Lionel Messi has just returned from a Disney World vacation, dragging his flip--flops with that lack of glamour so typical of resting athletes. He could have continued his time off in Argentina or in any Caribbean country, but he opted to return to Barcelona early: Messi wants to train. Sometimes vacations bore him. He’s sitting on a chair in a deserted soccer field in the Ciutat Esportiva, FC Barcelona’s sports center, which operates in a valley secluded from the residential area of the city, a bright cement--and--glass lab where coaches turn talented soccer players into precision machines. Messi is a player with no instruction manual, and Ciutat Esportiva is his incubator. He has agreed to give a fifteen--minute interview this afternoon, and he looks happy. After touring with his club through the United States, he spent some time at Disney World with his parents, siblings, uncles, cousins, nephews, and girlfriend. Disney had seen Messi as the perfect person to promote its world of illusions, and Messi’s entire family was given access to all the rides as long as he allowed himself to be filmed in the gardens within this cartoon empire. Today, on YouTube, we can see a smiling Messi, performing miracles with a soccer ball in front of the fantastical architecture of the park.
“We had an amazing time,” says Messi with enthusiasm. “It finally happened.”
“What did you like most at Disney World?”
“The water rides, the parks, the attractions. Everything. Above all, I went for my nieces and nephews, my cousins, and my sister. But when I was a kid, I had always wanted to go.”
“Was it like a dream?”
“Yes, I think so, right? At least for kids fifteen and under, but also if you’re a little older.”
As we sit face--to--face at Ciutat Esportiva, Messi ponders each of his words before letting them out, as if every so often he needs to confirm that we have understood him, as if he were requesting permission to speak. As a child he suffered from a type of dwarfism, a growth hormone disorder, and since then, his short height has only magnified his soccer stature. Up close, Messi has that contradictory appearance of child gymnasts: legs with bulging muscles below, yet shy, inquisitive eyes above. He’s a warrior with a child’s gaze.
However, at times, it inevitably feels as if one has come to interview Superman and is instead met by one of Disney’s vulnerable and absentminded heroes.
“Who is your favorite Disney character?”
“None in particular, because as a kid I didn’t really watch many cartoons.” He smiles. “And then I came here to play soccer.”
When Messi says the word fútbol, his smile disappears and he becomes as serious as if he were about to take a penalty kick. It’s that cautious look we are so used to seeing on TV. Messi usually doesn’t smile while he plays. The soccer business is too serious: Only twenty--five countries in the world produce a larger GDP than the soccer industry. It is the world’s most popular sport, and Messi is the star of the show. Months after his Disney World trip, he’d achieve more than any other player his age ever has. He would go on to win six consecutive titles with FC Barcelona, becoming the European league’s top scorer; he’d be chosen as the best soccer player in the world; he’d establish himself as the youngest player to score one hundred goals in his club’s storied history; and he’d become the sport’s highest--paid star, with an annual contract worth 10.5 million euros—-ten times what Diego Maradona earned while playing at Barça. Messi would fly to Zurich to accept Europe’s best soccer player award, the Ballon d’Or, in a tailor--made Italian suit. But this afternoon, his bangs are parted to the side, he has a crooked smile, and he’s wearing Barça’s fluorescent green jersey over a pair of training shorts. He’s one of the main hosts in soccer’s wheel of fortune, yet today he looks like an unkempt boy who’s come to see the show.
After juggling a soccer ball at Disney World, Messi still had a few weeks of vacation left and decided to go back to the city where he was born. Rosario is located north of Buenos Aires, in Santa Fe Province. It’s the third--largest city in Argentina and Che Guevara’s birthplace. The newest soccer prodigy spent his time with childhood friends and at his parents’ home in the Las Heras neighborhood. However, a week before his vacation came to an end, he packed his bags and returned to Barcelona, where his dog, a boxer named Facha, always welcomes him home. Messi lives alone with this dog; his mother, father, and sister visit him during certain times of the year. The press wondered why a superstar soccer player would cut his vacation time, which is usually so scarce, short. Messi told them he returned early to train and stay in good shape. At the time, he was playing the qualifying rounds for the South Africa World Cup with Argentina’s national soccer team. Maradona was his head coach, and Messi knew it could be his first World Cup in the starting lineup as number 10. He wanted to return to Barcelona to continue the show; plus he was bored in Rosario.
“When I go to Rosario, I love it. I have my home, my people, everything. But it tires me because I don’t do anything,” he says with a shrug. “I was just lounging around all day and that also gets boring.”
“Don’t you watch TV?”
“I started to watch Lost and Prison Break, but they tired me out.”
“Why did you stop watching them?”
“Because something new was always going on, a new story line, and then someone else would tell me about it.”
Messi gets bored with Lost.
Messi is left--handed.
At first glance, it seems as though he has a fetish with his right leg: He strokes it as if he occasionally has to soothe it. Later, one notices that the object of his affection is not his hyperactive leg but rather the BlackBerry in his pocket. Outstanding soccer players have habits that draw them closer to the rest of us mere mortals, which seems to normalize their brilliance. It was said that Johan Cruyff smoked in the locker room minutes before going out on the field. Maradona trained with untied shoelaces and said that if not for a set regulation, he would have played official games the same way. Romário went dancing at night and said that the samba helped him become the top scorer in the league. Most successful soccer players constantly purchase things that flaunt their present affluence rather than secure their future. New sports cars, eye--catching clothes, flamboyant watches. However, while Ronaldinho rented his house in Castelldefels, Messi bought his home just three blocks away: a two--story building located on a hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean. Far from the superstar caricature with the gold Rolex, huge Gucci sunglasses, and blond bombshell on his arm, Messi’s the type who gets bored with new TV shows, although he does appreciate fashionable colognes. His family knows that a gift--wrapped fragrance will get a smile out of him.
“So what’s a normal day like for you after practice?” I ask.
“I like to take a siesta. And at night, I don’t know . . . I go have dinner at my brother’s.”
By accepting this interview, Messi has deprived himself of a ritual he has maintained since his childhood. Every day, after soccer practice at the club, he eats and goes to sleep, awakening two to three hours later. (Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps’s coach once declared that Phelps took a three--hour siesta daily to recuperate from training.) Messi normally does not interrupt his routine. The siesta, to him, is like a ceremony whose purpose has changed with time. He always follows the same customs. He doesn’t use the queen--size bed he has in his room; he flops onto his living--room sofa, fully clothed. He doesn’t care if someone washes the dishes in the kitchen or slams a door shut while he sleeps. As a child, this resting period, in addition to the medication, helped with his cell regeneration. Messi slept to grow. Nowadays, he no longer needs to grow; he explains he has other reasons that justify these siestas. Similar to Phelps and other soccer players, he takes a siesta to recover his strength, but above all, he naps because he doesn’t feel like doing anything else after leaving the soccer ball behind. The numerous forms of entertainment that he could afford sooner or later just tire him. Taking a vacation is another way of buying a distraction, and it also bores him. The siesta seems to be his antidote. No one gets bored while sleeping.
There’s a certain mystery surrounding geniuses whom we’re drawn to, which is normal. Fans will go to great lengths to touch their idols. It’s a way of proving they are real. On the other hand, reporters ask them questions to find out if their private world is similar to us mortals’.
“Is it true that you’re addicted to video games?” a reporter from the newspaper El Periódico de Catalunya once asked.
“I used to be into them. I don’t play as much now.”
“Do you watch soccer on TV?” inquired a journalist from the newspaper El País.
“No, I don’t watch soccer. I’m not one to watch.”
Hundreds of journalists have yearned to interview Messi one--on--one.
One even risked his life trying to do so.
Messi didn’t seem to notice. One night, after a King’s Cup match, a man facing a death threat was waiting for him in the tunnels that lead to the FC Barcelona locker rooms. It was writer Roberto Saviano. He had sought him out to meet him, knowing full well that he could also get killed there. Since he exposed the Naples mafia in his book Gomorrah, his whereabouts have been unknown, and he lives and breathes with a team of ten bodyguards by his side 24/7. That night they found him a seat out of -sniper’s range. He wanted to meet Messi in person, shake his hand, get his autograph, and ask him a few questions. He was hoping to talk to him on his own, but his bodyguards refused to leave his side, saying they were following orders. They also were dying to see the soccer player who dreamed of going to Disney World.
One waits fifteen months to get fifteen minutes with him.
To Saviano, who was risking his life to meet him, Messi said he would feel right at home in Naples.
He gave him about twenty words.
Today, in Ciutat Esportiva, after telling me about his Disney vacation, Messi raises his eyebrows like a silent movie actor expecting more questions. He’s like a smiling mime with constantly changing expressions. The electricity discharged from his body on soccer fields makes him comparable to PlayStation video game characters. Lionel Messi requires metaphors that are less electric and more surreal. The guy who entertains millions of us finds nothing better to do with his afternoons than lie down and sleep.