The year 2012, in which Lionel Messi scored an incredible 91 goals in 69 games, began inauspiciously for him. He got sick.
On January 4, the morning of Barcelona's first game of the year, the club's doctor took a look at him and told him he wasn't fit to play. He had flu and was running a fever. Messi was despondent.
Three hours before the game, he collared his coach, Pep Guardiola, and pestered him, wanting to play. The Barca boss knew better than to stand in his way, so he listed him as a substitute.
Osasuna were the visiting team. They had travelled across the north-east of Spain to play Barca in the Copa del Rey, more in hope than expectation. The Camp Nou is a forbidding coliseum, especially under floodlights on winter nights.
Roland Lamah, a nomadic Belgium international—who later played in the Premier League while on loan with Swansea City and is now tearing it up for FC Dallas in Major League Soccer—appeared on the wing for Osasuna in the match.
"When you play Barcelona in the Camp Nou, it's very difficult," Lamah says. "Barcelona are comfortable there. It's a big stadium. The pitch looks bigger. They know every metre of it. The stadium is more open than football stadiums in England. It's not like, say, Old Trafford. It's huge—100,000 people. There's a different atmosphere there. You know you're going to lose for sure."
As expected, Barca raced into an early 2-0 lead. Fifty-nine minutes into the game, Messi stepped onto the pitch. In half an hour's work, he scored a brace, had a legitimate penalty claim denied and was unlucky not to score two other goals in a 4-0 win.
One of the near-misses—a trademark scoop over the goalkeeper that shaved the post after a remarkable dribble and wall pass with Dani Alves—could have been a goal-of-the-year contender. It was an incredible shift by a man who had come from his sickbed.
"It is really special when you see him play, scoring goals where he slaloms through your defence," Lamah says. "When he comes in front of you, you're like an Egyptian mummy, you know? You don't know what to do to stop him."
It was a puzzle that confounded defences for the rest of what would be a magical year for Messi—one that is well worth revisiting.
Damia Abella knows a lot about Messi. He played for Osasuna in defence against Barcelona in that cup tie. He was playing against his old team, having made his home debut for Barcelona in a Clasico in November 2004; he came off the bench in a 3-0 win over Real Madrid at the Camp Nou.
He says it's simple: Messi just loves the game. It's why his accomplishments are so staggering. It explains his hunger—why he chose to play with the flu against Osasuna on a cold night in Catalonia in a routine cup game. He couldn't help himself. He would have felt sicker had he not played.
"Messi really, really likes his sport," Damia says. "Footballers have different personalities. For some, football is not a passion. They see it just as a job. They don't care about it. They don't even know which player they will be marking in the next game. Then there are those who are really, really passionate about their jobs. They are watching football all the time. Messi is that kind of player who really loves his job. He is always with a football at home."
Damia and Messi joined Barcelona's first team in the same league season, 2004-2005, which finished with the team's first title in six years. They had also been teammates on Barca B, the club's reserve side.
Everybody around the club had been talking about Messi. "We all knew he'd be a great player," Damia says. "From training with him, you could tell he had something different."
Curiously, Messi played better once he got into the first team.
"He had more talent than we had on the second team," Damia added. "It was easier for him on the first team because the players around him could understand what he was going to do. In B games, sometimes he was a bit lost, playing a bit more for himself, trying to dribble on his own."
The 5-Goal Explosion
With Barcelona's first-team players, Messi found kindred spirits. Players such as Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta were on the same wavelength. By 2012, the trio—who formed the backbone of Guardiola's iconic Barcelona teams—had conquered the world, with Messi leading the way. He was breaking all kinds of records.
In March 2012, Messi scored in a league game against Granada to become the club's all-time leading scorer. He broke a record that had stood since the 1950s. He was still only 24 years old.
In the same month, he knocked five goals past Bayer Leverkusen in a Champions League match. No one had done that before.
Leverkusen had lost the first leg in Germany 3-1; in the second leg, they went for broke. They tried to pressure and push on, hunting for an improbable victory. They left gaping holes in their defence. Messi took advantage in the open spaces.
"This is why it was like Christmas for Messi—why he scored so many goals," says former Bayer Leverkusen defensive midfielder Stefan Reinartz, remembering the humbling 7-1 defeat.
Reinartz, who played three international games for Germany before he was forced out of the game at 27 by injury, has made a life study of passing and space in football. After retiring, he co-founded a football analysis company that has the German FA and Borussia Dortmund on its client roster. He marvels at Messi's ability to find space.
Against teams that line up with, say, a 4-4-2 system, the Argentina international has an innate ability to show up in space between the opposition's two banks of defence—between their four midfielders and four defenders. He's one of the best players in the game—along with the likes of Mesut Ozil—at sniffing out this crucial extra legroom, according to Reinartz.
"Messi is a very intelligent player," he says. "When he gets the ball, he often has a good deal of space between himself and his opponent. This is a quality of players who have a really good sense for spaces. He normally has two or three metres distance to the next player. He's good at moving away from the opponent. He also has such good speed and ball control; you can't get close to him because he's so fast."
Messi's speed is something Reinhartz stresses. It's not always associated with the Barca star, however, perhaps because of his short stature. He's just under 5'7". Galloping sprinters such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale come more readily to mind.
As opposed to the bursts down the flanks typical of Ronaldo and Bale, Messi tends to do his sprinting in more dangerous zones—in the centre of the pitch, bearing down on goal, often unlocking the last line of a defence with a one-two.
"Messi shows more in the middle, where it is more difficult for him because he can be tackled from 360 degrees," Reinartz says. "He has to be more aware, but it's a closer distance to the opponent's goal."
When he's so close to goal, it takes an exceptional defence to keep Messi scoreless. Robin Dutt, Bayer Leverkusen's coach for the Champions League ties in 2012, says it was almost impossible to defend against him because he was surrounded by such good team-mates.
Dutt instructed his players to press all 11 of Barcelona's players, including goalkeeper Victor Valdes in an attempt to cut Messi off at the source.
Dutt says they also tried to defend Messi before he got his first touch.
"The defender had to be like a chess player," he said. "He had to anticipate his opponent's next move. Except when you're playing chess, you sit on a chair and you have three or four minutes to decide your move. In a football match, you have to decide in one second. If Xavi didn't pass to Messi and passed to Iniesta instead, you had to make your next decision a different one—in high pressure."
If you have 11 minutes to spare and watch the goals Messi scored in 2012 on YouTube, you'll notice patterns. Goals repeat themselves: the dinks over onrushing goalkeepers; the times Messi gathered the ball by the right edge of the opposition box and ran across the 18-yard line, feinting to shoot, defenders flapping helplessly, before he curled the ball low into the left corner of the net with his left foot. The latter is a goal Arjen Robben has also scored countless times. Defenders know it's coming, but it doesn't make it any easier to stop.
"The thing is that Messi knows when to do it—not only how to do it," Reinartz says. "For a defender, it's really difficult. Of course you know he wants to go on to his left foot. But if you try to defend just his left foot, he'll turn on to his right foot, and he can dribble you and eventually switch back to his left foot.
"He's so mobile at dribbling, and he can change direction so quickly. Ronaldo is also very good at dribbling, but he's not as mobile in changing his direction. He needs about two metres to change 90 degrees. Messi will only need a metre. It's something special about Messi."
Reinartz noticed a curious thing about Messi during those two Champions League games. The 30-year-old dawdles about, with his shoulders hung low. Despite all his powers, his ability to terrorise the defences of the world's best teams, he doesn't have the confident bearing on the pitch of a man who is master of his domain.
"All the top players I've played against have really good body language, like Robert Lewandowski," Reinartz says. "Or when you see Sami Khedira on the pitch, you think, 'Oh, he's really self-confident. He has positive body language.'
"I remember seeing Leo Messi, and he had really bad body language. He was running over the pitch or not running that much for 85 minutes, like a small, sad kid. Only when he had the ball you saw that he was happy, and you realised he was the best player in the world."
Messi vs. Ronaldo
Nobody could come near Messi at the time—not even Ronaldo.
Messi won four Ballon d'Or awards in a row. He picked up the fourth—for his extraordinary feats in 2012, when he bypassed records set by Pele (75 goals in 1958) and Gerd Muller (85 goals in 1972)—in January 2013 at a ceremony in Zurich.
Jordi Cotrina has been snapping photos of Barca for El Periodico newspaper for more than a quarter of a century. He has probably captured Messi in more memorable poses than any other photographer.
But Messi's threads that night in Switzerland—which included a polka-dot jacket and bow tie by Dolce & Gabbana—caught Cotrina off-guard. Messi was starting to grow into himself and to accept his status as the world's greatest footballer.
"When I saw him in the hallway at the hotel, and he came in with that jacket, I thought, ‘Look—the best player in the world,'" Cotrina said. "Other players like Ronaldinho wear earrings. Or they have bracelets or chains, a star look. But Messi didn't.
"Sometimes you would look at him and think, 'Where is this homeless guy going?' He's not a superstar like LeBron James or Cristiano Ronaldo. It's a physical thing. You can see that they are cracks [stars], but with Messi, no, you couldn't [until that night]. He was starting to shape his personality."
In Messi's matches versus Real Madrid—the majority played opposite the great individual rival of his age, Ronaldo—he has scored some of his most memorable goals.
The two sides met in a pivotal encounter in April 2012. The La Liga title was on the line. Barcelona, who had won 11 games on the bounce, had cut Real Madrid's lead at the top of the table from 10 points to four. A win at the Camp Nou for Barca could be decisive.
Barcelona had been tormenting Jose Mourinho since he took over as manager of Real Madrid two years earlier. He couldn't figure out how to beat them. In 10 Clasico matches, he had won only once, and that was thanks to an extra-time goal in the previous year's Copa del Rey final.
Messi was on top of the pile when it came to his list of Barcelona problems. Mourinho encouraged all kinds of dirty tricks by his players to unsettle the Argentinian, according to Diego Torres, an El Pais journalist and author of The Special One: The Secret World of Jose Mourinho.
The then-Real boss urged them to kick and physically intimidate him, but this proved counterproductive—it only fired up Messi to play better. And the policy had side-effects. Los Blancos centre-back Pepe had become despised nationally after he stamped on Messi's hand as the Argentinian lay on the Santiago Bernabeu turf during a Clasico in January 2012.
So Mourinho turned to other methods.
"He ordered his players to despise Messi, to look down on him, to provoke him by touching his hair or on the head, to insult him," Torres told Bleacher Report. "Because in that way, by distracting him, Messi would react by disconnecting from matches. Messi doesn't like being touched on the head. It's a mania he has. I remember that Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa touched Messi on the head. That was more upsetting for him than the stamp by Pepe."
Mourinho also preyed on Ronaldo's insecurity. The Real Madrid goalscorer was addled about Messi after years of playing second fiddle to him on the individual awards circuit.
Mourinho and Svengali figure Jorge Mendes, who is the Manchester United manager's agent as well as Ronaldo's, referred to Messi witheringly as "el enano," the dwarf, in an attempt to psych up the Real No. 7 and to get him to outdo the Argentinian.
Cotrina has a picture of Messi scoring a goal against Real Madrid, taken at the start of the 2011-2012 season in the second leg of Barcelona's Spanish Super Cup victory. The South American is just about to lift the ball over goalkeeper Iker Casillas—out of frame—and into the goal. Ronaldo is arriving too late to intervene, skidding on his knees.
"The photo illustrates the superiority of Barca in respect of Madrid during this era," Cotrina says. "The photo is a microcosm. It is not an iconic picture, but it shows Messi on top of Ronaldo. Ronaldo is impotent, on his knees. What is Ronaldo doing there? He's too far back in defence. It captures the hegemony of Barca in those years."
The tables turned, however, during the April 2012 league match. According to Torres, Messi had a row with Guardiola before the game over team selection. The manager favoured an academy player, Cristian Tello, over Messi's old friend Cesc Fabregas and Pedro. The Argentinian sulked.
"There was a huge fuss in the Barca hotel before the game," Torres says. "Guardiola confronted Messi. He said that Tello would play."
Messi threatened to not play the match but relented. Guardiola was at his wit's end with the player's insubordination. The coach had decided to leave Barcelona. The fracas with Messi left him convinced he was making the right decision. His fourth season in charge was proving exhausting. He had been slowly losing his grip on the minds of his players.
According to Guillem Balague's biography Messi, the Real Madrid players noticed Messi played within himself during the game, as if he were nursing a muscle injury.
"Messi played like he was on strike," Torres says. Real Madrid prevailed, winning 2-1. The 20-year-old Tello bungled the couple of chances that came his way and was substituted for Fabregas late in the second half. Ronaldo scored the match-winner, a classic striker's finish after he was put clear by an audacious pass from Mesut Ozil. Real Madrid secured the league title a week-and-a-half later in Bilbao.
"For this reason, Real Madrid won the league," Torres says. "It wasn't that Mourinho invented a different tactic—an extraordinary tactic—to counteract Messi. It was a problem of a rebellion against his coach."
Messi and the Crossbar
Three days later, Chelsea arrived at the Camp Nou for a Champions League semi-final second leg, clinging to a 1-0 lead from the first game at Stamford Bridge. It was a compelling match with echoes of Barcelona's defeat to Inter Milan in the same fixture two years earlier.
For 90 minutes, Barca laid siege to the Blues' goal. The west London side were reduced to 10 men after 37 minutes when their captain, John Terry, got a red card for kneeing Alexis Sanchez from behind. Barca scored twice in the first half, but Chelsea nicked a crucial away goal thanks to a sumptuous lob by Ramires just before half-time.
Extraordinary rearguard action by the Chelsea defence kept Barcelona at bay in the second half. The game's defining moment came in the 49th minute, though. Messi, who had never scored against Chelsea, stepped up to take a penalty. The stadium held its breath. He banged the ball high down the right side. It struck the crossbar and came flying back through the box like a boomerang.
Cotrina was behind the goal with his camera and took a marvellous photo. Eleven Barcelona and Chelsea players, including Iniesta, Juan Mata and Didier Drogba, are aligned behind Messi in different states of animation.
The look on Messi's face is one of confusion. He scored 10 out of 10 penalties in Barcelona's league matches that year. It's as though he doesn't know how to compute what has happened.
"Messi discovers that the goal has a crossbar," Cotrina says. "Normally the ball goes into the net. It never hits the crossbar. He's saying, 'How can I send it there? It's impossible.' It's a surprise for him. It was a surprise for everybody."
Messi and Guardiola's Final Embrace
Four days had torpedoed Barcelona's season. Three days after exiting the Champions League, Guardiola announced he would step down in a press conference.
His first-team players—except Messi, who was too distraught to attend—sat before him, stunned at the news. The squad won another Copa del Rey the following month, bringing the number of titles Guardiola bagged in his four-year reign to 14.
Messi and his team-mates were visited by further turmoil in December of that year, when Guardiola's successor, Tito Vilanova—who had coached Messi at La Masia, Barcelona's youth academy—had a relapse of throat cancer.
"It was a bitter pill to swallow that provoked a despondency among Messi and his team-mates," says Ramiro Martin, author of Messi: Un Genio en la Escuela del Futbol. The despair seeped into the following season, Messi's only trophyless campaign with Barcelona. Vilanova died in April 2014.
Messi and Guardiola had their ups and downs. "I spoke a lot with Guardiola about Leo," Martin says. "Some people say that their relationship was cold. I can't prove that. Guardiola knew how to relate to Messi. He admired him. He knew how to seduce him, to make Leo dedicate himself 100 percent from 2008 to the football project that Pep proposed. Of course, as happens in every workplace, there were moments of discussion between them, but there was always dialogue."
Messi posted a note on Facebook to "wholeheartedly" thank Guardiola for all he had done for him during his career.
A week after Guardiola announced he was leaving the club, Messi made a more profound gesture at the Camp Nou during the manager's last home game in charge of Barcelona. City rivals Espanyol had come for a league fixture, and Messi was in the mood for some bullying. Barcelona won 4-0; Messi whacked in all four goals.
After Messi scored his fourth—he also scored four league goals against Valencia in February 2012—he raced up the touchline to find Guardiola. The pair hugged.
It is Martin's favourite memory of 2012—the year of Messi. He chooses it even above the sight of him scoring a hat-trick for Martin's country, Argentina, against Brazil in a 4-3 win in New Jersey in June 2012, which announced La Albiceleste's return to the top of football after some farcical years under Diego Maradona and Sergio Batista.
"I believe that the hug with Guardiola doesn't have a rival," Martin says. "It was a final coronation of a unique project. The director of the orchestra and his star violinist welded in an embrace after their final work."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz