In the world of football, there are legends, heroes, superstars, icons. And then there’s Lionel Messi. With a career that can only be described as extraordinary, the 36-year-old generational genius stands head and shoulders above not just his peers, but arguably any other football ever to have lived.
Messi’s journey from young prodigy in Rosario, Argentina, to a global football icon is nothing short of remarkable. He resided in Europe from almost his first days as a teenager, landing a dream move to Barcelona who, while perennially successful, were looking for rediscovery and reinvention, and a hero to turbocharge their pursuit of European honors in an era where English, German and Italian sides had started to dominate.
While Messi’s ventures with Barcelona barely require documenting — four Champions League titles, 10 domestic La Liga wins, seven Copa del Rey trophy wins and three Club World Cups — his decision to leave amidst an ever-chastening financial storm at the Nou Camp left many fans still yearning for more, and for a longer length of service.
Venturing for France in August 2021, that legacy would at least continue in the sense of an accumulation of honors, with Paris Saint-Germain very much ploughing a one-club furrow in Ligue 1.
“I’ve been here so many years, my entire life here, since I was 13,” the footballing legend said, as he choked back tears, upon confirmation of his departure. He continued: “After 21 years, I’m leaving with my wife, with my three little Catalan-Argentine kids. And I can’t tell you everything that we’ve lived in this city; and I can’t say that in a few years, we won’t come back because this is our home, and I promised my children that.”
For the time being, at least, that’s not a promise he will act upon. After an unsatisfying two years in France where, despite a champagne frontline of Messi, Mbappe and Neymar, European football’s nearly men were again unable to bring home Champions League glory, meaning Messi’s departure from PSG was largely inevitable. Reports suggest he was tempted to try to re-join his beloved Barca, yet very soon Act Three of this football theatrical was underway, with a move to Inter Miami seeing the star link up with former Catalonia team-mates Jordi Alba, Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta, as well as siding for the first time with a man whose name is as synonymous to football globally as even Messi’s — club co-owner David Beckham.
The signing of a player often described as the G.O.A.T. — the ‘greatest of all time’, even though his nickname has long been La Pulga, The Flea — for Inter Miami, a team previously anchored to the foot of the MLS standings, is astonishing. There would have been a mass of admirers keen to land the star, each with sizeable contracts in hand — not least the sudden enticing riches of Saudi Arabia, where a slew of top names have had their heads turned this summer — yet Miami was Messi’s preferred destination, and a new story will now unfold.
While from the outside, the move may appear leftfield, for many reasons it makes sense. The fact Messi has a friendship base at the club is significant. It’s perhaps also no coincidence that Miami is known as the unofficial capital of Latin America, and already some restaurants and eateries have reacted by altering their menus to include Messi-themed offerings.
Furthermore, the chance to play out his remaining years in a sun-drenched English-speaking environment certainly removes some of the integration issues the 2022 World Cup winner experienced in Paris.
The response has been typically prolific. Everywhere you look there are posters of the diminutive, mercurial magician, with a presence that feels as consuming as perhaps Don Johnson had in his 1980s pomp, where Miami Vice courted global attention and offered an ongoing presence that permeated every demographic. In short, Messi’s magnetism is as alluring.
And right on cue, the investment began paying back almost immediately, as Messi scored a last-minute winner on his league debut as Miami saw off Mexican side Cruz Azul by two goals to one. A trademark free kick embellished an already immaculate story, as his shot curled majestically into the top corner of the net, past goalkeeper Andrés Gudiño’s despairing dive.
On the pitch, Messi’s genius lies not only in unparalleled technical ability — his dribbling abilities, close ball control, and lightning-quick movements have become synonymous with his game, hence The Flea moniker — but also an unwavering dedication to the sport. Indeed, in order to maintain an almost absurd level of consistency, the attacker insists he never has a day where he believes he is less than the previous. “I train hard every day, often to the point of breaking, and as if it was my last session,” he says.
“The day you think there is no improvement to be made is a sad one for any player. Every year I try to grow as a player and never get stuck in a rut. I try to improve my game in every way possible because categorically I don’t want to feel I am ever any less than something I once was.
“My regime has never really changed,” he continues. “I like to start early, and I stay late, day after day, year after year.
“It took me 17 years and 114 days to become an overnight success,” he laughs.
This is really the crux of it for Messi. Sure, he has natural talent and ability, of a level that’s impossible to contemplate, yet to understand his success, one must recognize the relentless hard work and determination that underpin his genius.
It says something about the man as well that, despite arguably scooping the ultimate goal — the World Cup for Argentina, having at one point retired from international football — where many may suppose the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle has been put in place, there is no desire to hang back or stop. And that commitment fuels and garners reverence and adoration from fans and fellow athletes that simply no-one else in the game could ever achieve.
“What I set out to do is for myself, but also for my family and the people who come to watch me play. As soon as I stop giving absolutely everything, I am letting down all those people, so it is simply not an option.”
Messi has been voted the best player in the world seven times, more than anyone else in the history of the game, including a record four times in a row between 2009 and 2012, when Pep Guardiola’s Barca were performing at their top level.
He does love the personal achievements, but as his goal assists prove, he’s very much a team player too. In addition, he says that although soccer is his dream, passion and profession, it isn’t always his main concern when the ball’s not at his feet.
“Of course, winning the Ballon d’Or is like a dream,” the Argentine admits.
“I’ve always said that was my main goal — to be the best in the world is to be the best I can be — but the important thing really is to win titles with the team. I prefer that ahead of individual awards or scoring goals. I’m more worried about being a good person than being the best football player in the world.”
Messi’s team ethics will certainly be tested in an InterMiami side that has underperformed so far this season. The next few months, and the side’s ambition to qualify for the play-offs will determine just how much impact the star can have on a diverse group of players.
The star’s ability to motivate himself, as well as others, was certainly played out in his upbringing. Behind most soccer geniuses, there is a marked landscape that plays a pivotal role in shaping their destiny. Messi’s story is no different.
Hailing from a modest background in Rosario, his family’s unwavering support and belief in his abilities provided a solid foundation for his ascent to greatness. “My family has always been by my side, guiding me through the highs and lows of my career,” he says, acutely aware that he couldn’t make this almost unfathomable journey on his own.
“I always knew I wanted to play professionally, and I always knew that to do that, I’d have to make a lot of sacrifices. I made sacrifices leaving Argentina, leaving my family to begin a new life. “I changed my friends, my people. Everything. But everything I did, I did for soccer, to achieve my dream.”
The early years at FC Barcelona’s La Masia academy were instrumental in honing his skills and instilling the club’s philosophy of playing beautiful, possession-based soccer. The values he imbibed during those crucial years have stayed with him throughout his career, influencing his playing style and approach to the game.
Beyond that unparalleled technical brilliance, it has been Messi’s mental strength that’s often set him apart. His ability to stay focused, concentrated and modest amidst immense success and media scrutiny is a testament to his character.
“I try to use pressure to help me in every game,” he says, almost provoking an onslaught of new unwitting victims to test him out.
“Pressure helps me do things to the best of my ability. I like it. I don’t think I feel pressure the way it should be felt; quite the contrary, because I always enjoy what I’m doing and that’s playing football.”
Throughout his career, Messi has faced moments of adversity with pivotal matches having tested his mettle. From stunning comebacks to breath-taking displays of skill he has, time and again, demonstrated an unwavering desire to achieve greatness.
“To really succeed is to draw not just on the victories,” he notes, “but the setbacks too, and there have been many of those. It’s all about accepting where you are and focusing on where you want to be. That’s it.”
So whilst embarking on this new challenge as the star not just of Inter Miami, but the entire MLS, his legacy is already secure. The impact he will have on American soccer and the inspiration he will provide to aspiring players — some of them, right now, just small children kicking a ball for the very first time — is immeasurable. His journey continues, and it is sure to add further chapters to an already legendary tale.