal. With the match ball in the boot of his car, he made for home.

It was the ordinary-guy alter-ego clocking on as the super-hero clocked off. Messi couldn't be any more like Superman on the pitch but, according to team-mates who have known him since he was 12, he couldn't be any more Clark Kent off it.

"Ridiculously normal" is how Gerard Pique describes the 24-year-old who has now scored more goals for Barcelona than anyone else in the club's 113 years. Asked about the man whom he first shared a dressing room with 12 years ago, Pique, above, said in a recent El Pais interview: "I remember his first day at the club, we thought maybe he couldn't speak." Pique also portrayed Messi as the occasional butt of dressing-room jokes: "Today I changed the battery on his mobile phone and he never even realised."

On Tuesday night Pique was asked again: what is Messi like? Has he changed from the introverted adolescent whom team-mates were advised not to tackle in training in case they hurt him? "As a person he is exactly the same," says Pique. "If you put the 13-year-old Leo next to the 24-year-old one you would see that he has not changed at all."

After games Messi retreats to the home he has made for himself with girlfriend Antonella in Castelldefels, a small city just down the coast from Barcelona. His older brother Rodrigo lives in the same complex with his wife and their two children. And Messi's friend and team-mate Javier Mascherano lives close by.

Messi's parents and another older brother Matias, plus his younger sister Maria-Sol, live in Rosario, Argentina, where Messi returns every summer and Christmas. His father – who remains the closest thing Messi will ever have to an agent – travels regularly to Barcelona, and his mother makes the trip when she can.

In Rosario and in Castelldefels, Messi can live a normal life. He rarely goes out, and doesn't drink or smoke. His girlfriend is the sister of one of his childhood friends and there are plans to one day start a family, but no plans for a wedding – certainly not one that might appear in a glossy magazine.

As well as not having changed off the pitch, Pique says Messi is still the same player on it as when he first joined the club. "You could see he was far better than everyone else, but you never knew if once he got into the senior side he would be able to do everything he was doing in the youth team."

How long can such perfection last? At some point during the next two years Pep Guardiola will leave and the Brazilian Neymar will probably arrive. If only by millimetres, the Barça machine will need recalibrating.

"Guardiola is more important to this club than me," Messi said recently. The 41-year-old coach has certainly played his part in Messi's story. Guardiola chose to play the Argentine through the middle towards the end of the 2008-09 season despite having two of recent history's greatest centre-forwards in his side. Most impressively in a 6-2 win at Real Madrid, Samuel Eto'o and Thierry Henry played either side of Messi who operated as a withdrawn centre-forward.

Without Guardiola, and with the eventual arrival of Neymar, the present ideal conditions might be slightly altered. But none of that mattered on Tuesday, when Messi got the goals to take him past Cesar Rodriguez.