Lionel Messi: Boy Genius


Given a rare night on the Barcelona bench last Sunday, Lionel Messi yanked on the seat in front of him, hunched his shoulders over the chair back and kicked it with his cleats. He seemed not so much the world’s best soccer player as a restless kid in a movie theater.

He is 23, with a grown-up’s income reported to exceed $43 million this year. Yet Messi still has a boy’s floppy bangs, a boy’s slight build and a boy’s nickname, the Flea. Even the ball stays on his feet like a shy child clinging to his father’s legs.

It is a boy’s fearlessness, enthusiasm, calm and humility, too, that help explain why Messi is already considered one of the greatest ever to play the world’s game. In the space of 18 tense days from April to early May, Barcelona played four Clásicos against its archrival, Real Madrid. The Madrid strategy was to strangle beauty out of the matches, to use nasty muscle against Messi, to shoulder him down or shiver him with a forearm or take his legs in scything tackles. Once, he was sent rolling as if he had caught fire.

Messi made small appeals for fairness with his eyes and hands, but he remained unflappable and without complaint. He did not yell at the referee or clamp a threatening hand around an opponent’s neck or fake a foul and dive to the ground. He remained apart from ugly words and scuffles and expulsions that marred the matches. Instead, he trumped cynicism with genius.

With a boy’s ardor, Messi put Barcelona in the final of the Champions League in Europe – the world’s most prestigious club tournament – to be played against Manchester United on Saturday at Wembley Stadium in London. He delivered both goals in Barcelona’s 2-0 victory in the first leg of the semifinal round against Real Madrid. This gave Messi a startling 52 goals in his first 50 matches of a season in which he also leads the Spanish league in assists. The first goal was merely outstanding in its timing and clever anticipation. The second was a masterpiece of acceleration, power, balance, agility, vision and darting virtuosity.

“I think this genius is impossible to describe,” Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s manager, said. “That’s why he is a genius. He has instinct. He loves to live with pressure. He is one of the best ever created.”

That defining Champions League semifinal match was played April 27 at Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid. Nine months earlier, stars from Barcelona and Real Madrid joined to give Spain its first World Cup title. Together, they lifted the winner’s trophy in South Africa. But now they played for club, not country. Temporary brotherhood fissured. Blood rivalry resumed. Madrid, the capital, was once the base of Franco’s dictatorship and is now the seat of Spain’s constitutional monarchy; Barcelona sits in the heart of the autonomous Catalan region, with its own language and cultural (and soccer) identity.

An Argentine, Messi was not born into these tensions. He came to Barcelona at 13, when the club agreed to pick up the costs of treatment for a growth-hormone deficiency. As the story goes, his contract was written on a napkin. At the time, he was about 4 feet 7 inches. He now stands 5-7. If his lack of size made him shy and self-conscious as a boy, his low center of gravity made him spectacularly elusive as a soccer player.

“We thought he was mute,” said Gerard Piqué, the lanky Barcelona center back who played with Messi in the club’s youth academy. “He was in the dressing room, on the bench, just sitting. He said nothing to us for the first month. We traveled to Switzerland to play a tournament, and he started to talk and have fun. We thought it was another person. He was really good, but he was really small and thin. His legs were like fingers. One coach said, ‘Don’t try to tackle him strong, because maybe you will break him.’ And we said, ‘O.K., but don’t worry because we cannot catch him.’”

A decade later, Messi proved even more artful and cagey in the Champions League semifinals after the April match remained scoreless into the 76th minute. As Madrid sat and waited, Barcelona dominated possession with its elegant, patient attack, probing for an away goal that would serve as a tie breaker if needed in the home-and-home series. It was a format meant to encourage aggressiveness in visiting teams and to discourage them from turtling into a defensive shell.

An opening came soon enough. Madrid was vulnerable. In the 61st minute, it had been reduced to 10 men after Pepe, a defender, was red-carded for a cleats-up challenge on Barcelona’s right back, Dani Alves. Pushing into midfield, Pepe had been Madrid’s most effective marker of Messi in two earlier matches during the month, one a tie in a Spanish league game, the other a Real Madrid victory for the Spanish Cup (which was unceremoniously dropped under the team bus during the celebration). But this match was more important, a chance to play for the championship of Europe. Pepe’s eviction was a harsh blow that changed everything.

Madrid’s impulsive manager, José Mourinho, was soon banished, too. He clapped his hands mockingly at the referee’s notice of Pepe’s eviction and at what he considered Alves’s theatrically pained reaction to a nonexistent foul.

In 2005, while managing Chelsea in the English Premier League, a suspended Mourinho reportedly evaded a prohibition on contact with his players by rolling into the dressing room while hiding inside a laundry basket. Now, against Barcelona, he was reduced to a child’s classroom subterfuge of passing furtive notes to his assistant from the stands.

With 14 minutes remaining and the score still 0-0, Messi took what seemed an innocuous pass nearly 40 yards from the goal. It came from Xavi, Barcelona’s brilliant playmaker, whose oiled pompadour and wide eyes evoke a young Jackie Gleason, though Gleason’s comedy could be manic, even volcanic, while Xavi’s art is restrained and surgical.

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Messi stabbed forward with the ball, and Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso tried to make a sliding tackle. Messi wobbled but shrugged off Alonso, keeping his feet. Still, he was not free. Madrid’s defense engulfed him like white blood cells trying to fight off infection. His shot ricocheted off a clot of defenders at the top of the penalty area, but Messi remained alert and flicked the rebound back to Xavi.

It was no surprise that Messi connected so assuredly with Xavi. The three players who drive Barcelona’s attack – Messi, Xavi and the industrious midfielder Andrés Iniesta – all graduated from the club’s youth academy. They are different ages, but they have been in one another’s company for a decade.

The heart of Barcelona’s defense, Piqué and Carles Puyol, also developed at the academy, which is symbolised by an 18th-century stone farmhouse, known as La Masia, that was remade into a dormitory just outside Camp Nou, Barcelona’s stadium. The generic term for the academy is La Cantera. The quarry. It has become the world’s model for mining young talent.

Messi grew homesick when he arrived with his father from Argentina, club officials said. He missed his mother and sometimes cried himself asleep. Quickly enough, though, he immersed himself in the Barcelona style, which demands flair and creativity, not mere utility. He played the keep-away game called El Rondo, in which one player stands inside a circle trying to steal passes made in tight spaces. He mastered the system known as tiki-taka, built around short, rhythmic passes and movement described by Iniesta as “receive, pass, offer,” triangular exchanges that form a spellbinding geometry.

As Barcelona dispatched Arsenal in the 2010 Champions League quarterfinals, Gunners wing Theo Walcott marveled, “It was like someone was holding a PlayStation controller and moving the figures around.”

In the first leg of this year’s semifinals, Real Madrid must have felt the same wonder and helplessness, especially down a man. Barcelona completed an astonishing 713 of 788 passes in the match. Xavi alone was 107 for 112. In the 76th minute, upon taking Messi’s short pass, Xavi turned his back to the goal and wheeled away from three defenders. Astutely, he played the ball on the right wing to the substitute Ibrahim Afellay. Messi took a few casual strides at the top of the penalty area, but this was a poacher’s deceptive saunter.

Alonso put a forearm in Messi’s chest for resistance, then backpedaled and turned his head to find the ball. Twelve yards from the goal, Alonso stopped, shuttling Messi off to the final line of Madrid’s defense. Space opened in the briefest moment of hesitancy and indecision. That was all Messi needed.

“I knew Afellay would wait until the last second to cross the ball, so I kept running,” he said.

He broke for the near goal post, sprinting past defender Sergio Ramos, a boy’s sprint, his short legs churning, his hands high and frantic. The cross from Afellay curled in low and precise. Before Iker Casillas, Madrid’s goalkeeper, could react, Messi ran onto the ball and jumped and clipped it between Casillas’s legs. Barcelona had a vital away goal. Messi jumped into his teammates’ arms and pumped his fists. He raised the Barcelona crest on his jersey and pounded his chest.

“No one plays with as much joy as Messi does,” Eduardo Galeano, the celebrated Uruguayan novelist and author of “Soccer in Sun and Shadow,” said in an e-mail. “He plays like a child enjoying the pasture, playing for the pleasure of playing, not the duty of winning.”

He plays like a child, and, away from the game, he still possesses a child’s reserve. Messi is seldom forthcoming. He even appeared distant last Sunday as Barcelona celebrated its latest Spanish league title with a belated festivity at Camp Nou. As confetti rained and his teammates danced and clapped and waved and threw peppers into the stands as a sign of strength, Messi mostly walked alone, his hands shoved into the pockets of his warm-up suit.




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