Remembering Leo Messi's Magical Decade at Barcelona

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportDecember 24, 2019

Messi leaves Jerome Boateng in the dust
Messi leaves Jerome Boateng in the dustVladimir Rys Photography/Getty Images

Jerome Boateng is a formidable defender. He was widely regarded as the best player on the pitch in the 2014 FIFA World Cup final. A year after picking up his World Cup winners' medal, he played for Bayern Munich in the first leg of the UEFA Champions League semi-final against Barcelona at the Camp Nou. He was 26 years old, at the peak of his powers.

With less than a quarter of an hour left in the match, the teams were still tied scoreless. Then Leo Messi struck. In the 77th minute, he got a pass from Dani Alves and rifled it into the net from outside the box. Three minutes later, he received the ball in much the same position and ran at Boateng.

Messi took a few touches, bringing the ball closer and closer to Boateng until the German defender could almost sniff it. Then, at the last fraction of a second, he pulled the ball past Boateng and dinked it into the net.

Caught off balance, Boateng fell to the ground like he'd just fainted. The internet had a field day with his misfortune, as jokes and memes flew around the online world, one depicting Boateng falling into a crater. His life's work reduced to a moment of ridicule. Life can be cruel.

"He made Boateng look like a fool," says Andy West, author of Lionel Messi and the Art of Living. "He made him look like a bow-legged 10-year-old who couldn't control his body. This is one of the best defenders in the world who was playing for Bayern Munich and absolutely focused in that moment, and he just fell over. He couldn't deal with how Messi had run past him."

Boateng isn't alone.

Messi regularly makes an ass out of top-class footballers, having put Iker Casillas on his backside in the 2011 UEFA Champions League first-leg semi-final after waltzing through Real Madrid's defence, for example, or audaciously nutmegging James Milner in another 2015 UEFA Champions League knockout game. It's what Messi does. He has been operating at a higher level over the last decade.

"Messi is not a dynamic sprinter," says West. "He's never been that rapid. It's his speed of movement. One of the amazing things about that goal against Bayern Munich was that he lobbed Manuel Neuer, who most people at the time regarded as the best goalkeeper in the world, with his right foot. 

"Messi finds solutions. He finds the most effective way of doing things even if they wouldn't be his first choice. He has that speed of thought to know if he needs to finish a goal-scoring chance with his right foot even though he'd prefer to dance around with the ball and get it onto his left. That decision-making process is something he excels at. A lot of his majesty is in his brain. He always does the right thing, and he always knows to do it quickly."

His intelligent decision-making is perhaps most evident with his passing. If Messi had never scored a goal over the last decade—and he's been Europe's top scorer six times during that period—we would still be talking of him as one of the game's great playmakers alongside the likes of, say, Andrea Pirlo.  

"He provides assists like a basketball player," says Jaime Rodriguez, a journalist with El Mundo. "Against Real Madrid last week in the Clasico, for example, it was the same—he picked out Jordi Alba with a pass [to create Barcelona's clearest goal-scoring chance in a scoreless draw]. If you threw the ball with your hand, you couldn't do better than Messi does with his foot. It's like he has a glove on that left leg of his, as we say in Spain. He's so precise. It enables him to have this brutal precision. Take, for example, his accuracy with free kicks. He's a beast." 

Messi's free-kicks have become works of art, among them that scorcher in last season's UEFA Champions League semi-final first-leg against Liverpool. His dribbling—especially at close quarters—is unrivalled.

Who can forget him walking through a forest of Espanyol defenders during a La Liga game in 2016 or that wondergoal against Athletic Bilbao in the 2015 Copa del Rey final? And, of course, there are his lobs like the one last season against Real Betis, which drew a standing ovation from spectators in the Benito Villamarin Stadium.  

Football writer Jimmy Burns, who has investigated Messi's career and his rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo in his book Cristiano and Leo: The Race to Become the Greatest Football Player of All Time, as well as written several other football books, including Maradona: The Hand of God, makes an interesting point about how Messi has been shaped by his association with FC Barcelona, which he has helped to unprecedented glory, including seven league titles and two European Cups in the last decade. Their ties go back to 2000 when Messi trialled with the club as a 13-year-old. 

"I already had a suspicion about something that was confirmed when writing the Cristiano and Leo book, which is the extent to which Messi's destiny and his evolution as a player has been absolutely determined by his experience in Barcelona, not just with the club but with the physical reality of living away from Argentina and specifically in Catalonia," says Burns.

"If you compare him with another subject I'm familiar with—Diego Maradona—what really saved Messi was the fact he got away from Argentina. If he had set off his career as an adult footballer in Argentina and lived there, his life might have been very different. His ambition may not have been realised, certainly at club level.

"What we saw at Barcelona, which surprised me, is that Barca really did become his extended family, and the importance of his evolution as a personality and as a player by his managers, Frank Rijkaard and, in particular, Pep Guardiola. The way Guardiola handled Messi. He got his measure, giving him a lot of freedom to develop as a player. At the same time making sure that he didn't go down the rocky path of being a Maradona. Messi owes a lot to Barcelona. They formed him into the great star that he is."

BARCELONA, SPAIN - DECEMBER 21: Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona smiles during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and Deportivo Alaves at Camp Nou on December 21, 2019 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Alex Caparros/Getty Images

According to the Swiss-based research group CIES Football Observatory, no other out-field footballer played as many minutes in the top five leagues over the last decade. Messi played 83.4 percent of the total minutes played by Barcelona in La Liga. It's a staggering statistic and hints at one of the keys to his success: He loves the game. He can't stop playing, even if it's just to kick around in his garden with his dog.

"Messi really, really likes his sport," says Damia, a former teammate of Messi's at Barcelona. "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.

"There are others who are professional. They try to do their best all the time. They like to read the newspapers, to study, to be prepared. They are the majority of us. I was never happy not knowing the player I was going to mark. I needed to know how he performs, his skills.

"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. He really has a passion for football."

How long that passion will sustain him remains to be seen.

He will turn 33 at the end of the season. When he picked up his sixth Ballon d'Or award earlier in the month, he hinted at retirement. The end is possibly near. It is a vista that saddens Argentina fans—he has unfinished business with the national team—and one that terrifies Barca fans, a club that has become utterly dependent on his genius.

"The thought that Messi will one day retire generates panic amongst Barca fans," says Rodriguez. "It's a normal reaction—after Messi, there will never be another player like him. He instills intimidation and fear in rival teams that no other footballer in the history of the game has provoked.

"The club will experience a hangover, a hard one. It will be like an orphan: 'Daddy's not here anymore, so what are we going to do?' This notion can be taken with a pinch of salt, but there are independentista people in Catalonia who would prefer to forsake their pursuit of national independence if it meant instead Messi continuing to play for Barca for the rest of their lives."

He might not play for the rest of our lives, but let's enjoy him while we can.

Next week, we will look back on the other iconic player of the last decade: Cristiano Ronaldo.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz

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