• Angel Hoyos coached Lionel Messi at Barcelona from 2000 to 2003
  • Explained to his bosses how good Messi was, comparing him with Diego Maradona
  • Days before The Best Awards he says: "He is the best ever"

“I don’t usually speak about Leo Messi,” said Angel Guillermo Hoyos, who is, as it happens, one of the people best qualified to talk about Lionel Messi. Despite that reluctance, the Argentinian coach, who was the first to compare the Blaugrana No10 to Diego Maradona, agreed to speak to FIFA.com in the lead-up to The Best FIFA Football Awards™ 2017, where Messi is in the running for The Best FIFA Men’s Player award.

“Comparisons are odious, and you try not to make them, but at the time I saw a lot of similarities between him and the Diego that burst on the scene and starred with Argentinos Juniors and Boca, the Diego that just went past people and didn’t fall over, the Diego they could never knock down, the eternal Diego,” said Hoyos, with no little emotion in his voice.

Now head coach at Universidad de Chile, Hoyos was in charge of one of Barcelona’s youth sides back in 2000. Finding it difficult to express exactly what he saw in that diminutive 13-year-old Argentinian kid, Hoyos felt he had no option but to liken him to Maradona. 

“I’d never seen a player like him before and the only way I could get that across to my bosses at Barcelona was by saying that,” explained Hoyos. “I remember them asking me: ‘But you really think he’s like him?’ And I told them: ‘That’s what I see, but you’ll have to make your own minds up.’”

What memories do you have of the three years you spent with Messi?
His modesty and the way he wanted to learn, which was very natural. That was his hallmark and he showed it all the time. And he’s just the same today: very down to earth. Then there was the impression he made on you, the amazing way he played and everything it aroused in you, how he enjoyed running with the ball. It gave me pleasure and it still does today. That’s why he is what he is. He’s still that kid who just plays and plays, who’s in love with the sport.

You see him as a leader now, but was that your view of him back then too?
Leo is a silent leader. He’s never going to leave you on your own. Yes, I did see that in him when we were at Barça because he’s always been a leader. He’s broad-minded enough to grasp the concept. He’s not a self-centred leader. He leads for everyone through the way he plays the game, by shouldering the burden and making it lighter for the team as a whole. He’s very team-minded and that’s an everyday lesson for all of us. He’s a leader in a healthy way, like Zidane. He’s been coaching for three years and he’s won the lot. You watch him and he does things without making a noise. He’s watches his step. There’s barely a ripple on the surface of the water.

How do you think he’s developed as a footballer?
He has a perfect command of every concept of the game, every creative aspect of it. And when it comes to decision-making, he anticipates everything that can happen. There’s no limit to what he can do. He’s always developing his game. I don’t know if we’re ever going to see another player like him.

Pep Guardiola said a little while ago that he’s the greatest player of all time, by a distance. What’s your view?
That’s the way I see it too, and I say that with the utmost respect for everyone else. There’s Diego, [Alfredo] Di Stefano, [Johan] Cruyff, [Franz] Beckenbauer and Pele, but it’s 2017 and there’s so much competition that you can’t ever relax. It’s so competitive. You get all these programmes telling you where he’s going to go and where he’s not going to go, and he goes and surprises you. And he keeps doing it more and more. Football’s a harder game to play today than it was in the past. It’s impossible that he keeps making such a big difference Sunday after Sunday. He’s scored more than 700 goals, which is ridiculous. He’s like a great artist or scientist. We’re going to have to study his brain.

Beckenbauer and Lothar Matthaus both started out in midfield before adopting deeper positions. Can you see Messi doing the same?
Leo started out on the right, but now he pops up in all kinds of positions, picking up possession on the flank, winning the ball like a defensive midfielder, darting forward like a pacy No9, dropping back 15 or 20 metres, and so on. I can see him doing whatever he wants from the position where he feels happiest. Players are very versatile today. They can pop up in a position and disappear from it just as quickly. 

The Best award will be presented to last season’s most outstanding player on Monday. Who would you give it to out of Cristiano, Neymar and Messi?
If it just came down to silverware, then it’s a pretty obvious choice (in reference to the titles won by Ronaldo). But I’d give it to Leo for what he gives to the world, for his values too. That’s also part of the game.

Did you know?

  • Hoyos was a team-mate of Diego Maradona’s at the Argentina training camp prior to the FIFA U-20 World Cup Japan 1979. He did not make the squad for the tournament, however.
  • He played for 13 clubs in all, among them Boca Juniors and Real Madrid Castilla.
  • He coached Bolivia for six games during the qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™.