As the countdown continues to the inauguaral FIFA Ballon d’Or, the unified award that merges the FIFA World Player of the Year and France Football's Ballon d’Or, FIFA.com spoke exclusively to Argentina’s Lionel Messi, the recipient of both honours last year. Once again in the running this time around, the Barça superstar discussed a range of issues, including the 2010 FIFA World Cup™, his extensive charity work and his country’s upcoming friendly against Brazil.
Don’t miss the second part of this interview coming your way on Tuesday 16 November, with Messi giving his verdict on the Barcelona-Real Madrid clásico, Jose Mourinho and much more.
FIFA.com: Lionel, you often talk in interviews about being motivated by new challenges, though surely there is not much left for you to win?
Lionel Messi: That’s true, I’ve gone about achieving all the objectives I’ve set myself except for the World Cup. I was really annoyed at the way we went out against Germany. It was a really harsh blow because we were expecting so much more, but everything started unravelling for us at the worst moment. I thought that we could have gone far, so it was a shame.
Your Barcelona team-mates Xavi and Andres Iniesta have admitted they were relieved to see Argentina knocked out by Germany. They felt La Albiceleste would have been tougher semi-final opponents.
It’s true. We didn’t go into the tournament on song, but we improved with each game and hit good form. We’d earned the respect of everybody thanks to the football we’d played and our results. And I think they (Xavi and Iniesta) know that Argentina are always difficult opponents, whatever form they’re in. We proved that in the friendly game we played in Buenos Aires, when we thrashed Spain.
Are your Spanish colleagues favourites to claim the FIFA Ballon d’Or?
It’s clear to me that the World Cup will have a big impact on the final decision this year, which is going to give them an edge. If I don’t win then I sincerely hope that it goes to one of my Barça colleagues. All the odds are in favour of Xavi and Iniesta and to be honest they’re great people and great players who deserve it more than anybody.
Who would give the FIFA Men’s Football Coach of the Year award to?
I’ll go with my team again, I’ll stick with my colours. I’d vote for Pep Guardiola, not just because of the trophies we’ve won but because of his commitment and footballing philosophy. And also because of what his arrival in the Barça dugout has meant. Nor have I forgotten Jose Mourinho who, aside from the treble he won with Inter [Milan], has begun changing the face of Real Madrid. But going back to the World Cup again, that’s going to be decisive and for that reason Vicente del Bosque and Joachim Low come to the fore. I just don’t know, there are some great nominees but I think those four are in with the best chance.
You said recently that you feel like people use you to create rifts within the Argentina squad. Is that really how you feel?
Of course, it seems like people want to blame me for everything. Whenever any issue arises I’m said to have been involved even if I’ve had nothing to do with it. That’s why I always focus on what I know, which is playing football, and try to be very careful with what I say because people always try and twist things. They try and look for hidden meanings where there aren’t any, which irritates me. I repeat what I always say: I want the best for Argentina in every way. I never try to make trouble for anybody.
Have you spoken to Diego Maradona recently?
Yes, we chatted not long ago. I was very happy under Diego, just like I am now under [Sergio] ‘El Checho’ Batista. I’m just like any of the other players that are part of the national squad, I concentrate on playing – I’m just a footballer. Issues involving the AFA (Argentinian Football Association) are for other people to take care of. They’re the ones who make the decisions, it has nothing to do with me.
Away from football, how well did you and Maradona get on?
Really well. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: we had a very good relationship and we still do. People always have something to say, while there are third parties who want to alter the facts and can cause confusion. But I repeat that during the World Cup in South Africa we got on spectacularly well.
Are La Albiceleste in the process of a generational overhaul?
Definitely. We’re a group of players that know each other well, that won Olympic gold together in Beijing and which even has the same coach as back then. In the team that won the final was [Sergio] Romero; [Pablo] Zabaleta, [Ezequiel] Garay, [Nicolas] Pareja, [Luciano] Monzon; [Fernando] Gago, [Javier] Mascherano, [Angel] Di Maria, [Juan Roman] Riquelme; [Sergio] ‘El Kun’ Aguero and me, with [Ever] Banega, [Ezequiel] Lavezzi and [Jose] Sosa coming on as subs. The majority of us who were there (in Beijing) are still in the senior squad and also travelled to the World Cup in South Africa.
Do you think Riquelme will come back into the frame?
As I always say: there’s always room for great players. But I repeat that the decision’s not down to me. I’ve got no problem (with Riquelme), but that kind of decision will be down to Batista.
Tell us your thoughts on Javier Pastore.
He’s come on leaps and bounds at Palermo. I didn’t know much about him when he played for Huracan, but I got to see his quality first-hand at the World Cup, even though he didn’t play much. We played alongside each other (in 8 October’s 1-0 friendly defeat) in Japan and we struck up a good understanding. You can see he’s tough, he’s physically fit and he’s going to go far – I’m convinced of it.
I assume your ultimate goal is Brazil 2014, but the 2011 Copa America is the next major item on Argentina’s agenda.
Yes, no doubt about it. The Copa America is going to be very important for us because we’re playing at home and that puts twice the pressure on us to aim for the title. We have to do our jobs very well and win it.
Which rival teams are the biggest threat?
Brazil, as always, and a Uruguay side that did very in South Africa with Luis Suarez and Diego Forlan up front, backed up by a compact unit. I’ve not forgotten Paraguay either, whose defensive prowess makes them uncomfortable opponents for any team. They really made Spain sweat at the World Cup. Then there’s Chile too, though I don’t know how [Marcelo] Bielsa’s departure is going to affect them. They’re all very strong national teams and dangerous opponents.
On the subject of Brazil, you’re set to come up against them in a friendly on 17 November.
That’s right and I’m particularly looking forward to this match. We already came up against them at Olympics in Beijing and beat them 3-0. It’ll be special thanks to the team we’re playing and also the fact I’ll come face to face with Ronaldinho, a person I’ve got great affection for. To me he’s truly like a brother and someone who, along with Deco, helped me so much when I was starting out at Barça. I care about them a lot and always wish them the best. Do you know what? I’ve never beaten Brazil with Argentina’s senior side, including that defeat in the Copa America final in Venezuela (in 2007). I think it’s about time I broke my duck! (laughs)
What New Year’s resolutions will you be making for 2011?
The same as last year: to win as much as I possibly can. I’m always aiming for more titles, especially one which would be my first (senior trophy) with Argentina: the Copa America. And I also hope that I can stay clear of injuries.
Moving away from football slightly, and it’s clear you do a lot of charity work. Can you tell us more about it?
It’s the Foundation that carries my name (La Fundación Leo Messi). My dad Jorge and my brother Rodrigo both work there, as do a lot of other people. For my part, I try to do my bit to make people’s lives more bearable, in particular children across the globe who are having problems.
Prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, you took part in a FIFA campaign aimed at helping South African children.
Yes, the Football for Health campaign. Everything that’s focused towards children is good because at that age they soak up everything, and if we can help then all the better. It’s not just me, other footballers must do so too. There are a lot of players who also have foundations, schools or even hospitals in their native countries.
An adidas campaign is coming up, your Foundation has set up a children’s park for sick children at the Valle Hebron Hospital in Barcelona and it sponsors an exchange programme between doctors in Barcelona and your hometown Rosario. What can you tell us about these projects?
I don’t know the details yet, but the adidas thing will be more focused on South America. There are children who suffer from exploitation and need all our support to be able to get an education, so that once they’re adults they have a chance in life. The doctor idea came from my dad: we’re going to give a grant to several doctors to enable them to finish their training here (in Barcelona). That way they can go back and put what they’ve learnt into practice in our homeland. And the park project is something important that we want to extend to other centres too. A Christmas visit we made to the hospital had a huge impact on me, that’s where the idea came from and a lot of people have got involved. Thank God, a lot of projects are coming to fruition.
This charitable streak is a characteristic you share with your good friend Ronaldinho, who is also known for his charity work with children.
There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing a happy and smiling child. I always help in any way I can, even if it’s just by signing an autograph. A child’s smile is worth more than all the money in the world.