June 24th, 1987 – Rosario in Argentina. A mother delivers a baby boy who goes on to dominate world football’s achingly unforgiving eye. A boy who becomes a man by producing moments of absolute beauty for one of Europe’s (and the world’s) biggest footballing institutions. That boy is Lionel Messi. But has the diminutive Argentine, so loved for his humble attitude and his brilliant skills, become a monster? Has he taken over the reins solo at Camp Nou and usurped the positions of the technical board and the coach himself?
Leo Messi has a god-like following in Spain. Just like his mentor and inspiracion Diego Maradona had (and still does) in all of Argentina. The fact that most Argentines feel Messi is Catalan and not one of their own notwithstanding, Messi is still respected and it is clear that he is the best player currently capable of lasting ninety minutes on the football pitch. But, has he become more than that? Has he taken it upon himself to tell the coach ‘I will play here, or nowhere else’ and then sulk away and be distant when his wish is not granted? Most people who see his interviews and hear his comments will say ‘No! Messi isn’t one who has a massive ego. Look across Spain, specifically to Madrid to find that!’ Most people of course, refer to the brazen attitude and ‘fuck you, I am the best!’ proclamations that typify Cristiano Ronaldo.
But, the reality and the public persona are two entirely different things. Before the ‘Guardiola Era’ at Barcelona, Messi was in trouble. A lifestyle of partying, alcohol consumption and not eating right – led by his team mates (specifically Deco, Ronaldinho and other senior members) didn’t sit well with the Argentine. He was always a small and lanky player with hormone-enhanced height. His performances and fitness were affected ten-fold if there were disturbances in his training or diet schedule. So when Guardiola took over the Camp Nou hotseat, off it was with Ronaldinho, Deco and the others. In came revolution, and Messi stayed – becoming the focal point of a team full of homegrown superstars with some brilliant back-ups brought in from across the planet.
In their first year together, Messi along with his Barca team mates led by Guardiola swept aside all comers. Every. Single. Trophy. Claimed. A mesmeric brand of pass-and-move football with Messi at the front, scoring goals along with Samuel Eto’o and Thierry Henry for fun. It all looked fruity at the club, till the season reached its end and Guardiola decided to do away with Samuel Eto’o and bring in one Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
This move raised a lot of stink, with Eto’o being a fan favorite, yet part of the group that made Messi a party animal and not a goal-scoring machine. In the eyes of Guardiola, he had to go. So at great expense (still shake my head when I see the Ibrahimovic transfer fee) and at great risk, Pep brought in a Swede who was the polar opposite of Messi. Tall, well-built and with a voice of his own, Ibrahimovic was already a success in Italy with Juventus and Inter Milan but was also considered a bit of a temperamental star. He had run-ins with one Mario Balotelli while at Inter, also questioning Jose ‘The Special One’ Mourinho’s tactics at one point. The gamble looked to have paid off initially, as Ibracadabra made a rollicking start at Camp Nou in the center forward position, as he had done all his career.
But then came a turning point. An injury to Ibrahimovic saw the lack of a recognised center forward (Bojan was but a failed experiment) and Guardiola thought on his feet – introducing Leo Messi as the ‘false nine’. Messi flourished in his new role and everyone loved it. Even though the Champions League was lost (ironically, to an Eto’o-led Inter Milan), the league title came and everything seemed rosy at Barcelona again. Ibrahimovic had faded and wanted a move away – one that was promptly granted and David Villa was brought in. Lost in the whirlwind that is a football season, one thing stuck out. How, even after the return of Ibrahimovic, Messi stayed in the false nine role. Shunting Ibrahimovic out of position and out of his comfort zone – the world’s best (and perhaps most influential) player had alienated his team-mate.
And this was not the coach’s decision as much as most may think. In an excerpt from Guardiola’s biography he claims that “One day, he (Messi) came up to me and said – I wish to play center forward. Either I play there, or you bench me.“ When I asked him what to do about him (Ibrahimovic) he said ‘That is your concern’. What proof do we have of this conversation? None whatsoever. But the result of it was clear for the world to see – Ibrahimovic and Guardiola never spoke again, and Messi went on a remarkable run of scoring form that saw all forgiven.
The Ibrahimovic example is the only obvious one, but people have claimed for years that Messi has more influence on Barca than any single player should. That he has created and festered the ‘Messidependecia’ that has harmed them so badly in recent years when he cant deliver the goods. It is also apparently the reason that Barcelona don’t sign a recognised out and out center forward – one who can connect with high-balls and crosses in the area with his head and both feet. Of course, Messi can do that. But not always. And when he cannot, he is often a sullen presence on the field of play – hanging his head and occasionally letting the tears flow. It is understandable that a player of Messi’s quality, drive and ambition wishes to take certain control. But there is a limit and no player should be bigger than the club. Ever. I now roughly quote a friend who said ‘Messi, with one foot and blind – is still a better player than most you will ever see. I say let him call all shots, who cares as long as the Blaugrana keep winning.’ Well, last season this attitude might have been why Barcelona crashed and burned against Bayern Munchen. And that, was a wake-up call.
To counter it, Barca have signed Neymar – apparently a Messi approved signing and Tata Martino has replaced Tito Vilanova – another of Messi’s first choices.
So I ask the question – Is the world’s best player, a humble man in the eyes of most of the public, really a brat? Is he a player who gets what he wants and sulks otherwise like an adolescent child? And is he, or any other player truly bigger than the club where he plays? Is this, now, Messi-lona?
And if that is the case, what would you do if you were the Barcelona hierarchy? Dump the world’s best player for a record breaking fee and rebuild? Or skulk, shut up and take it on the chin, knowing fully well he might never want to leave?