There is little that has not already been said about Lionel Messi. The winner of the FIFA Ballon d’Or for the last two years, the amiable Argentinian star is regarded almost unanimously as the greatest player in the world today and the figurehead of the all-powerful Barcelona, his place in the footballing firmament long since secure.
Despite winning virtually everything there is to win, however, Messi refuses to rest on his laurels and has many more objectives in sight, starting with next weekend’s clásico meeting with Real Madrid and the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2011. Discussing those challenges and more, he settled down for an exclusive chat with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: The FIFA World Club Cup is approaching fast. How do you feel about it?
Lionel Messi: It’s great to play in a Club World Cup and it’s an important tournament for us. We’ve got some lovely memories of the last one we played in and we can’t wait to experience that again and celebrate in the same style.
Some of your team-mates have said that you’re under the obligation to win in it? Do you share that view?
We’re always under the obligation to win. To my mind it’s a really important tournament and we’ll try to come out on top, just as we always do. We can’t afford to relax either. Everyone thought the two favourites were going to reach the final last time and Internacional fell short.
Will the long flight and time difference affect you?
I think we’ll have the time to adapt. We’re going out there a few days early and what with all the trips to Argentina and South America we’re used to all the travelling. I don’t think there’ll be a problem.
A lot’s been said about the number of games you and your team-mates have to play, and you’ve got a big one coming up against Real Madrid. Do you think you can peak for that match and then again in Japan?
We know what we’re capable of and how far we can go. We’ve got a lot of games to get through, that’s true, and it’s never easy to play one match after the other and maintain top form. We really don’t care what people are saying, though. We’re staying cool, calm and collected, and like I said, nobody knows what this team’s capable of better than we do.
Pep Guardiola has been using a 3-4-3 formation in the last few games. What’s your view on that?
It means we’ve got more people in midfield and more possession of the ball, which is what the boss wants. We know that if we have the ball, we can hurt the opposition and stop them from hurting us. Having an extra man in the middle makes that easier for us.
Guardiola’s been in charge at Barcelona for two years now. How would you assess his reign so far?
He’s a key figure. His leadership is so important to us not just in the day-to-day but in the way he prepares games and keeps us motivated. His attention to detail also makes a huge difference. When he came in, for example, he decided that we should start having lunch at the club and that the doctors and our kinesiologist should keep a closer eye on us. That’s been the big difference and it’s made us much stronger individually and as a team.
Your movement off the ball seems to have improved a lot in the last two years. Would you agree with that?
Yes, but you also have to bear in mind that we all go back a long way here at Barcelona. We’ve been playing together for a long time and we virtually know where the ball’s going two or three passes in advance.
How do you see Saturday’s crucial game against Real Madrid?
It’s going to be a fantastic match. Obviously it’s vital we get a good result because it’ll set us up for the rest of the season. If we don’t, then we’re not going to have much time to relax because we’ve got the trip to Japan coming up, which is very important for us too.
You’re in with a chance of winning the FIFA Ballon d’Or for a third time in January. How much does that motivate you?
As I’ve always said, it’s great to win individual awards, especially the prestigious ones, but what comes first for me is winning matches and titles. There are going to be a lot of my team-mates in that list too, just like the last few years.
Moving on to Argentina now, it’s been a year of ups and downs, hasn’t it?
We’re feeling a bit more relaxed now. There was a lot of pressure on us after the draw with Bolivia and it was vital to beat Colombia and calm things down a bit. Now we’ve got a break till June, when we’ve just got the one game, against Ecuador, rather than the two we used to have. That’ll help us to get our preparations right and keep pushing on with our qualification campaign.
One last question, and a slightly more personal one. Tell us a little bit about the role football’s played in your life off the pitch.
When I was a kid I always had a ball with me wherever I went, and not just on the pitch, but absolutely everywhere. We were inseparable. Things are different now and I try and switch off a little, though with a game every three days that’s never easy. That’s what I try and do though, focus on my family and put football to one side whenever I finish training or the final whistle blows.