Lionel Messi announced his retirement from international football earlier today citing his inability to score a goal during a penalty shootout as the main catalyst behind his decision. The 29-year-0ld footballer, often hailed as the greatest living footballer of all time stated that “It’s not meant for me. For me the national team is over. I’ve done all I can, it hurts not to be a champion,” after Argentina lost their fourth major final in the last 9 years. While Messi will continue to play at club level, the move will change international football for some time to come, since it appeared that Messi still had quite a few good footballing years left in him.
Despite his recent setbacks, Messi has scored a total of 55 goals for his country in international football. Here’s a throwback to our cover story on the man, when he had just risen to become a football superstar.
He seems to be from another planet and will probably be among the top draws of the upcoming World Cup. Lionel Messi talks TO Daniel Cabot about his career, fame, the Champions League, the World Cup, his work for UNICEF and living in Spain and South America.
Is it true that [Argentinean club] River Plate rejected you after trials when you were just 13 years old?
No, that’s not true. Actually, quite the opposite. They asked me to play for the club but they also told me that I had to be responsible for negotiating my transfer away from Newell’s Old Boys, the team I played for back then. I knew Newell’s was not going to let me go, so I decided to stay. The only problem was the transfer.
Were you disappointed not to sign for River Plate?
When I went to have trials at River Plate, I wasn’t very excited. I wasn’t thinking ‘I wish I can play here’. I just wanted to see if they would accept me.
What are your memories of growing up in the city of Rosario?
What I remember the most about my childhood is my family. I remember that we used to get together every Sunday for lunch at my grandmother’s house. We used to eat asado [roasted meat] or pasta. After lunch, it was football time with the kids from my neighborhood and my cousins.
Did your family kick you while you were playing or did they take care of you?
Sometimes they did kick me! But the truth is that everyone took care of me. Everybody in my neighborhood knew I was playing for a team, so they cared about me. Sometimes, I wasn’t even allowed to play, especially with older kids!
Was your lack of height a problem when you were faced with bigger, stronger children?
No, I was used to playing with older children, so it was never an issue for me.
When did you first realise that you could make it as a professional footballer?
I think when I first arrived in Spain as a teenager and I started to train with Barcelona ‘B’ side, which is the club’s reserve team.
How has fame and success changed your life?
When I started to play for Barca, people started to recognise me and to approach me. But the truth is that not everything changed and I always did what I wanted to do, what I could do, both at home and on the street. Sometimes people see me on the street and they get off from their car and stop the traffic just to get my autograph. Every time people express their support is nice.
Tell us about the incident when a girl jumped from the stands after an Argentina game in Venezuela just to kiss you?
It was certainly a strange incident. I saw her when she was about to jump and I told her not to, but she did it anyway. The first thing I did was check if she was okay.
At the age of 22, do you think you are mature and experienced enough now to make a big impact at the World Cup in South Africa?
Yes, probably. I’ve now played many big games with Barcelona and many important matches for Argentina, so I believe I am ready. But of course there is still a long way to go before the finals. It is difficult to predict what will happen but like every player, I dream of winning the World Cup.
You became the youngest Argentinean to play in the World Cup finals in Argentina in 2006 when you came on against Serbia and scored. What are your memories of that?
It was strange. I truly felt that something beautiful was about to happen. Having the chance to play at the World Cup, even from the bench, and scoring was a great experience.
Do you think your style has changed significantly since you were younger?
My way of playing is the same as it was when I was a kid. My dribbling feint is still the same. I have friends that played with me when I was a kid in Argentina who tell me that they see me play on TV and I play in the exactly same way. I feel I’ve improved but I have always maintained the same style.
You work with UNICEF but do you agree with the criticism that modern players are too selfish?
I do think that we players can do a lot more in the wider world but it is up to each individual player whether they help or not. It would be great if we all could do something to help people. My relationship with UNICEF began when my dad and I contacted them to offer our help because for me, it is impossible to ignore some of the world’s problems.
What issues are you specifically talking about?
The situation in Africa. The way children have to live there and the fact that they lack food. I think that, little by little, we all can do something to help. I’d like to see them happy. My dream is to help change the world for the better.
Is it true you would like to end your career back in South America?
Yes, I always say that. I’d like to experience Argentine football from the inside. Ever since I was a kid I wanted to play in Argentina, but for various reasons I ended up in Spain. I still feel that I owe it to myself to play again in my own country.
And which team would you ideally like to play for?
My first choice would definitely be Newell’s Old Boys. I’ve always been a Newell’s fan, I used to go to the stadium when I was a kid. I still have many years to play for Barca, God willing, but at some moment I’d like to go to Newell’s. But I am happy here now. The people in the city are great and they show me their support all the time. Every time I run out at the Nou Camp, I get goose bumps. I love being here.
How would you describe yourself to a complete stranger?
I like to think I am an ordinary person that enjoys football and tries to do his best, always with the aim of enjoying it.
Is Barcelona the best team on the planet?
I am suspicious to call ourselves the greatest. People always have different opinions, so you can ask two people which is the best team and you will get two different answers.
Do you agree you and Cristiano Ronaldo are the world’s two best players right now? Who is the best?
Again, it is all about opinion. But I can certainly say there is no doubt Ronaldo is an amazing footballer who is both hugely influential and someone people love to watch. But individual awards and praise is not what footballers really strive for. We are always part of a team and the prizes the team wins is what really matters.
Do you see yourself spending the rest of your career at the Nou Camp?
I am so happy here and I have never given even a moment’s thought to leaving. It has felt like home in Barcelona from the moment I arrived here as a teenager and my heart will always be with the club.
I like to think I am an ordinary person that enjoys football and tries to do his best, always with the aim of enjoying it
For the last six years or so, there hasn’t been a better team in the world in terms of calibre than Argentina. So why haven’t they set the world on fire then? Too many stars?Too much flair? Or that old criticism — the players are so good they are wrung dry by their clubs and have nothing to offer when the World Cup happens? I’d actually go with bits of all those criticisms and then some. Argentina has had too many stars, stars with their own ways of playing, which won’t mesh with team strategy in the short time that the players have with each other before the World Cup. It’s a problem all big teams share. But throw in a bunch of stars into that equation and you have an additional issue to deal with: convincing them to be flexible about their styles. And this is truer of the Latin American players, because they are forced to adapt to the European style of play for their clubs anyway. How else can one explain the failure of the team in 2006? Messi, Maxi Rodriguez, Riquelme, Tevez, Crespo, Cambiasso, Aimar, Julio Cruz, Saviola, Mascherano and Palacio; it should have been a goal-scoring machine. For one 90-minute whirl, it was, as Serbia and Montenegro was blanked 6-0.
Against Mexico in the second round, when Rodriguez scored the goal of the tournament, you knew that with all these scorers, goals would come. That Argentina would concede goals, but they would score even more. Then they were faced with Germany in the quarterfinals and they had no room to manoeuvre. And when the game reached the tie-breaker, you knew that Germany had bagged it already.
Since that edition of the World Cup, only two things have changed for the Argentines, but these are two huge things. One, Lionel Messi has come to be by far the best footballer in the world today. Two, Diego Maradona has become the coach. If Messi’s meteoric rise is Argentina’s strength, the team’s biggest stumbling block could well be Maradona. One of the first things he achieved was to put off playmaking genius Riquelme. Riquelme has sworn not to play for Argentina as long as Maradona is around. Passion is not Maradona’s problem. His problem, very simply, is the absence of a strategic mind. To Maradona scoring goals or dazzling the opposition came too easy. He did it on his own in 1986 and almost pulled it off again in 1990. To him, to borrow Shane Warne’s quote, a coach’s job is to ferry the team from the hotel to the ground.
Well, not quite, seeing that he is the coach now. But essentially, Maradona doesn’t believe in strategies. Argentine practice sessions, even as the team struggled to qualify for the World Cup, resembled a school team’s weekend schedule: boys running around doing what they wanted, Maradona doing keepie-uppies, little flicks here and there… grandstanding as only he can.
Even the loss of the Argentine team this time around won’t dim Maradona’sshine, he’s far too much of a national symbol. But if the team is to succeed, Maradona must play the same role that Carlos Bilardo played in 1986 — keep the team together, don’t interfere too much, let Maradona be Maradona. In 2010, Maradona has to let Messi be Messi. Messi is almost as good as Maradona was; Maradona has to be as good as Bilardo. There’s no delicate way to say that.