Due to the enforced break caused by the coronavirus outbreak, it is highly unlikely that Lionel Messi will kick a competitive ball before his 33rd birthday — he reaches the milestone in two months — but as a player who has set absurdly high standards over the course of the last decade-and-a-half reaches the end of his career, the question is often asked: how can one of the greatest to ever play the game keep improving?
I was lucky enough to get an early look at his talent. At the start of 2005 I was in Colombia for the South American Under-20 Championships. Messi was a virtual unknown, even to the Argentines. He had been living in Barcelona for four years, had played one friendly for the first team and there were rumours that he might be something special — certainly Spain were interested in his services — so Argentina made sure they got in first.
They did not give him the No. 10 shirt and, at 17, he was two years younger than the vast majority of the other players in the tournament. He cut a shambling, unkempt, tiny figure. Merely to look at him no one could have predicted that he would have a brilliant future on the field … until he got on the ball.
Some of Messi’s genius was already apparent: especially the way that the ball was tied to his left foot as he ran, changing direction and speed as he went. He also showed a precocious capacity to influence events around him, to find space, take the right decision, and ensure that his individual talent was always at the service of the collective. Over the subsequent seasons these abilities have been refined, developed, matured and amplified. In the words of his old friend and former club and country teammate Javier Mascherano, where almost all players are controlled by the game, Messi controls it.
As he moves from his early to mid-30s, there is little room for improvement and plenty of scope for decline. Is there much more he can learn or improve in technical and tactical terms? Probably not. Physically, he can only go one way (in the race between time and the athlete there is only ever one winner.) But there is one sense in which he can still improve and does seem to be improving: leadership on the pitch.
Messi’s first 18 months with the Argentina side coincided with the end of the international career of Roberto Ayala. Centre-back and captain of the team, Ayala recalls the young Messi as a painfully shy figure, telling 90min.es recently: “He practically didn’t speak. He came out to train because it was obligatory. If not, he would have stayed in his room.”
And even as Messi grew into a global star, there was always the feeling — especially in Argentina, where a vocal style of leadership is valued — that he was in his own little world, happy talking to his old friend Sergio Aguero but uncommunicative with many others. Until last year’s Copa America.
17-year-old Lionel Messi lists Maradona, Ronaldinho and Pablo Aimar as his idols.
Veteran observers of the Argentina side were struck by the change in his behaviour. Messi was a vocal figure around the hotel, on the pitch and with the press after the game. He was full of encouraging words for his teammates, and was quick to defend the team to the journalists — he even talked himself into trouble, making unwise accusations about the integrity of the competition once Argentina had been eliminated, and picking up a three-month suspension as a result.
Angel Di Maria, who has shared an international dressing room with him since 2008, was enchanted with his teammate. “This Copa America was different,” he said. “I liked the way he spoke to the group and to the press. For the younger players this was fundamental. I really like this Messi.”
This change has not happened by chance. With an analytical mind that is so good at reading the game, Messi appears to have focused on how he could improve as he gets close to the final years of his career. Speaking up may not come naturally to him, but it was what he needed to do in order to develop further.
Whether he likes it or not, his technical excellence and importance to his teams thrusts him into the spotlight and makes his behavior important. And so he has become a leader for club and country. With Barcelona he has defended the group against accusations from sporting director Eric Abidal that some had not been trying hard enough, and more recently made his displeasure known at the way that the club directors were using public pressure to force the players to reduce their salaries.
In his role on the coaching staff of the Argentina side, Ayala said he has been enjoying the mature version of the man he played with almost 15 years ago.
“He’s grown a lot in the recent past,” he added. “Nowadays he’s a leader on and off the field, able to find the right word. He participates in everything, talking to his teammates, asking how they are. He’s vocal before the games, and he does things that really help the group.”