Time flies: Lionel Messi marks 10th anniversary of his Barcelona debut
October 14, 2014 10:47:25 AM PDT
By Graham Hunter

Carles Puyol has a way to describe Lionel Messi, and, even after 10 years, I don't have a better one. After many seasons of watching him in bafflement and admiration, Puyol, the former Barcelona centre-back, simply reckons that "there's a special part of Messi's brain allowing him to see the split-second chaos of football in his own personal super slow motion."

While we all watch Messi produce divine moments of what appear to be divine intervention, at what to us is absolutely breathtaking speed, the genius Argentinian will pick off moves and feints at what feels like walking pace to him while everyone around him seems almost stood still.

It's a delicious concept. If only he could also make time stand still in his career. At least that's how I feel.

Messi is 27, only just in fact, but with the 10th anniversary of his professional debut -- 10 full years of my career watching him, talking to him, writing about him, admiring him -- you also get a reminder of tempus fugit.

I know, it seems ludicrous to talk about it, but I'm aware he'll score more goals, lift more trophies and amaze us some more, then we'll blink a couple of times ... and, one day, we'll all have to live in a duller, more monochrome, entirely "human" football world once again.No Messi.

Far away I hope, but what a horrible prospect. And it's one you have to confront when you spend a large chunk of your working life around a genius.

Ten years in a rarified atmosphere, working at altitude. Dizzying, heady, testing, hypnotic -- but not forever.

(The process of beginning to say adios to Barcelona's Xavi has dramatically emphasized what a hole it can leave in your working life when a true genius morphs into a mortal again.)

The commission to write about a decade spent as an extremely minor moon revolving around Messi's solar system nudges a realization (which is actually never far away) to the front of your subconscious, the realization that getting this much privileged access to someone who is literally a football prodigy is not just enjoyable, not just the lucky break of all lucky breaks -- it's life affirming.

Being this near to Messi since he trotted on to play against Espanyol at the Olympic Stadium in Barcelona on Oct. 16, 2004, has been a guarantee that something uplifting, something electric, is usually only as far away as his next match. 

On that day in 2004, a 17-year-old Messi came on for one of his great sponsors in the first-team squad, Deco. The midfielder, Ronaldinho, Thiago Motta and Sylvinho became his greatest patrons and protectors -- just as Gerard Pique had been throughout their shared junior career, happily roughing up anyone who tried brutish tactics with the wee man. Despite being on the pitch for only seven minutes, Messi showed why he'd been promoted through Juvenil A, Barca B and then the senior team in a matter of months. He produced jinks and dribbles and tried to head the ball out of the hands of Carlos Kameni.

Anyone who tells you now that his debut was sufficient to indicate that an all-time great had arrived is lying. Anyone who'd watched him closely in the three or four seasons before this era-defining moment just might have known the world of football was about to change.

A decade of brilliance 

Most of us need to work out our career seeking real satisfaction wherever one can find it -- often, it's in short supply, right? A job well done, a team project completed, a long-term promotion earned -- sometimes simply clinging on to paid employment.

Writing or talking about football is a hard-won privilege, but it becomes stratospherically good when your peak coincides with an extraterrestrial footballer like Messi.

(And when there's Xavi in the same team and Cristiano Ronaldo playing for Madrid during the same era, you can forget filling in a lottery ticket every week because you've had your jackpot luck already.)

Most of us who do this job realize our great fortune, but Messi adds something different. He is like the human spirit in boots. It's like watching a microcosm of life played out in front of your eyes every week.

This kid who just wants to control the ball and use it to win the game is obstructed at every turn. He's fouled, plotted against, put off his stride, he'll suffer nerves (almost only when taking penalties, he's admitted to me), he'll get ill, or injured, people will queue up to try and prevent him finding his destiny ... but he prevails -- over and over and over again.

That's why I say watching Messi is so life-affirming.

The equivalent of almost every obstacle we all have to face in our lives -- nastiness, stupidity, obstructiveness, boredom, physical and mental tests -- they are all here, too. Over the past 10 years: home, away, in a neutral venue; on a billiard table pitch; on a potato-patch surface; against good players; against muscle-bound athletes, in the face of some decent refereeing; some inept officials; when his colleagues are playing well or badly; when he's happier than a turkey with a good hiding place around yuletide; when he's a bit in the huff -- all these times he'll come up with peerless solutions to vault every single barrier mankind can construct against him. A sprint, a dribble, a defence-splitting pass, a goal -- a moment of sublime inspiration which injects optimism and joie-de-vivre into his teammates and fans.

You think you've seen it all before, and then he'll still astonish you.

You only have to ask Ronaldinho. Although I interviewed him only twice in that coveted one-on-one situation, I was almost equally fortunate to be chronicling Ronaldinho's entire Barcelona career. Also a 24-karat genius, the Brazilian did things on the pitch which I'd never witnessed before; he carried the new Barca on his back for a couple years.

He was also a great mentor and patron to the scruffy, little Argentinian kid who was, quite obviously, going to spend about a month or two before moving from Dauphin to Sun King.

Ronaldinho was immediately in awe of Messi.

But the real reason I mention Ronaldinho was that while the Brazilian was utterly remarkable, Messi has always possessed much more in his game which will make me gasp with surprise or feel the natural urge to get up from my press seat and applaud. It's not the done thing, it looks partisan.

Yet Messi's utterly remarkable, explosive, high-velocity vapor trails away from a clutch of three or four opponents before scoring have left me involuntarily applauding in sheer amazement more often than any other player.

I've interviewed Messi one-on-one around a dozen times.

From the very first Adidas invitation to a warehouse in the Ciutadella Olimpica neighborhood of the city where a clutch of the sports manufacturers' stars were being trundled around batches of media, to a series of interviews in later years in which he's shown how much more relaxed, how much more humorous he's grown over the decade, it's never been less than interesting listening to him.

Over the years it feels to me like Messi has told me some relatively interesting things, such as:

How he wishes his career choice hadn't cost him his chance to go mucking about with his pals in Bariloche, the ski resort which he reckoned had been a coming-of-age ritual for many of his age in Argentina; his tears at leaving his neighborhood in Rosario for Spain first time; his fears that it had all been lies when he was told Barcelona would look after his family; his regret at having a hissy fit in Paris for being left on the bench (for fitness reasons, according to his manager, Frank Rijkaard) and then refusing to celebrate with the team after they won the 2006 Champions League trophy; his occasional penalty-spot nerves; how some of the hacking hurts like hell early in a match, but by the time he's fully involved in a contest he'll barely feel the fouls; the degree to which suffering a series of consecutive injuries is debilitating to his morale. Stuff like that.

But, obviously, it's what he does on the pitch that has been inspirational these 10 years. 

Look back at those days. While Messi broke through as a winger under senior-team manager Rijkaard, it's obvious his current position, which has now become more like a No. 10 than his false 9 role, is simply a reprise of how he played aged 15 and 16. Deep lying, full of searing passes and, often, a dribble past three or four players from the middle of the pitch. Not a winger, not a false 9 -- almost identical to where and how he plays today.

I'll never forget his first hat trick against Madrid in 2007 when he took a 10-man Barcelona side to a 3-3 draw in the 90th minute, his looping header over Manchester United keeper Edwin Van Der Sar in the 2009 Champions League final or the Maradona-like slalom run against Getafe in the Copa del Rey in 2007. Nor that remarkable night in 2011 in the Bernabeu when Pep Guardiola's Barcelona beat Madrid 0-2 in the Champions League semifinal. It's rare, even in this massive beast known as El Clasico, for there to be many travelling fans. Part tradition, partly to do with kickoff times, partly to do with the fact there's no guaranteed minimum quota for away fans in La Liga.

But there is in UEFA competition. Several thousand Barca fans were behind the goal when, with three minutes left and leading 0-1, Messi ran from the halfway line, dribbled past six players and scored the goal which effectively put Barcelona back in the Champions League final only days after losing the Copa final to Mourinho's Real Madrid.

The roar -- part astonishment, part exultation -- from the travelling Catalans at Bernabeu was extraordinary. It wasn't aimed at the Madrid crowd in defiance or to taunt. It was just a collective Dios Mio. Primal.

But back to that Copa final, the one in which Messi wept like a little kid after losing to Los Blancos 1-0. It was during this match that Messi produced what I recall as one of his most amazing moments ever -- another incredible, unstoppable dribble which led to him feeding Pedro, whose goal was ruled offside by less than the breadth of a cat's whisker.

Watch the Messi run again on the Internet if you can. It's extraordinary.

After the match, Guardiola commented about how tight the call had been, which led to Mourinho mocking him ahead of the Champions League semifinal. That, in turn, led to Pep's infamous "Puto Amo" invective aimed at Mourinho, an incendiary comment that transfixed the football world and helped inspire his wounded players to victory in the Champions League. You see, even in failure, even when only creating an offside goal, Lionel Messi's impact has been volcanic.

For Messi, it's all about the football 

It's not been my intention, simply because we are celebrating an important anniversary, to suggest that Messi is perfect -- either as a person or a footballer.

But one of the things we've learned over these 10 years is that he's almost devoid of what has usually shackled men who've been given gifts like his. Some get bored, some become self-indulgent, others lose their hunger or get embroiled in the high life and some suffer injury. There's usually some sort of major flaw, most often an inability to cope with the relentless pressure.

What I admire is the fact that Messi has been able to assume increasing levels of team leadership, that he's maintained personal discipline, that he's as hungry to win, to influence a game and to ensure that those he respects around him get to convert chances as he ever was.

Over the years, we've seen the balance tip from 100 percent pure instinct toward intelligence and judgment. For sure, Messi is a shrewder footballer now.

Perhaps we've seen some intolerance for players of whom he's not particularly fond, some impatience with those not on his wavelength. But that floppy-haired kid who was still far from having the physical frame of a grown-up footballer has, over time, become accustomed to being able to do paranormal things with the ball and not let it affect him as a person. It's been a hell of a ride so far.

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