A black car you’d hardly describe as flash pulls up in the rain outside a lower-league football stadium, in a working class area of Barcelona close to the airport. The driver is Lionel Messi, and after making sure that his car is locked, he walks towards the stadium reception with a couple of friends. He’s wearing a t-shirt, jeans, trainers and a beard which suits him.
A buzz goes around. For two days, a film crew has been preparing to film an adidas advert with Messi. It’s big time. I interview footballers every week of my life and there’s been nothing like this.
On-site catering, security guards checking IDs, photographers everywhere, and there are props – including a piano (alas, we don't see him playing it). And there’s FourFourTwo, the only publication which will be given any time with the Barcelona and Argentina captain, the greatest player the world has ever seen.
Naturally, it’s a big deal – Messi is guest-editing this special issue, the first player to do so since Original Ronaldo did so enthusiastically in 2014. Several staffers have flown in from the London office; the editor, a photographer and their assistant, plus a video expert. Much planning has gone into this.
Been here before
I’ve divided my time between Manchester and Barcelona for 17 years and interviewed Messi a dozen times, the first in 2006 for FourFourTwo.
He was still a teen then. I’d been told that he was shy, but I also knew his old Barça B team captain Arnau Riera (later of a two-game cameo for Sunderland and a better spell at Falkirk). He had a word, and such connections help establish a trust between journalist and interviewee.
Despite that, it was a challenge. Messi, hiding behind a heavy fringe, was like Wayne Rooney at a similar age when dealing with the media. They were working-class lads who just wanted to play football rather than talk about it, yet Messi’s father knew that he had a diamond on his hands and that he’d have to speak to journalists. If there were any issues then I was to email Messi senior. Now, the Barcelona icon has a slick team around him who advise and protect.
There have been other changes. I could barely hear him talk when I played back the first interview on one of the first, unsophisticated electronic recorders. Now, interviews are recorded on a smartphone (though a mental note is still required to ensure sufficient battery and a switch to flight mode to avoid any unwanted interruptions – nobody wants to be on the end of a Roy Keane-like death stare).
Manchester over Messi?
A rational journalist would have jumped at the chance to interview Messi. I said no because I’d arranged to go to the Manchester derby and that was that. United are my team. Their league season was petering out into sixth-placed nothingness, but it was still the Manchester derby and I lived in hope that it would stop being one of the most underwhelming games in world football and come close to the consistent excellence of the Clasico.
My wife didn’t agree. She shook her head and suggested that I go and have mine checked. “You’re being asked to interview Lionel Messi for the front cover of a magazine you’ve written for for 16 years and you’re saying no? You’re an idiot.”
She maintained her stance the following morning. I called the editor.
Messi walked through the doors and came over to say hello. His day had been mapped out to the minute and those advisors – plus security – kept a close eye. They’re aware that anything he says or does can be magnified and twisted in the media. He’s not controversial and outspoken like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, nor a man who sings and dances his way to work like Patrice Evra.
Messi did his pictures, and even the men who get paid to know about light and shadows were excited. So too were the photographers who’d worked with the world’s biggest pop stars from Coldplay to U2, Radiohead to The Rolling Stones. Messi had been a good subject, they said; his eyes spoke, his expressions too.
Now we just needed his mouth to do the same, as his entourage came through into where we’d set up the interview space.
There was another handshake and smile. It was the fourth time I’d interviewed him for FourFourTwo.
On one occasion when the interview spot was by the side of a pitch overlooking Barcelona and the Mediterranean, he saw a football just before coming to say hello and couldn’t resist booting it into the net 30 metres away.
Except ‘boot’ doesn’t do it justice – instead, he nonchalantly kicked the ball, as if curling it around a non-existent wall into the top corner of the goal. And yet it hit the back of the net with such power, a missile fired from the left foot of a kid from Rosario. It was handy the theme of that interview was around the art of goalscoring.
Another time, I presented him with a trophy for being FourFourTwo’s player of the year at Barça’s training ground. The incidental details, rather than the interview itself, stand out: as we spoke, a Barça official came up to us and said: “We’ve just confirmed Mascherano. He’s coming now from Liverpool.”
“Javier,” Messi smiled. He approved of his new team-mate. After another interview, he asked how Carlos Tevez was playing for Manchester City and what United fans had thought of him leaving.
Then in 2010, I was asked to go to Catalonia’s Formula One circuit and spend a day with Messi and David Villa as they tried out a new boot for adidas. The theme was speed.
Just to stay rooted in reality at a lower pace, I took the bus there. After we’d finished, the pair of Barça stars went for a spin in racing cars – perhaps something their boss Pep Guardiola wouldn’t have advised. It was the end of the season, mind – and they’d won the league for the second year running.
Messi in 2017
For the July 2017 issue of FourFourTwo, Messi was taken to a table where 20 pictures he’d selected from his career lay spread across it. He was to choose five of his favourites. He did this, four of them quickly, then paused to decide the final one.
Then we sat down to talk and go through some of his favourite images. His eyes lit up when he saw himself with Sergio Aguero celebrating gold for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Some of the photos featured occasions less obvious than any Barcelona treble wins or Bernabéu hat-tricks, but they clearly meant a lot to him.
I wanted him to hurry through an image of him out-jumping Edwin van der Sar to score with a header in the 2009 Champions League Final, though. Before the game, former Barcelona manager Terry Venables had noted with wisdom that “Messi couldn’t score a header even if he was wearing a top hat”.
Barça’s captain smiled at hearing that from El Tel. He was in no rush to bypass that picture, the one moment which played a part in ruining three perfectly good days in Rome for this writer (and his poor mother too). Instead he talked animatedly about not having a marker as the ball came over.
Messi was enthused when talking about his pictures. The timing was fortuitous, too: he’d been man of the match the night before as Barça hammered Osasuna, and he’d been similarly spectacular four days previously when he scored a last-minute winner at the Bernabéu, hanging his shirt out in front of the steep tiers packed with home fans. It was his 500th goal, scored in the most dramatic circumstances.
“If I hadn’t scored then we’d have said goodbye to the league,” he said, smiling. “It was a goal which gave us hope to continue to win the league. It was a complete day, a day everything went right, a day when I got everything I wanted.”
Barcelona didn’t win the league, and Messi was unable to add to his eight league titles and four Champions League titles, but his outgoing coach Luis Enrique – a man Messi reserved very generous words for in our interview – said at the end of the season: “Thirty trophies in 30 years is not bad, is it? He will be around for a long time yet. We can enjoy him for a good while longer.”
Enrique also described Messi as ‘extra-terrestrial’. Having sat in front of him several times, this writer can confirm that he does exist and is not a fictional being from outer space, but a quiet, approachable and often humble man who pushes praise from himself to his team-mates.
Messi obligingly signed a few of the pictures to be offered as competition prizes to FourFourTwo readers, and then he was off into the Barcelona rain. Perhaps magazine-editing can take a back seat for a few more years yet.
The July 2017 issue of FourFourTwo was brought to you by Javier Zanetti, Benni McCarthy, Les Ferdinand, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Robert Pires, Lionel Messi, Victor Vazquez, Julio de Dios, Xabi Alonso, Ralf Rangnick, Lennie Lawrence, Steve Gritt, Nathan Redmond, Chris Haslam, Brock Christopher and Ronaldinho.
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