Argentina’s Lionel Messi is undisputedly one of the most popular sporting personalities on the planet right now, with his goals played and replayed countless times in every corner of the globe and shirts with his name on donned by kids in even the unlikeliest of places. Not that the Rosario-born superstar, who has recently turned 25, has let any of it go to his head.
On the contrary, in fact, with his interview responses revealing him to be extremely reserved off the pitch – a far cry from the breathtaking and eye-catching performer that lights up the field when turning out for FC Barcelona or La Albiceleste. Just moments prior to collecting his fourth consecutive FIFA Ballon d’Or, the man who in 2012 set an all-time record for goals scored in a calendar year spoke to FIFA.com about an up-and-down 12 months.
On the agenda in this exclusive interview were such topics as Argentina’s fine current form, the change in attitudes towards him in his homeland and his hopes for full recoveries for Barça colleagues Eric Abidal and Tito Vilanova.
FIFA.com: You’ve come to the FIFA Ballon d’Or Gala for six years in a row now. Does coming to this kind of event become something of a habit or does it always feel exciting?
Lionel Messi: To be honest, it hasn’t become a habit for me. Even though these events are similar or practically the same, every year is special. Just being here is always different: it’s always a lovely feeling knowing what days like this mean. And, what’s more, it’s a sign that you’re doing a good job.
When you first came back in 2007 you were a shy, long-haired youngster, but you’ve changed an awful lot since then, right?
So much! It’s true yes, a lot of things have happened to me and obviously I’ve grown up both as a player and a person. That was a lot of years ago, the first time I came I would’ve been 18 or 19. I’ve become more mature, my personality has developed and my career has taken shape. Loads of things have changed.
Diego Maradona often says that after the 2008 FIFA Ballon d’Or, when you finished second to Cristiano Ronaldo, he told you never to finish second again. Is that really the case?
To tell the truth I can’t even remember when Diego told me that (laughs), but it’s true that I went on to win the next three after that. Just being here is spectacular.
You set a new record by scoring 91 goals over the course of 2012. If you had to highlight just one of them, which would it be?
Like I’ve said many times before, I’m always more likely to remember goals for their importance rather than if they’re beautiful or not. Goals scored in finals for example. So, in this case, the one I scored against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Rey is the most important.
And, personally speaking, what would be your highlight of the year?
I think it was a good year overall. Although I would have liked to have won more with my club, I think it turned out to be a positive year with the Argentinian national team. That meant a lot to us all and that’s what I’d highlight: the national team having a great year after things not having gone well for such a long time.
What changed to finally help you hit your best form with La Albiceleste?
The national team in itself changed. For things to go well it depends on everybody involved, not just one player. And it’s not as if things were only going badly for me before, things weren’t right with the national team as a whole, for whatever reason. But once we started winning and our results improved, everything got easier. The fans are behind us, the press aren’t as critical as they have been in the past and we’re able to get on with the job in a different, calmer way. On top of that you end up getting more respect from opponents because of the form you’re in. The biggest change was the results, simple as that.
Do you feel more appreciated back in Argentina now?
Yes, I do. We’ve been fortunate enough to play in the capital, in the country’s interior region and all over the place, and the way the fans treated me and the team was amazing. That’s something we earned with our results and our football. We’ve fired people’s enthusiasm and I’d say we’re more united than ever.
You scored several hat-tricks in 2012, but was the one against Brazil in June’s 4-3 friendly win the most special?
They’re all special, aren’t they? But, in the way they came about and who they were against, regardless of the fact it was a friendly, those three goals were extra-special. But it’s scoring goals that’s great, whether against Brazil or anybody else.
Turning back to Barcelona, any doubts that surrounded the club when Pep Guardiola departed have now been dispelled. Have there been changes since Tito Vilanova took over as coach?
Yes, of course. The way we work and prepare for games is the same, but what’s changed is that Guardiola and Tito have different personalities and different ways of handling the squad. They’ve each got their own ideas and own style, but when it comes to playing and training we’re doing the same things we’ve been doing these past four years.
This year has been a testing one for non-footballing issues, such as Pep’s exit and the health problems suffered by Eric Abidal and Vilanova. The Barça squad is known for being very tight-knit, but how hard did these events hit you all?
To be honest, they hit us hard. It seemed like it was one thing after another, and they’re things that count much more than results or form. They’re really awful situations. Of course we were hit hard, but we somehow managed to get through all of that by sticking together throughout. And thank God things began looking up for both Abidal and Tito. Though he (Vilanova) has still got to keep us his treatment, all the signs are good. That’s what matters most.
As far as this season’s La Liga race is concerned, is it hard not to get complacent now you’re so far ahead of the chasing pack?
We’re very aware that there’s a long way to go yet. Our La Liga hopes are in our hands thanks to the lead we’ve got and the way we’ve gone about things, but we can’t afford to relax. We know how good Atletico Madrid are, as we’ve played them already and they’re a great side. And you can never write Real Madrid off because they’ll fight till the end and they’ve clawed back big points’ deficits on us more than once. We’re not taking our foot off the gas, though we’re confident we won’t have problems staying on the same track.
Not long ago the renowned Uruguayan writer and journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote: “Me gusta Messi porque no se cree Messi” (I like Messi because he doesn’t think he’s Messi). Is that the case? Are you aware of your impact on this era in the modern game?
I don’t know. I’m just trying to keep doing my job and enjoying what happens to me, what we do and what we achieve every day. There isn’t time to sit and think about what you’ve been doing because everything happens so fast: as soon as one thing finishes another begins. I think that generally, as I’ve said many times, people are going to remember this Barcelona team once it’s gone, once time goes by. That’s when it’ll be awarded much more significance. And on a personal note, I think it won’t be until after I’ve retired that I’m fully aware of what I’ve done or what I’ve gone on to achieve in my career.
One of the aspects of your game that most catches our eye is the fact you’ll always chase seemingly lost causes and never deliberately go to ground. Is that something you’re born with or have learned?
To tell you the truth, I’ve been that way my whole life, since I was little. I’ve always tried to keep hold of the ball and keep going, whatever happens, and I still try to do that today. Every year I try to grow as a player and not get stuck in a rut. I try to improve my game in every way possible. But that trait is not something I’ve worked on, it’s part of me.
One last question: when you made a toast with your loved ones on New Year’s Eve, what did you wish for 2013 to bring?
Of course, my son is now my number one priority. It’s been a very nice and very big change and we’ll always put him first. Then I wished for Abidal and Tito to get well and put their health issues behind them for good. That and good health for me, my family and all my loved ones. After all that, on a sporting front, hopefully we can carry on what we’ve been doing and pick up some more silverware.