Lionel Messi is back. Sidelined for several weeks in late 2013 through injury, the Argentina captain has since wasted no time proving his phenomenal talents remain intact. Look no further than 16 January's stunning individual strike for Barcelona against Getafe - so often on the receiving end of Messi magic - a goal that emphatically showed the world his physical problems were over.
Three days prior to that latest show-stopping display, the Rosario-born superstar travelled to Zurich for the FIFA Ballon d’Or ceremony, where he made time to speak exclusively to FIFA.com. On the agenda were his recovery efforts back in his homeland, how nervous he gets when watching Barça, and La Albiceleste’s current form and prospects for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
FIFA.com: 2013 was something of an up-and-down year for you. On the plus side came another La Liga title and Argentina sealing Brazil 2014 qualification, while on the negative side was the injury that sidelined you for several weeks. Do you agree?
Lionel Messi: Yes, it really was a strange year. Having already been less than 100 per cent [fitness-wise] for the league championship run-in and the semi-finals of the Champions League, I also missed [a portion of] the start of this season. So you could say that, yes, the injury was the only downside of last year.
Coaches who’ve worked with you all agree on two things: how talented you are and how much you hate being unable to play. How did you handle so many weeks watching on?
It was tough, to be honest, very tough. But the fact that I went to Argentina and put a bit of distance between myself and the dressing room, and all the fuss that goes with it – to put it that way – did me a lot of good. Putting aside the bad stuff, the two months I couldn't play did me a lot of good physically. I’m trying to see the positive side of it.
Once more, when the opportunity arose you went back to Rosario. What is it you miss most about your home city?
Everything! My friends, my family. Just being there, the simple fact of being in my home and being able to enjoy it after such a long time, is good for me.
Are you able to walk the streets without being mobbed?
Yes, just like I can in Barcelona. (Smiles) No, no… I try to go from house to house, to the houses of friends and relatives. I don’t go out on the streets much.
How did it feel to watch Barcelona matches on TV? Does it make you more nervous than usual?
Yes, of course. I’m much more nervous [watching] than when I’m on the field. The fact you’re on the outside looking in and not on the inside able to lend a hand makes it all that much worse.
Could you sense people’s anxiety regarding your fitness, since it’s now a World Cup year?
No, to be honest I was very relaxed, working away at the Predio [de Ezeiza – the Argentinian Football Association’s training facility]. Then I went back home [to Rosario] and kept working the same way, with everything going really well. In physical and mental terms I’m in good shape for these coming six months. I think it [the time in Argentina] went well, though I can’t say I had much contact with people, as I was more focused on my recovery. I even ended up sleeping at the Predio – as if I’d been called up for a squad get-together. I only had one thing on my mind.
But were you anxious at all? World Cup years are particularly special after all, right?
Yes, of course. Though there are a still a few months left and it seems quite far away, it’ll be on us before we know it. But we’ve got lots of important challenges before that: the Champions League, trying to retain the La Liga title, the Copa del Rey. We’re taking things one step at a time but, to tell the truth, the World Cup’s on all of our minds already.
Argentina are rated among the favourites to win the Trophy, thanks to their form, average age and players’ experience levels. Do you agree and is it something spoken about within the squad?
Yes, yes… it’s true, and we are in good form at the moment. We weren’t doing all that well in qualifying until we won away in Colombia, but then we had a great campaign. It was a major turnaround and a very positive thing for us. It’s a very good group of players and we all get on very well. It might just be our year but once the World Cup starts anything can happen, it’s very difficult. But I do think that we’re in good form.
Let's talk about Brazil, a team you’ve performed well against throughout your career – having notched goals and recorded victories against A Seleção on several occasions. Do you remember any one meeting over and above the rest?
Yes, definitely. I can clearly remember our match at the U-20 World Cup [in the Netherlands in 2005], when we beat them 2-1 in the semi-finals. That’s because of how much that game meant, because I was fortunate enough to score a goal and because the win put us in the final. And it was also one of the first titles I won. It’s a really beautiful memory.
What makes a World Cup match so special and unique?
World Cup games are totally different. Right from the off, the atmosphere and the build-up make it different to any other competition. While the Champions League is great, the World Cup is special.
What are your thoughts on Group F, in which Argentina have been drawn with Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iran and Nigeria?
There’s been a lot of talk about how easy it’s going to be, that Argentina are bound to go through comfortably, but it’s a World Cup and there are no easy teams. If they’re there it’s because they deserve to be – there are no straightforward matches at a World Cup.
For our final question, we’d like to ask you the finish off the following sentence: ‘In 2014, Lionel Messi will be…’
I don’t know. (Laughs) Let’s hope it’s a great year for Barcelona and Argentina, right? But not just for Messi, for all the players.