Journalists are evenly split on whether or not they should interview their personal heroes: some say you shouldn't because you'll find your idol has feet of clay, others argue the opportunity is too good to miss. For me, it was a no-brainer. Lionel Messi is not only the shining star of my favorite team, FC Barcelona (although among my sentimental favorites, he ranks behind stalwarts Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta), he's also a highly unusual sporting icon. In an era when many sports celebrities swagger extravagantly, on and off the field, Messi is something of a throwback: a well-behaved young man who keeps his nose scrupulously clean.
On the field, he shows little of the petulance and amateur dramatics of so many soccer players, including one or two in Barcelona colors. When he scores, he always raises two forefingers to the sky, dedicating the goal to his late grandmother. When he's fouled, he rarely rarely exaggerates his pain: he's too much in a hurry to get the ball back at his feet. Off the field, he lives a quiet life, with his father in the Barcelona suburb of Castelldefels. Unlike many top players (including some of his recent teammates), he's rarely seen in the city's bars and discos, with a supermodel on his arm.
I had been warned that he was not a great interview. For one thing, he is naturally reticient; for another, modern sportsmen are taught by p.r. experts and lawyers to regard every question from a journalist as booby trap, to be treated with maximum caution. In dozens and dozens of Messi interviews I scanned through, he had said little that was revealing.
When Lisa Abend and I met him, I could tell Messi was on his guard, like a phalanx of Italian defenders playing catenaccio. He made little eye contact and spent much of the time tightly clutching, with both hands, the bottom of his chair. I can't truthfully say we broke down his defenses, but we did get a flash or two of candor, which is rare in a Messi interview. You be the judge.
On how he judges his own success:
I don't know. Every time I start a year, I start with the objective of trying to achieve everything, without comparing it to how I've done in other seasons, to what I've accomplished before, or to what we've accomplished as a group. For me, what's happened has happened, and I'm always looking toward what's ahead. You don't have time to stop and think about everything that happens, it all happens too quickly. When I retire, I'll stop and think about that.
On how his skills have evolved:
I can't really say. Year after year, I've grown, improved. I was lucky to start very young and always have very good colleagues around me as I was coming up, and this has helped me and how I play. And with [Barcelona coach Pep] Guardiola, I learned to play tactically, which is what I most needed, what my game needed. From the tactical point of view, it's been about knowing how to stop [to think] on the field when we don't have the ball. And that makes us better when we have it.
On his low-key lifestyle:
I've always been this way, ever since I was young. I've always really just liked football, and I've always devoted a lot of time to it. When I was a kid, my friends would call me to go out with them, but I would stay home because I had practice the next day. I like going out, but you have to know when you can and when you can't. That's why I say nothing's changed since I was young. My friends would go out and I'd stay home. But not for nothing, because I knew it had to be that way, and at that moment, I was dedicated to football.
On whether he's had to sacrifice fun in the pursuit of excellence:
I never thought that. I always thought I wanted to play professionally, and I always knew that to do that I'd have to make a lot of sacrifices. I made sacrifices by leaving Argentina, leaving my family to start a new life. I changed my friends, my people. Everything. But everything I did, I did for football, to achieve my dream. That's why I didn't go out partying, or a lot of other things.
On his first experiences at Barcelona's famous La Masía training school:
It helped me a lot because I came [from Argentina] alone, and I was with all the guys in the Masía, I was one of them. We were all from someplace else, and we helped each other. The truth is that there were a lot of happy moments because we were there together for a lot of time, and the relationships between all of us got stronger and stronger. Lots of happy times.