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In his suite at the Royal Monceau hotel in Paris, Leo Messi is learning to live outside Barcelona. In 20 years at FC Barcelona, he won the Golden Ball for world’s best player six times. Until August 5, the 34-year-old Argentine expected to continue his small-town dad’s existence in placid coastal Catalonia. But then a financially stricken Barça admitted it couldn’t offer him a new contract.
He cried, then joined Paris St-Germain — which, like the Royal Monceau, is owned by the Qatari state. Messi has joined Qatar’s scheme to “sportswash” its global reputation. On a personal level, he and his wife and three sons may struggle with their unwanted move. But on the field, he will keep displaying his uniquely reliable genius.
His father Jorge was a manager in a steel factory in Rosario, Argentina, but after the tiny 13-year-old wowed Barça at a trial training session, the Messis inverted their family structure: the youngest son became the migrant breadwinner.
Messi’s parents and three siblings moved to Catalonia with him, all sobbing in the taxi to Rosario airport. Barça paid the family €120,000 a year, and funded the growth hormones that took Messi to his adult height of 1.70 metres. In Barcelona, his brother Rodrigo later admitted, “we didn’t adapt very well. We were united, but one person did something and the others nothing. So we all suffered in different ways.”
Messi grew up almost outside society, the joint creation of a family and Barcelona’s football academy. As a teenager, he wore nothing but tracksuits, only ever attempted to read one book, a biography of Diego Maradona (which he didn’t finish), and barely spoke.
The academy’s coaches couldn’t persuade him to play Barça’s passing game. Messi preferred beating teams alone. His short steps aided his solo runs: because his feet touch the ground so often, he can change direction quicker than big opponents, evading them like a dog escaping policemen in an old silent movie.
Only at about 21, playing for Barcelona’s first team, did he show he had absorbed his youthful passing lessons. Messi became the ideal footballer: a great individualist in the Argentino-Brazilian tradition and also a great collective player.
Roger Federer, his equivalent in tennis, says: “What I love about Messi probably most is when he gets the ball and is able to turn the body towards goal. Then you know he’s going to play a good pass, or dribble, or just shoot. There’s always three options for him.” Federer notes that great footballers and tennis players face the problem of choice: if you can do anything, what should you do in any given moment? Messi eventually mastered decision-making.
He projected his personality only inside Barça. Teammates, coaches and club presidents feared him. For 15 years, Barcelona pursued a “Messi strategy” of fulfilling his wishes. When he wanted the expensive Swedish signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic benched, it was done. The obscurities Tata Martino and Tito Vilanova were chosen to manage Barcelona largely because Messi liked them.
The flipside of power was that Messi felt personally responsible for Barça’s results. Quique Setién, briefly Barcelona’s head coach, diagnosed in him a permanent anxiety fuelled by the pressure to win. For years, Messi did: he helped his glorious Barcelona team lift four Champions Leagues.
Meanwhile, palm trees, white walls and bougainvillea shielded his family in their compound in Castelldefels. He would ferry his children to the local British school, and enjoy family meals at a secluded table in a Castelldefels restaurant. The townspeople left him alone. He once said that raising young sons, he felt “destroyed” by evening, and went to bed early. An introvert, he has a small circle of friends. Uninterested in reaching out, he has preserved his Rosario accent and never learned Catalan.
He experiences the outside world mostly as a mass of people filming him with their phones. He has learned to ignore it. Inside his clan, his role is to play football while his father-cum-agent, who fancies himself as a businessman, handles finances.
The son probably didn’t know he was evading taxes until a judge convicted him and Jorge in 2016. He also probably didn’t realise that his father’s constant demands for wage rises were draining Barça. From 2017 through to this June, the club paid Messi a total of €555m — about as much as an entire top-class team. His salary, Barcelona’s disastrous transfer policy and the pandemic left the club with debts of €1.2bn and an ageing mediocre team.
After last August’s 8-2 thrashing by Bayern Munich in the Champions League, Messi decided to leave. But when he told his wife and sons, they wept. “It was a drama,” he admitted. The boys didn’t want to make new friends at a new school abroad. Barcelona stopped him leaving then, and the family’s reaction encouraged him to stay this summer. He even agreed to halve his pay, until Barça pushed him out.
Paris St-Germain should suit him: better teammates, a largely Latin American changing-room, and the chance to win trophies that this competitor needs.
Messi contributed to Barcelona’s demise. But he surely contributes more to global happiness. Every week, his accessible genius uplifts people everywhere.
The writer is an FT columnist and author of the new book ‘Barça: The Inside Story of the World’s Greatest Football Club’