The real Lionel Messi unveiled

Despite his quiet, unassuming nature, Lionel Messi is the dominant figure in the Barca dressing room.
Despite his quiet, unassuming nature, Lionel Messi is the dominant figure in the Barca dressing room.PHOTO: REUTERS

He's set to win a 5th Ballon d'Or tomorrow but he sees all his achievements as part of his job

BARCELONA • In Zurich tomorrow, Lionel Messi is expected to be crowned Fifa World Player of the Year once again, beating Neymar, his Barcelona team-mate, and his arch-rival from Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo. It would be the fifth time the Argentinian has won the Ballon d'Or, but his first since 2012.

Few would begrudge him the prize. For Messi, 2015 has been - in the language of music critics - a stunning return to form.

With Barcelona, the 28-year-old won every club competition on offer, taking in a Spanish league and Cup double, the Champions League and the Club World Cup.

He became the first player to score in seven competitions in a single year. He failed to win only one of them, helping Argentina to reach the Copa America final where they lost to Chile on penalties.

He stands, once more, at the pinnacle of his sport. That was always his ambition, the target he set himself as a child in Rosario, the dream that persuaded him to leave his homeland and, eventually, much of his family behind at the age of 12 and move to Barcelona.

  • MESSI'S 2015 IN NUMBERS

    52

    Goals - 48 for Barcelona, four for Argentina

    39

    Were scored with his left foot, eight with his right and five with his head

    4

    Clubs in Europe who failed to score more league goals than Messi's 34 La Liga strikes - Sunderland, Levante, Malaga and Nantes

    26

    Assists - 23 for Barcelona, three for Argentina

"He had to give up everything," says Xavi Llorens, the first man to coach him in Spain. "His mother, his brothers and sisters, his childhood. He sacrificed it all."

To be the best is what he has always wanted. Speak to those who know him, though, and it becomes clear that it is not a role that suits him well. Even now, when he has found his way right to the top, he is the most reluctant of superstars.

Reading Guillem Balague's comprehensive biography of Messi, it is striking how many of his friends function as surrogate father figures.

When he first made the senior team at Barcelona, he was drawn not just to Ronaldinho, his creative inspiration, but to the likes of Deco and Sylvinho too.

Later, it was Eidur Gudjohnsen and, for a long time, Jose Manuel Pinto, the reserve goalkeeper. He had other friends - Cesc Fabregas, particularly - but he has always sought out older company.

That may, in part, be because of the route his life has taken. He was 12 when he signed for Barcelona. His whole family decamped to Spain, though within a year all but his father, Jorge, returned home, unable to settle.

Jorge stayed on and acted as his manager, paid a percentage of what his son earned, like any agent.

It was an arrangement that worked perfectly until 2013, when Spain's tax authorities accused father and son of defrauding the revenue office of €4.1 million (S$6.46 million) in unpaid taxes between 2007 and 2009.

Jorge insisted that Lionel had no knowledge of how his finances were handled, but the pair nevertheless paid €5 million in back taxes in 2013.

  • Uefa Team of the Year

    Uefa announced its Team of the Year (4-3-3) on Friday:

    Goalkeeper

    •Manuel Neuer (Bayern Munich and Germany)

    Defenders

    •David Alaba (Bayern Munich and Austria)

    •Sergio Ramos (Real Madrid and Spain)

    •Dani Alves (Barcelona and Brazil)

    •Gerard Pique (Barcelona and Spain)

    Midfielders

    •Andres Iniesta (Barcelona and Spain)

    •Paul Pogba (Juventus and France)

    •James Rodriguez (Real Madrid and Colombia)

    Forwards

    •Lionel Messi (Barcelona and Argentina)

    •Neymar (Barcelona and Brazil)

    •Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid and Portugal)

That has not been enough to end the case, though: Spain's state attorney is pushing for both to stand trial, where they face a 22-month jail sentence.

The story, murky though it is, illustrates the curious position Messi has long found himself in. Since he was a teenager, he has been his family's breadwinner. It was not that his own life was dependent on his dream; theirs was too.

He had to grow up fast. While Gerard Pique and the rest were laughing and joking, pulling pranks on each other, Messi knew this was serious. He was playing to win.

"He has always been like that," Llorens says. "In one game for me when he was 12 or 13, he picked up the ball, slalomed past four or five players and scored. He did not celebrate. He just walked back towards the centre circle, ready to start again.

"Some kids need to be told they have done well. They look at the coach for approval. Messi was never like that. For him, scoring a goal is what playing a pass is for me and you. It is not something to be celebrated. It is part of his job."

Over the past couple of years, he has seen many of his closest allies leave the Nou Camp. His protector now, more of an older brother than a father, really, is Javier Mascherano, his compatriot. Together with Luis Suarez, they form a little Rioplatense clique, bonded by a mutual love of mate, the bitter herbal drink popular in South America.

It is a small group, but an immensely important one. Messi is the dominant figure in the Barcelona dressing room. Few decisions are made at the club without his input or his interests being taken into consideration, extending even to transfer policy. He did not, contrary to reports, persuade the club to make Gerardo Martino coach in 2013, but he was consulted. Messi's power is quiet, but far-reaching.

"He is very warm with people he knows well," Llorens says. "The last time I saw him, I told him my kids wanted to see all the trophies he has in his house. He told me to come round whenever. He is not closed to the people he knows."

After the Barcelona derby at the Estadi Cornella-El Prat, where Espanyol held Messi's side to a goalless draw, the first time that Luis Enrique's side failed to score in a league game this season, the home fans jeered Messi as he trudged from the pitch.

Xabi, an Espanyol fan, said: "We are Espanyol. We hate Barcelona. We hate Messi."

Messi is not as easy for rivals to hate as Ronaldo, the man he is expected to beat to the Ballon d'Or tomorrow, but still they do.

The Argentinian is no peacock, no preening extrovert. He has everything, but seems to want little: Just to do his job and live his life. And still they hate him.

"But we are not stupid," Xabi said. "We might be Espanyol, but we know he is the best in the world."

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 10, 2016, with the headline 'The real Lionel Messi unveiled'. Print Edition | Subscribe