Life could not be much sweeter for Lionel Messi at the moment. The Argentinian wizard won everything there was to win with Barcelona last season and is playing a central part in their impressive progress this term. Inspired by the mercurial playmaker, the reigning Spanish and European champions stand top of La Liga, are poised to advance to the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League and will shortly set off on their quest to land the FIFA Club World Cup crown.
Displaying his usual modesty, Leo spoke exclusively to FIFA.com about Barcelona’s rich vein of form, the upcoming FIFA Club World Cup – one of the few trophies the Catalans have yet to win – and Argentina’s chances of success at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010™.
FIFA.com: Lionel, we now know the draw for South Africa 2010. Can Argentina win the title?
Lionel Messi: We need to take things step by step, and we need to be calm and focus on each game. If we’re going to go all the way, then we have to win games first before we can start thinking about winning championships.
La Albiceleste had their problems in qualifying for the finals. How do you see the team at the moment?
We’ve only just started a new phase with the national team. Now the qualifiers are over we feel a little more relaxed and we’ll start to see a major change in the way the team plays. We have all the time between now and the World Cup in which to work and to grow, and I think we’re going to see a significant change.
You played FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking leaders Spain a few weeks ago. What did you learn from the game?
It was a good match. They were the better side in the first half but we improved a lot in the second and we had our chances to win it too. It was a good test for both sides. Spain play in a similar way to Barcelona. They have some absolutely fantastic players and there’s no doubt they play some lovely football.
It’s one title the club has never won and it’s one title that’s eluded most of the players at Barça.
Are they one of the favourites for South Africa 2010?
To my mind Spain are the best side in the world today. They play the best football, get the best results and no one looks as secure as them. They have so much confidence right now and that’s essential for any team going into a major tournament.
Let’s move on to Barcelona, who have the FIFA Club World Cup coming up in Abu Dhabi, a very important competition. Are you excited about the chance to win another title before the year ends?
It’s one title the club has never won and it’s one title that’s eluded most of the players at Barça. It’s also the last competition of what’s been a historic 2009 and we want to end the year in style. On a personal level, I’m really looking forward to it because it will help me keep on developing. It’s a big incentive for me to keep on winning trophies with Barcelona and to play in the World Cup in the summer.
You were injured the last time Barcelona appeared in the tournament in 2006. Do you think the team learned things it might find useful this time round?
Yes, unfortunately I picked up an injury just before the tournament and I had to watch it in Argentina. I think the most important lesson we’ve learned is not to be over-confident and to get to know our opponents in depth. The last time we maybe thought that the other sides were a bit below us and that’s something we can’t afford to let happen again if we want to be champions.
If we’re going to go all the way, then we have to win games first before we can start thinking about winning championships.
Do you know much about your possible opponents in Abu Dhabi?
No, not yet to be honest. But when the time comes the coach will make sure we know everything we need to know. There’s nothing that’s left to chance here. Obviously, being Argentinian I know a bit more about Estudiantes. They’re a team that likes to play good football and they have some great players. They also press a lot and they do it well, and they’ve got La Bruja (Juan Sebastian Veron), of course. He’s their linchpin and he sets the tempo for them.
This is the first time the tournament has been held in the United Arab Emirates. Do you know anything about that part of the world?
No, no, but it interests me. It’s always good to get to know new places and it’s also the first time the competition has been held outside Japan for many years. It would be good if Barcelona could become the first champions in this new phase in its history. Even so, I don’t think we’ll have that much time to see much of the place. We usually go from the hotel to the stadium and from the stadium to the hotel. We’re not there to stroll around but to play, to do our job and win the tournament.
It could be your first trophy of the 2009/10 season and the start of another historic year perhaps.
For sure. It’s important for us to win it and keep picking up trophies, and it will also help us maintain confidence in ourselves and in the way that we play. Even so, we still have a lot of other competitions to go for and a lot of games to play. Winning in Abu Dhabi doesn’t mean to say we’re going to go and win the rest. Like I said, we need to take each game as it comes. That’s the best way to win things.
Barcelona have been playing some wonderful football, though. Is this the best team you have ever played in?
I don’t know. I was lucky enough to be involved when we won the Champions in 2006, which was another fantastic period for the club. We had some absolutely brilliant players like Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto’o. I was fortunate enough to be in that team and it was a wonderful time because of what we were, the players that we had and what we achieved. That team was fantastic and so is this one. They’ve both have won a lot of things and I can’t choose between them.
One last question. You've already won France Football’s Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year is going to be announced in a couple of weeks. Is this going to be the year you finally win it?
I hope it is. This is the third time that I’ve been in with a chance and I hope it’s third time lucky for me (laughs).