Sometimes a single word is sufficient to distil the significance of the man and the moment. “Madness,” said Andres Iniesta when asked to summarise the latest embellishment of Lionel Messi’s legend. No one was inclined to offer an argument.
The planet’s best footballer returns to the Emirates, for Tuesday’s Champions League tie against Arsenal, to a familiar outpouring of superlatives and a blizzard of statistics that borders on the surreal. In scoring Barcelona’s 10,000th goal last Wednesday evening, he took his total in La Liga beyond 300.
Yet history offers an even sharper, more startling perspective. Messi has scored 439 goals in 512 games, or 4.39 per cent of those scored by the club since November 1899, when it was founded by English, Catalan and Swiss enthusiasts.
These figures amuse Josep Colomer, the Catalan scout who is credited as Messi’s mentor. He understands their hidden humanity since, as Barcelona’s academy director, he played a pivotal role in the development of a worryingly small, painfully shy and patently driven boy who had been discovered in Rosario, Argentina.
The pair remain close: Messi recently made a special trip to Senegal to support Colomer’s campaign to distribute a million anti-malaria nets as part of Aspire Football Dreams, a talent- identification project spanning 15 nations in Africa, Asia, Central and South America.
Colomer has the understated nature of many veterans of his trade, and feels obliged to offer the standard health warning: no matter how frenzied the speculation in the build-up to Pep Guardiola’s arrival at Manchester City as their new manager this summer, Messi will never play in the Premier League.
“Everybody wants to see Messi playing in his league,” Colomer said, with a wry world-weariness. “If I was English I would love to see him playing for a team in my country. But I’m not sure if you take Messi from Barcelona to another philosophy that it would work.
“I don’t see him in another club because already he has realised with Argentina it’s not the same Lionel Messi. Messi is Messi in the context of Barcelona. I’m not sure he is going to be the same Lionel Messi in another context.
“A player grows in a system but, more than a system, a philosophy. He has in his body the philosophy of Barcelona. At his age, to co-ordinate with the philosophy of the other club or the other players, it’s not as easy as people think.
“Messi is also a winner,” adds Colomer. “He will not change a club unless he sees that, one day, Barcelona will not win or that Barcelona cannot be a platform for him to win a Ballon D’Or or something like this.”
Formalities over, he relaxes. The conversation, conducted on a chilly evening in Doha, as a fraught Under-17 match between Internazionale of Italy and Argentina’s Estudiantes concludes, stretches to the wider lessons of Messi’s eminence. These challenge the prevailing culture in the English game, in which a flawed Academy system indulges rather than challenges the best young players.
“A cook sees a soup and only by smelling it he knows whether he is missing salt or not. Our job is to discover players and of course we can make mistakes because we are not discovering a player for today but for tomorrow.
“That is not only depending on the quality of the player. It’s depending on his progression but also on the style of the club – if it fits his potential. Will a coach of the future like him or not? Will you be in the right place at the right moment?
“I will put an example to you: If there is a No 10 at Barcelona who is a very good young player, is he going to play in the place of Lionel Messi? Okay, he has no chance. So the development of a player is not only about his quality.”
Messi’s visualisation of opportunity and the adhesive control which testified to hours of selfless, solitary practice, were immediately obvious to Colomer when he oversaw his initiation in Barcelona’s Under-16 team. What was equally apparent was the unusual mixture of hardness and humility he seeks in those whose talent is obvious.
Those character traits were immediately seized upon by Xavi, another Catalan expatriate who is currently plying his trade in Qatar. The former Barcelona midfielder, the most technically adept of his era, highlighted Messi’s broader qualities in an open letter that was published in Spain to coincide with Messi receiving his fifth Ballon D’Or award.
“You could tell he was different, obviously, because there are things you notice in the first rondo,” he said. “And Leo, above all, had a talent that is the hardest to achieve: he understood the game, he could pass well and he could dribble around anyone you put in front of him. He used to leave the best defender we had on the ground.
“I discovered an educated boy who was respectful, humble and not conceited at all. And that makes him exemplary, because being what he is now, being the best, he hasn’t lost those values. He hasn’t lost a bit of that humility and he respects his team-mates. Leo never wanted to be different from the others.
“Without him, Barça wouldn’t be the same. He is the cornerstone of the club’s success in the last decade. Being the best for such a long time shows that he has the unusual winning character of a person who not only likes what he does but who is a perfectionist, who never has enough. That is what people see in games, but during the week he’s the same. That’s how he improves everyone around him, because being at his level demands a lot. Nothing bothers him more than defeat.”
Xavi added: “I recall he was inconsolable the day he missed a penalty against Chelsea and we were eliminated from the Champions League. But he was also upset when he missed it against Manchester City, even if we won 3-1. And you go and you tell him that it’s fine and he tells you, ‘No, it’s not. I failed’.”
Lionel Messi's best Ballon d'Or outfits
Lionel Messi's best Ballon d'Or outfits
1/5 Ballon d'Or 2009-10
The dry years. There once was a time, a long time ago, when Lionel Messi wore conservative, moderate suits. Back in those dystopian times, the Argentinian superstar often elected to wear black as he conquered the footballing world, leaving the likes of previous winners Ronaldinho, Fabio Cannavaro and Kaka to a bygone era.
2/5 Ballon d'Or 2011
The world was given one of its first glimpses into the wonderful and labyrinthine wardrobe of Messi a year later. Having previously only seen the Argentinian in Barcelona tracksuits or traditional garb, this 2011 number was just the start of the forward’s reign of terror over the fashion world.
3/5 Ballon d'Or 2012
12 months later and Messi was ready to up his game even further. 2012 was the year of the polka dot as the Barcelona superstar made headlines around the globe again. Winning the award for the second successive year, Barca’s main man celebrated the occasion with a dark navy and white three-piece suit.
4/5 Ballon d'Or 2013
Peak Messi. It was only a few weeks since Christmas and the Argentina international clearly was still in the festive mood. Treating his adoring fans to a shimmering burgundy suit, members of the press on the red carpet had to shield their eyes as Messi strode to defeat, falling behind Cristiano Ronaldo.
5/5 Ballon d'Or 2014
Perhaps Leo’s most moderate effort since 2009, last year’s offering seemed a compromise for those who don’t appreciate his trend-setting ways. Again sporting a bow-tie, the Argentine superstar opted for purple as his colour of choice. One wonders if he randomly selects his palette with his eyes closed.
Like many of his generation, Colomer insists young players need the discipline of old-school chores such as cleaning the boots of senior players or sweeping the dressing rooms. He uses Messi’s example to support his argument that pristine facilities can be counterproductive.
“Give too much to the boys and they don’t understand the steps they need to take,” says Colomer. “I have to tell people, ‘look, Leo Messi was training and playing every day on very old, ugly artificial pitches at Barcelona’. Messi is Messi because we obliged him to earn all the steps, in football and in life. He even passed through Barça C, and nobody went there before I changed the philosophy.
“I have seen plenty of young players with his talent, plenty. Some had a little bit less, some a little bit more. They were at the top, top level, but they did not have his mentality. Leo, he was always a winner, he believed in himself a lot, but he also has a lot of patience for football.
“I remember when I put him in Barça B. They played on the Saturday, and Sunday morning he took the bus with the Under-16s, his team, to go and support them any place in Catalunya. He was living only for football. So I’m very happy for him because I love him as a person and a player. He is a model for many children who think this is easy. It is not easy.”
Colomer believes Messi can play “for many years” if he avoids serious injury. So, too, does Xavi, who suggests “he seems to have no end in sight”. His eulogy is wistful, almost as if he is apologising for being paid £22m to see out his career playing for El Sadd in the Qatari League:
“Ever since I’ve known him he hasn’t stopped evolving. He improved what he had and he has also turned himself into a goalscorer. Like Pep says, he dominates every aspect of the game. We’ll never see something similar.
“What I value most about him is that he is honest. He never betrays you. He has a strong character and when he doesn’t like something, that’s that. Don’t try to convince him. But he tells you that to your face. I know he’d never stab me in the back. Messi only betrays defenders and goalkeepers.”
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