All You Need To Know About Lionel Messi: Life’s Journey, Football Career and Achievements

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Lionel Andrés Messi was born on 24 June 1987 in Rosario, Santa Fe, the third of four children of Jorge Messi, a steel factory manager, and his wife Celia Cuccittini, who worked in a magnet manufacturing workshop. On his father’s side, he is of Italian and Spanish heritage, the great-grandson of immigrants from Marche andCatalonia, and on his mother’s side, he is of primarily Italian descent. Growing up in a tight-knit, football-loving family, “Leo” developed a passion for the sport from an early age, playing constantly with his older brothers, Rodrigo and Matías, and his cousins, Maximiliano and Emanuel Biancucchi, both of whom became professional footballers. At four years old, he joined local club Grandoli, where he was coached by his father, though his earliest influence as a player came from his maternal grandmother, Celia, who accompanied him to training and matches.  He was greatly affected by her death, shortly before his eleventh birthday; since then, as a devout Catholic, he has celebrated his goals by looking up and pointing to the sky in tribute of his grandmother.

“When you saw him you would think: this kid can’t play ball. He’s a dwarf, he’s too fragile, too small. But immediately you’d realise that he was born different, that he was a phenomenon and that he was going to be something impressive.”

—Newell’s Old Boys youth coach Adrián Coria shares his first impression of the 12-year-old Messi.

A lifelong supporter of Newell’s Old Boys, Messi joined the Rosario club when he was six years old. During the six years he played for Newell’s, he scored almost 500 goals as a member of “The Machine of ’87”, the near-unbeatable youth side named for the year of their birth, and regularly entertained crowds by performing ball tricks during half-time of the first team’s home games. However, his future as a professional player was threatened when, at age 10, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency. As his father’s health insurance covered only two years of growth hormone treatment, which cost at least $1000 per month, Newell’s agreed to contribute, but later reneged on their promise. He was scouted by Buenos Aires club River Plate, whose playmaker, Pablo Aimar, he idolised, but they were also unable to pay for his treatment due to the country’s economic collapse.

Messi enrolled at Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, at age 13.

As the Messi family had relatives in Catalonia, they sought to arrange a trial with Barcelona in September 2000. First team director Charly Rexach immediately wanted to sign him, but the board of directors hesitated; at the time it was highly unusual for European clubs to sign foreign players of such a young age. On 14 December, an ultimatum was issued for Barcelona to prove their commitment, and Rexach, with no other paper at hand, offered a contract on a paper napkin.[12][14] In February 2001, the family relocated to Barcelona, where they moved into an apartment nearby the club’s stadium, Camp Nou. During his first year in Spain, Messi rarely played with the Infantiles due to a transfer conflict with Newell’s; as a foreigner, he could only be fielded in friendlies and the Catalan league. Without football, he struggled to integrate into the team; already reserved by nature, he was so quiet that his teammates initially believed he was mute. At home, he suffered from homesickness after his mother moved back to Rosario with his brothers and little sister, María Sol, while he stayed in Barcelona with his father.[9][14][15]

After a year at Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, Messi was finally enrolled in the Spanish Football Federation in February 2002. Now playing in all competitions, he befriended his teammates, among whom were Cesc Fàbregas and Gerard Piqué.[16] After completing his growth hormone treatment aged 14,[17]Messi became an integral part of the “Baby Dream Team”, Barcelona’s greatest-ever youth side. During his first full season, in 2002–03, he was top scorer with 36 goals in 30 games for the Cadetes A, who won an unprecedented treble of the league and both the Spanish and Catalan cups.[16][18] The Copa Catalunya final, a 4–1 victory over Espanyol, became known in club lore as the partido de la máscara, the final of the mask. A week after suffering a broken cheekbone during a league match, Messi was allowed to start the game on the condition that he wear a plastic protector; soon hindered by the mask, he took it off and scored two goals in 10 minutes before his substitution.[19] At the close of the season, he received an offer to join Arsenal, his first from a foreign club, but while Fàbregas and Piqué soon left for England, he chose to remain in Barcelona.[14][20][21]

Barcelona

2003–05: Rise to the first team

During the 2003–04 season, his fourth with Barcelona, Messi rapidly progressed through the club’s ranks, debuting for a record five teams in a single campaign. After being named player of the tournament in four international pre-season competitions with the Juveniles B, he played only one official match with the team before being promoted to the Juveniles A, where he scored 18 goals in 11 league games.[22][23] Messi was then one of several youth players called up to strengthen a depleted first team during the international break. At 16 years, four months, and 23 days old, he made his first team debut when he came on in the 75th minute during a friendly against José Mourinho’s Porto on 16 November 2003.[14][24] His performance, creating two chances and a shot on goal, impressed the technical staff, and he subsequently began training daily with the club’s reserve side, Barcelona B, as well as weekly with the first team.[25] After his first training session with the senior squad, Barça’s new star player, Ronaldinho, told his teammates that he believed the 16-year-old would become an even better player than himself.[26]Ronaldinho soon befriended Messi, whom he called “little brother,” which greatly eased his transition into the first team.[27][28]

To gain further match experience, Messi joined Barcelona C in addition to the Juveniles A, playing his first game for the third team on 29 November. He helped save them from the relegation zone of the Tercera División, scoring five goals in 10 games, including a hat-trick in eight minutes during a Spanish Cup match while man-marked by Sevilla’s Sergio Ramos.[22][29] His progress was reflected in his first professional contract, signed on 4 February 2004, which lasted until 2012 and contained an initial buyout clause of €30 million. A month later, on 6 March, he made his debut for Barcelona B in the Segunda División B, and his buyout clause automatically increased to €80 million.[22][30] He played five games with the B team that season but did not score.[31] Physically he was weaker than his opponents, who were often much older and taller, and in training he worked on increasing his muscle mass and overall strength in order to be able to shake off defenders. Towards the end of the season, he returned to both youth teams, helping the Juveniles B win the league. He finished the campaign having scored for four of his five teams with a total of 36 goals in all official competitions.[22][29]

During the 2004–05 season, Messi was a guaranteed starter for the B team, playing 17 games throughout the campaign and scoring on six occasions.[26][32] Since his debut the previous November, he had not been called up to the first team again, but in October 2004, the senior players asked manager Frank Rijkaard to promote him.[26] Since Ronaldinho already played on the left wing, Rijkaard moved Messi from his usual position onto the right flank, though initially against the player’s wishes, allowing him to cut into the centre of the pitch and shoot with his dominant left foot.[33][34] Messi made his league debut during the next match on 16 October, against Espanyol, coming on in the 82nd minute.[14] At 17 years, three months, and 22 days old, he was at the time the youngest player to represent Barcelona in an official competition.[28] As a substitute player, he played only 77 minutes in nine matches for the first team that season, including his debut in theUEFA Champions League against Shakhtar Donetsk.[32][35] He scored his first senior goal on 1 May 2005, against Albacete, from an assist by Ronaldinho, becoming at that time the youngest-ever scorer for the club.[33][36] Barcelona, in their second season under Rijkaard, won the league for the first time in six years.[37]

2005–08: Making the starting eleven

“In my entire life I have never seen a player of such quality and personality at such a young age, particularly wearing the ‘heavy’ shirt of one of the world’s great clubs.”

—Fabio Capello praises the 18-year-old Messi following theJoan Gamper trophy in August 2005.[38]

On 24 June 2005, his 18th birthday, Messi signed his first contract as a senior team player. It made him a Barcelona player until 2010, two years less than his previous contract, but his buyout clause increased to €150 million.[30] His breakthrough came two months later, on 24 August, during the Joan Gamper trophy, Barcelona’s pre-season competition. A starter for the first time, he gave a well-received performance against Fabio Capello’s Juventus, receiving an ovation from the Camp Nou.[38] While Capello requested to loan Messi, a bid to buy him came from Inter Milan, who were willing to pay his buyout clause and triple his wages. According to then-president Joan Laporta, it was the only time the club faced a real risk of losing Messi, but he ultimately decided to stay.[39] On 16 September, his contract was updated for the second time in three months and extended to 2014.[30][40]

Messi during a training session with Barça in August 2006

Due to issues regarding his legal status in the Spanish Football Federation, Messi missed the start of La Liga, but on 26 September, he acquired Spanish citizenship and became eligible to play.[40][41] Wearing the number 19 shirt, he gradually established himself as the first-choice right winger, forming an attacking trio with Ronaldinho and striker Samuel Eto’o.[21][42][43] He was in the starting line-up in major matches like his first clásico against rivals Real Madrid on 19 November, as well as their away victory over Chelsea in the last 16 round of the Champions League, where he played his best match to that point.[44][42] After he had scored 8 goals in 25 games, including his first in the Champions League,[45] his season ended prematurely during the return leg against Chelsea on 7 March 2006, when he suffered a torn hamstring. Messi worked to regain fitness in time for the Champions League final, but was told the day of the final, 17 May, that he was not fit enough to play. He was so disappointed that he did not celebrate their victory over Arsenal in Paris, something he later came to regret.[37][42]

While Barcelona began a gradual decline, the 19-year-old Messi established himself as one of the best players in the world during the 2006–07 campaign.[46][47] Already an idol to the culés, the club’s supporters, he scored 17 goals in 36 games across all competitions.[47][48] However, he continued to be plagued by major injuries; a metatarsal fracture sustained on 12 November 2006 kept him out of action for three months.[49][50] He recovered in time for the last 16 round of the Champions League against Liverpool, but was effectively marked out of the game; Barcelona, the reigning champions, were out of the competition.[51] In the league, his goal contribution increased towards the end of the season; 11 of his 14 goals came from the last 13 games.[48] On 10 March 2007, he scored his first hat-trick in a clásico, the first player to do so in 12 years, equalizing after each goal by Real Madrid to end the match in a 3–3 draw in injury time.[52] His growing importance to the club was reflected in a new contract, signed that month, which greatly increased his wages.[53]

Messi makes his Maradona-esquerun against Getafe in April 2007.

Already frequently compared to compatriot Diego Maradona, Messi proved their similarity when he nearly replicated Maradona’s two most famous goals in the span of three weeks.[54] During a Copa del Rey semi-final against Getafe on 18 April, he scored a goal remarkably similar to Maradona’s goal in the quarter-finals of the 1986 FIFA World Cup, known as the Goal of the Century. Messi collected the ball on the right side near the halfway line, ran 60 metres (200 ft), and beat five defenders before scoring with an angled finish, just as Maradona had done.[12][55] A league match against Espanyol on 9 June saw him score by launching himself at the ball and guiding it past the goalkeeper with his hand in similar fashion to Maradona’s Hand of God goal in the same World Cup match.[56] As Messi continued his individual rise, Barcelona faltered; the team failed to reach the Copa del Rey final after Messi was rested during the second leg against Getafe and lost the league to Real Madrid on goal average.[57][58]

After Ronaldinho lost form, Messi became Barça’s new star player at only 20 years old, receiving the nickname “Messiah” from the Spanish media.[12][59][60] His efforts in 2007 also earned him award recognition; journalists voted him the third-best player of the year for the Ballon d’Or, behind Kaká and runner-up Cristiano Ronaldo, while international managers and national team captains voted him second for the FIFA World Player of the Year award, again behind Kaká.[61][62] Although he managed to score 16 goals during the 2007–08 campaign,[63] the second half of his season was again marred by injuries after he suffered a torn hamstring on 15 December.[64] He returned to score twice in their away victory against Celtic in the last 16 round of the Champions League, becoming the competition’s top scorer at that point with six goals,[65] but reinjured himself during the return leg on 4 March 2008. Rijkaard had fielded him despite warning from the medical staff, leading captain Carles Puyol to criticise the Spanish media for pressuring Messi to play every match.[64] Barcelona finished the season without trophies, eliminated in the Champions League semi-finals by the eventual champions, Manchester United, and placed third in the league.[66]

2008–09: Winning the sextuple

After two unsuccessful seasons, Barcelona were in need of an overhaul, leading to the dismissals of Rijkaard and Ronaldinho. Upon the latter’s departure, Messi was given the number 10 shirt.[43] He signed a new contract in July 2008 on an annual salary of €7.8 million, becoming the club’s highest-paid player.[67][68] Ahead of the new season, a major concern remained his frequent muscular injuries, which had left him side-lined for a total of eight months between 2006 and 2008. To combat the problem, the club implemented new training, nutrition, and lifestyle regimens, and assigned him a personal physiotherapist, who would travel with him during call-ups for the Argentina national team. As a result, Messi remained virtually injury-free during the next four years, allowing him to reach his full potential.[50][69] In his first uninterrupted campaign, the 2008–09 season, he scored 38 goals in 51 games, contributing alongside Eto’o and winger Thierry Henry to a total of 100 goals in all competitions, a record at the time for the club.[70][71] Despite his injuries early in the year, his performances in 2008 saw him again voted runner-up for the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award, both times behind Cristiano Ronaldo.[61][72]

Messi shoots nearby Manchester United’s penalty area during theChampions League final in May 2009.

During his first season under Barcelona’s new manager, former captain Pep Guardiola, Messi played mainly on the right wing, like he had under Rijkaard, though this time as a false winger with the freedom to cut inside and roam the centre. During a clásico on 2 May 2009, however, he played for the first time as a false nine, positioned as a centre-forward but dropping deep into midfield to link up with Xavi and Andrés Iniesta. He assisted with a chip his side’s first goal and scored twice to end the match in an emphatic 6–2 victory, their greatest-ever score at Real Madrid’s Bernabéu stadium.[73][74]Returning to the wing, he played his first final since breaking into the first team on 13 May, scoring once and assisting a second goal as they defeated Athletic Bilbao 4–1 to win the Copa del Rey.[75] With 23 league goals from Messi that season, they were crowned La Liga champions three days later to win their fifth double.[70][76]

As the season’s Champions League top scorer with nine goals, the youngest in the tournament’s history,[77] Messi scored two goals and assisted two more to ensure a 4–0 quarter-final victory over Bayern Munich.[73] He returned as a false nine during the final on 27 May in Rome, where they faced Manchester United. When he headed the ball over goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar to make the end score 2–0, Barcelona were champions of Europe, achieving the first treble in the history of Spanish football.[78][79] Their success was reflected in a new contract, signed on 18 September, which committed Messi to the club through 2016 with a new buyout clause of €250 million, while his salary increased to €12 million.[67] Barça’s prosperity continued into the second half of 2009, as they became the first club to achieve the sextuple, winning six top-tier trophies in a single year.[80] After victories in the Supercopa de España and UEFA Super Cup in August, they won the FIFA Club World Cup against Estudiantes on 19 December, with Messi scoring the winning 2–1 goal with his chest.[81] At 22 years old, Messi won the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award, both times by the greatest voting margin in each trophy’s history.[61]

2010–11: Continued success

“Messi is the best player in the world by some distance. He’s like a PlayStation. He can take advantage of every mistake we make.”

—Arsène Wenger commends Messi for his four–goal display against Arsenal in April 2010.[82]

Unsatisfied with his position on the right wing, Messi resumed playing as a false nine in early 2010, beginning with a Champions League last 16 round match against Stuttgart. After a first-leg draw, they won the second leg 4–0 with two goals and an assist from Messi. At that point, he effectively became the tactical focal point of Guardiola’s team, and his goalscoring rate increased.[83] Messi scored a total of 47 goals in all competitions that season, equal to Ronaldo’s club record from the 1996–97 campaign.[84][85]He notably scored all of his side’s four goals in the Champions League quarter-final against Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal on 6 April, a rare achievement, while becoming Barcelona’s all-time top scorer in the competition.[86][87] Although they were eliminated in the Champions League semi-finals by the eventual champions, Inter Milan, Messi finished the season as top scorer, with eight goals, for the second consecutive year.[88] As league top scorer in Spain and Europe with 34 goals, again tying Ronaldo’s record, he helped Barcelona win La Liga with only a single defeat.[85][89]

Messi (centre) and his teammates celebrate winning the FIFA Club World Cup in December 2011.

Messi secured their first trophy of the 2010–11 campaign, the Supercopa de España, by scoring a hat-trick in their 4–0 victory over Sevilla, after a first-leg defeat.[90] Assuming a playmaking role, he was again instrumental in a clásico on 29 November 2010, the first with José Mourinho in charge of Real Madrid, as Barcelona defeated their rivals 5–0.[91] Messi helped the team achieve 16 consecutive league victories, a record in Spanish football, concluding with another hat-trick against Atlético Madrid on 5 February 2011.[92][93] His club performances in 2010 earned him the inaugural FIFA Ballon d’Or, an amalgamation of the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award, though his win was met with some criticism due to his lack of success with Argentina at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.[61][94] Under the award’s old format, he would have placed just outside the top three, owing his win to the votes from the international coaches and captains.[94]

Towards the end of the season, Barcelona played four controversial clásicos in the span of 18 days. A league match on 16 April ended in a draw after a penalty from Messi, securing their third consecutive La Liga title. In addition to his 31 goals, Messi was the league’s top assist provider with 18 assists.[95][96] After they lost the Copa del Rey final four days later, he scored both goals in their 2–0 win in the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals, the second of which—a dribble past three players—was acclaimed as one of the best ever in the competition. Although he did not score, he was again important in the second-leg draw that sent them through to the Champions League final,[15][97][98] where they faced Manchester United in a repeat of the final two years earlier. As the competition’s top scorer for the third consecutive year, with 12 goals, Messi gave a man-of-the-match performance at Wembley on 28 May, scoring the match-winning goal of their 3–1 victory.[99][100] He finished the season with 53 goals and 24 assists in all competitions, becoming Barcelona’s all-time single-season top scorer and the first player in Spanish football to reach the 50-goal benchmark.[95][101][102][103]

As Messi developed into a combination of a number eight (a creator), a nine (scorer), and a 10 (assistant), he scored an unprecedented 73 goals and provided 29 assists in all club competitions during the 2011–12 season, producing a hat-trick or more on 10 occasions.[104][105][106] He began the campaign by helping Barcelona win both the Spanish and European super cups; in the Supercopa de España, he scored three times to achieve a 5–4 aggregate victory over Real Madrid, overtaking Raúl as the competition’s all-time top scorer with eight goals.[107][108] At the close of the year, on 18 December, he scored twice in the FIFA Club World Cup final, a 4–0 victory over Santos, winning the Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament, as he had done two years previously.[109] For his efforts in 2011, he again received the FIFA Ballon d’Or, becoming only the fourth player in history to win the Ballon d’Or three times, after Johan Cruyff, Michel Platini, and Marco van Basten.[110] Additionally, he won the inaugural UEFA Best Player in Europe Award, a revival of the old-style Ballon d’Or.[111] By then, Messi was widely considered one of the best players in history, alongside legends like Diego Maradona and Pelé.[15]

2012: A record-breaking year

“I feel sorry for those who want to compete for Messi’s throne—it’s impossible, this kid is unique.”

—Pep Guardiola after Messi became Barcelona’s all-time top scorer at age 24 in March 2012[112][113]

As Messi maintained his goalscoring form into the second half of the season, the year 2012 saw him break several longstanding records. On 7 March, two weeks after scoring four goals in a league fixture against Valencia, he scored five times in a Champions League last 16 round match against Bayer Leverkusen, an unprecedented achievement in the history of the competition.[114][115] In addition to being the joint top assist provider with five assists, this feat made him top scorer with 14 goals, tying José Altafini’s record from the 1962–63 season, as well as becoming only the second player after Gerd Müllerto be top scorer in four campaigns.[116][117] Two weeks later, on 20 March, Messi became the top goalscorer in Barcelona’s history at 24 years old, overtaking the 57-year record of César Rodríguez’s 232 goals with a hat-trick against Granada.[113]

Messi points to the sky during his five-goal display against Bayer Leverkusen in March 2012.

Despite Messi’s individual form, Barcelona’s four-year cycle of success under Guardiola—one of the greatest eras in the club’s history—drew to an end.[118] Although they won the Copa del Rey against Athletic Bilbao on 25 May, their fourteenth title of that period, they had lost the league to Real Madrid and were eliminated in the Champions League semi-finals by the eventual champions, Chelsea, with Messi sending a crucial second-leg penalty kick against the crossbar.[119][120] In their last home league match on 5 May, against Espanyol, Messi scored all four goals before approaching the bench to embrace Guardiola, who had announced his resignation as manager.[121] He finished the season as league top scorer in Spain and Europe for a second time, with 50 goals, an all-time La Liga record, while his 73 goals in all competitions surpassed Gerd Müller’s 67 goals in the 1972–73 Bundesliga season, making him the single-season top scorer in the history of European club football.[122][123]

Under manager Tito Vilanova, who had first coached him aged 14 at La Masia, Messi helped the club achieve their best-ever start to a La Liga season during the second half of the year, amassing 55 points by the competition’s midway point, a record in Spanish football.[124][125] A double scored on 9 December against Real Betis saw him break two longstanding records: he surpassed César Rodríguez’s record of 190 league goals, becoming Barcelona’s all-time top scorer in La Liga, and Gerd Müller’s record of most goals scored in a calendar year, overtaking his 85 goals scored in 1972 for Bayern Munich and Germany.[126] He sent Müller a number 10 Barcelona shirt, signed “with respect and admiration”, after breaking his 40-year record.[127] At the close of the year, Messi had scored an unprecedented 91 goals in all competitions for Barcelona and Argentina.[128] Although FIFA did not acknowledge the achievement, citing verifiability issues, he received the Guinness World Records title for most goals scored in a calendar year.[129][130] As the odds-on favourite, Messi again won the FIFA Ballon d’Or, becoming the only player in history to win the Ballon d’Or four times.[128][131]

2013–14: Messidependence

Barcelona had virtually secured their La Liga title by the start of 2013, eventually equalling Real Madrid’s 100-point record of the previous season. However, their performances deteriorated in the second half of the 2012–13 campaign, concurrently with Vilanova’s absence due to ill health.[132][133] After losing successiveclásicos, including the Copa del Rey semi-finals, they were nearly eliminated in the first knockout round of the Champions League by Milan, but a revival of form in the second leg led to a 4–0 comeback, with two goals and an assist from Messi.[134] Now in his ninth senior season with Barcelona, Messi signed a new contract on 7 February, committing himself to the club through 2018, while his fixed wage rose to €13 million.[135][136] He wore the captain’s armband for the first time a month later, on 17 March, in a league match against Rayo Vallecano; by then, he had become the team’s tactical focal point to a degree that was arguably rivalled only by former Barcelona legends Josep Samitier, László Kubala, and Johan Cruyff.[137] Since his evolution into a false nine three years earlier, his input into the team’s attack had increased exponentially; from 24 percent in their treble-winning campaign, his goal contribution rose to more than 40 percent that season.[138]

“In Leo we are talking about the best player in the world and when things are not going well you have to use him. Even if he is half lame, his presence on the pitch is enough to lift us and our play in general.”

—Defender Gerard Piqué explains Barcelona’s reliance on an unfit Messi against Paris Saint-Germain in April 2013.[139]

After four largely injury-free seasons, the muscular injuries that had previously plagued Messi reoccurred. After he suffered a hamstring strain on 2 April, during the first quarter-final against Paris Saint-Germain, his appearances became sporadic. In the second leg against PSG, with an underperforming Barcelona down a goal, Messi came off the bench in the second half and within nine minutes helped create their game-tying goal, which allowed them to progress to the semi-finals. Still unfit, he proved ineffective during the first leg against Bayern Munich and was unable to play at all during the second, as Barcelona were defeated 7–0 on aggregate by the eventual champions.[140][141] These matches gave credence to the notion of Messidependencia, Barcelona’s perceived tactical and psychological dependence on their star player.[141]

Messi continued to struggle with injury throughout 2013, eventually parting ways with his long-time personal physiotherapist.[142] Further damage to his hamstring sustained on 12 May ended his goalscoring streak of 21 consecutive league games, a worldwide record; he had netted 33 goals during his run, including a four-goal display against Osasuna, while becoming the first player to score consecutively against all 19 opposition teams in La Liga.[137][143][144][145] With 60 goals in all competitions, including 46 goals in La Liga, he finished the campaign as league top scorer in Spain and Europe for the second consecutive year, becoming the first player in history to win the European Golden Shoe three times.[146][147] Following an irregular start to the new season under manager Gerardo Martino, formerly of his boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys, Messi suffered his fifth injury that year when he tore his hamstring on 10 November, leaving him side-lined for two months.[148][149] Despite his injuries, he was voted runner-up for the FIFA Ballon d’Or, relinquishing the award after a four-year monopoly to Cristiano Ronaldo.[150]

Messi celebrates his second goal against Granada in September 2014.

During the second half of the 2013–14 season, doubts persisted over Messi’s form, leading to a perception among the culésthat he was reserving himself for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Statistically, his contribution of goals, shots, and passes had dropped significantly compared to previous seasons.[151][152][153] He still produced fine moments, as he did when he broke two longstanding records in seven days: a hat-trick on 16 March against Osasuna saw him overtake Paulino Alcántara’s 369 goals to become Barcelona’s top goalscorer in all competitions including friendlies, while another hat-trick against Real Madrid on 23 March made him the all-time top scorer in El Clásico, ahead of the 18 goals scored by Real Madrid legendAlfredo Di Stéfano.[151][154] Messi finished the campaign with his worst output in five seasons, though he still managed to score 41 goals in all competitions.[152][155] For the first time in five years, Barcelona ended the season without a major trophy; they were defeated in the Copa del Rey final by Real Madrid and lost the league in the last game to Atlético Madrid, causing Messi to be booed by sections of fans at the Camp Nou.[156][157]

After prolonged speculation over his future with the club, Messi signed a new contract on 19 May 2014, only a year after his last contractual update; his salary increased to €20 million, or €36 million before taxes, the highest wage ever in the sport.[158][159] Under their new manager, former captain Luis Enrique, Messi experienced a largely injury-free start to the 2014–15 season, allowing him to break three more longstanding records towards the end of the year.[160] A hat-trick scored against Sevilla on 22 November made him the all-time top scorer in La Liga, as he surpassed the 59-year record of 251 league goals held by Telmo Zarra.[161] Three days later, he scored another hat-trick against APOEL, overtaking Raúl’s 71 goals to become top scorer in the history of the Champions League.[162] A third hat-trick, scored against city rivals Espanyol on 7 December, allowed him to surpass César Rodríguez as the all-time top scorer in the Derbi barceloní with 12 goals.[163] Messi again placed second in the FIFA Ballon d’Or behind Cristiano Ronaldo, largely owing to his second-place achievement with Argentina at the World Cup.[164]

2015: A historic treble

“Messi is an alien that dedicates himself to playing with humans.”

—Juventus captain Gianluigi Buffon ahead of their meeting in the Champions League final in June 2015[165]

At the start of 2015, Barcelona were perceived to be headed for another disappointing end to the season, with renewed speculation in the media that Messi was leaving the club. A turning point came on 11 January during a 3–1 victory over Atlético Madrid, the first time Barça’s attacking trident of Messi, Luis Suárez, and Neymar, dubbed MSN, each scored in a match, marking the beginning of a highly successful run.[166][167] After five years of playing in the centre of the pitch, Messi had returned to his old position on the right wing late the previous year, by his own suggestion according to Suárez, their striker.[167][168] From there, he regained his best—arguably his best-ever—form, while Suárez and Neymar ended the team’s attacking dependency on their star player.[169][170] With 58 goals from Messi, the trio scored a total of 122 goals in all competitions that season, a record in Spanish football.[171][172]

Messi battles Juventus defenderPatrice Evra for the ball during theChampions League final in June 2015.

Towards the end of the campaign, Messi scored the only goal in a 1–0 win over Atlético Madrid on 17 May, securing the La Liga title.[173] Among his 43 league goals that season was a hat-trick scored in 11 minutes against Rayo Vallecano on 8 March, the fastest of his senior career; it was his thirty-second hat-trick overall for Barcelona, allowing him to overtake Telmo Zarra as the player with the most hat-tricks ever in Spanish football.[172][174] Additionally, as the season’s top assist provider with 18 assists, he surpassed Luís Figo as the player with the most assists in La Liga;[note 2] he had made his record 106th assist in a fixture against Levante on 15 February, in which he also scored a hat-trick.[175][176][177] Messi then scored twice as Barcelona defeated Athletic Bilbao 3–1 in the Copa del Rey final on 30 May, achieving the sixth double in their history. His opening goal was hailed as one of the greatest in his career; he collected the ball near the halfway line and beat four opposing players, before feinting the goalkeeper to score in a tight space by the near post.[178]

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In the Champions League, Messi scored twice and assisted another in their 3–0 semi-final victory over Bayern Munich, now under the stewardship of Guardiola.[179] His second goal, which came only three minutes after his first, saw him dribble pastJérôme Boateng, making the defender lose his footing and drop to the ground; it went viral and was subsequently named the best goal of the season by UEFA based on an online voting.[180][181] Despite a second-leg loss, Barcelona progressed to the final on 6 June in Berlin, where they defeated Juventus 3–1 to win their second treble, becoming the first club in history to win the league, domestic cup, and European cup twice.[182][183] Although Messi did not score, he participated in each of the Barcelona goals, particularly the second as he forced a parried save from goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon from which Suárez scored the match-winning goal on the rebound.[171] In addition to being the top assist provider with 6 assists, Messi finished the competition as the joint top scorer, with 10 goals, which earned him the distinction of being the first player ever to achieve the top scoring mark in five Champions League seasons.[184][185] For his efforts that season, he received the UEFA Best Player in Europe award for a second time.[186]

Messi opened the 2015–16 season by scoring twice, both times from a free kick, in Barcelona’s 5–4 victory over Sevilla in the UEFA Super Cup.[187] A subsequent 5–1 aggregate defeat against Athletic Bilbao in the Supercopa de España ended their expressed hopes of a second sextuple, with Messi scoring his side’s only goal.[188] On 16 September, he became the youngest player to make 100 appearances in the UEFA Champions League in a 1–1 away draw to Roma.[189] On 26 September, Messi sustained an injury in Barcelona’s match against Las Palmas; tests later confirmed that he suffered a tear in the medial collateral ligament of his left knee, ruling him out for six to eight weeks.[190]

Argentina national team

2004–05: Success at youth level

As a dual Argentine–Spanish national, Messi was eligible to play for the national team of both countries.[191] Selectors for Spain’s Under-17 squad began pursuing him in 2003 after Barcelona’s director of football, Charly Rexach, alerted the Spanish Football Federation to their young player. Messi declined the offer, having aspired to represent La Albiceleste since childhood. To further prevent Spain from taking him, the Argentine Football Association organised two Under-20 friendlies in June 2004, against Paraguay and Uruguay, with the purpose of finalising his status as an Argentina player in FIFA. Five days after his seventeenth birthday, on 29 June, he made his debut for his country against Paraguay, scoring once and providing two assists in their 8–0 victory. He was subsequently included in the squad for the South American Youth Championship, held in Colombia in February 2005. As he lacked the stamina of his teammates, the result of his former growth hormone deficiency, he was used as a substitute in six of the nine games, proving more effective when coming on in the second half. After being named man of the match against Venezuela, he scored the winning 2–1 goal in the crucial last match against Brazil, thereby securing their third-place qualification for the FIFA World Youth Championship.[192]

Aware of his physical limitations, Messi employed a personal trainer to increase his muscle mass, returning to the squad in improved condition in time for the World Youth Championship, hosted by the Netherlands in June 2005. After he was left out of the starting line-up in their first match against the United States, a 1–0 defeat, the squad’s senior players asked manager Francisco Ferraro to let Messi start, as they considered him their best player. After helping the team defeat Egypt and Germany to progress past the group stage, Messi proved decisive in the knockout phase as he scored their equalizer against Colombia, provided a goal and an assist against title favourites Spain, and scored their opening goal against reigning champions Brazil. Ahead of the final, he was awarded the Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament. He scored two penalties in their 2–1 victory over Nigeria, clinching Argentina’s fifth championship and finishing the tournament as top scorer with 6 goals.[193][194] His performances drew comparisons with compatriot Diego Maradona, who had led Argentina to the title in 1979.[194]

2005–06: Senior and World Cup debuts

In recognition of his achievements with the Under-20 side, senior manager José Pékerman gave Messi his first call-up for a friendly against Hungary on 17 August 2005. Aged 18, Messi made his senior debut for Argentina when he came on in the 63rd minute, only to be sent off after two minutes for a perceived foul against an opposing player who had grabbed his shirt. He had struck the defender with his arm while trying to shake him off, which the referee interpreted as an intentional elbowing, a contentious decision.[195] Messi was reportedly found weeping in the dressing room after his sending-off.[196] He returned to the team on 3 September in their World Cup qualifier defeat to Paraguay, which he had declared his “re-debut” ahead of the match.[197] Messi started his first game in the next qualifying match against Peru, in which he was able to win a crucial penalty that secured their victory; after the match Pékerman described him as “a jewel”.[198] He subsequently made regular appearances for the team ahead of Argentina’s participation in the 2006 FIFA World Cup, scoring his first goal in a friendly against Croatia on 1 March 2006.[199] A hamstring injury sustained a week later jeopardised his presence in the World Cup, but he was nevertheless selected for Pékerman’s squad and regained fitness in time for the start of the tournament.[200]

During the World Cup in Germany, Messi witnessed their opening match victory against Ivory Coast from the substitutes’ bench. In the next match against Serbia and Montenegro, he became the youngest player to represent Argentina at a World Cup when he came on as a substitute in the 74th minute. He assisted their fourth strike within minutes and scored the final goal in their 6–0 victory, making him the youngest scorer in the tournament and the sixth-youngest goalscorer in the history of the World Cup.[201] As their progression to the knockout phase was secured, several starters were rested during the last group match. Messi consequently started the game against the Netherlands, a 0–0 draw, as they won their group on goal differential.[202][203] In the round of 16 match against Mexico, played on his nineteenth birthday, Messi came on in the 84th minute, with the score tied at 1–1. He appeared to score a goal, but it was contentiously ruled offside, with the team needing a late goal in extra time to proceed.[204][205] He did not play in the quarter-final against Germany, during which Argentina were eliminated 4–2 in a penalty shootout.[206][207] Back home, Pékerman’s decision to leave him on the bench against Germany led to widespread criticism from those who believed Messi could have changed the outcome of the match in Argentina’s favour.[208][209]

2007–08: Copa América final and Olympic gold

Messi evades Brazil’s Marcelo in the semi-final of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

As Messi evolved into one of the best players in the world, he secured a place in Coco Basile’s starting line-up, as part of a team considered favourites to win the 2007 Copa América, held in Venezuela.[47][210] He set up the game-winning goal of their 4–1 victory over the United States in the opening match, before winning a penalty that led to the game-tying first strike of their 4–2 win in the next match against Colombia.[211][212] As they had secured their place in the knockout phase, Messi started the next game on the bench, coming on in the last 25 minutes with the score at 0–0 to help his team defeat Paraguay by assisting their only goal. At the quarter-final stage, where the group winners faced Peru, he scored the second goal of a 4–0 victory that saw them through to the semi-final, during which he chipped the ball over Mexico’s goalkeeper to ensure another 3–0 win.[210] In a surprise defeat, Argentina lost the final 3–0 to a Brazil that lacked several of their best players.[213] Their unexpected loss was followed by much criticism in Argentina, though Messi was mostly exempt due to his young age and secondary status to star player Juan Román Riquelme.[210] He was named the best young player of the tournament by CONMEBOL.[214]

Ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Barcelona legally barred Messi from representing Argentina at the tournament as it coincided with their Champions League qualifying matches.[215] After interference from newly appointed manager Pep Guardiola, who had won the tournament in 1992, Messi was permitted to join Sergio Batista’s Under-23 squad in Beijing.[216] During the first match, he scored the opening goal and assisted another in their 2–1 victory over Ivory Coast. Following a 1–0 win in the next group match against Australia, ensuring their quarter-final qualification, Messi was rested during the game against Serbia, while his side won the match to finish first in their group. Against the Netherlands, he again scored the first goal and assisted a second strike to help his team to a 2–1 win in extra time. After a 3–0 semi-final victory over Brazil, Messi assisted the only goal in the final as Argentina defeated Nigeria to claim Olympic gold medals.[217] Along with Riquelme, Messi was singled out by FIFA as the stand-out player from the tournament’s best team.[218]

2008–11: Collective decline

From late 2008, the national team experienced a three-year period marked by poor performances.[210] Under manager Diego Maradona, who had led Argentina to World Cup victory as a player, the team struggled to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, securing their place in the tournament only after defeating Uruguay 1–0 in their last qualifying match. Maradona was criticised for his strategic decisions as he played Messi out of position, positioned too deep for him to be able to contribute to the attack to his full ability. In eight qualifying matches under Maradona’s stewardship, Messi scored only one goal, netting the opening goal in the first such match, a 4–0 victory over Venezuela.[199][219] During that game, played on 28 March 2009, he wore Argentina’s number 10 shirt for the first time, following the international retirement of Riquelme.[220] Overall, Messi scored four goals in 18 appearances during the qualifying process.[199] Ahead of the tournament, Maradona visited Messi in Barcelona to request his tactical input; Messi then outlined a 4-3-1-2 formation with himself playing behind the two strikers, a playmaking position known as the enganche in Argentine football, which had been his preferred position since childhood.[221]

Messi in action during the opening match against Bolivia in the 2011 Copa América

Despite their poor qualifying campaign, Argentina were considered title contenders at the World Cup in South Africa. At the start of the tournament, the new formation proved effective; Messi managed at least four attempts on goal during their opening match but was repeatedly denied by Nigeria’s goalkeeper, resulting in a 1–0 win. During the next match against Korea, he excelled in his playmaking role, participating in all four goals of his side’s 4–1 victory. As their place in the knockout phase was guaranteed, most of the starters were rested during the last group match, but Messi reportedly refused to be benched.[219] He wore the captain’s armband for the first time in their 2–0 win against Greece; as the focal point of their play, he helped create their second goal to see Argentina finish as group winners.[222][223] In the round of 16, they defeated Mexico 3–1, with Messi assisting their first goal, a controversial strike that stood despite being offside.[224]

Argentina’s unstructured defence had proved a liability throughout the World Cup and finally led to their elimination in the quarter-final against Germany, at the same stage of the tournament and by the same opponent as four years earlier. Their 4–0 loss was their worst margin of defeat since 1974.[224] FIFA subsequently identified Messi as one of the tournament’s 10 best players, citing his “outstanding” pace and creativity and “spectacular and efficient” dribbling, shooting, and passing.[225] Back home, however, Messi was the subject of far harsher judgement. As the perceived best player in the world, he had been expected to lead an average team to the title, as Maradona arguably did in 1986, but he had failed to replicate his performances at Barcelona with the national team, leading to the accusation that he cared less about his country than his club.[226][227]

Maradona was replaced by Sergio Batista, who had orchestrated their Olympic victory. Batista publicly stated that he intended to build the team around Messi, employing him as a false nine within a 4-3-3 system, as used to much success by Barcelona.[226][228] Although Messi scored a record 53 goals during the 2010–11 club season, he had not scored for Argentina in an official match since March 2009.[95][199] Despite the tactical change, his goal draught continued during the 2011 Copa América, hosted by Argentina. Their first two matches, against Bolivia and Colombia, ended in draws, with Messi underperforming by his standards. Media and fans noted that he did not combine well with striker Carlos Tévez, who enjoyed far greater popularity among the Argentine public; Messi was consequently booed by his own team’s supporters for the first time in his career. During the crucial next match, with Tévez on the bench, he gave a well-received performance, assisting two goals in their 3–0 victory over Costa Rica. After the quarter-final against Uruguay ended in a 1–1 draw following extra time, with Messi having assisted their equaliser, Argentina were eliminated 4–5 in the penalty shootout by the eventual champions.[226]

2011–13: Assuming the captaincy

Messi scored his first international hat-trick against Switzerland in February 2012.

After Argentina’s unsuccessful performance in the Copa América, Batista was replaced by Alejandro Sabella. Upon his appointment in August 2011, Sabella awarded the 24-year-old Messi the captaincy of the squad, in accord with then-captain Javier Mascherano. Reserved by nature, Messi went on to lead his squad by example as their best player, while Mascherano continued to fulfil the role of the team’s on-field leader and motivator.[229][230] In a further redesign of the team, Sabella dismissed Tévez and brought in players with whom Messi had won the World Youth Championship and Olympic Games. Now playing in a free role in an improving team, Messi finally ended his goal draught by scoring during their first World Cup qualifying match against Chile on 7 October, his first official goal for Argentina in two-and-a-half years.[199][229]

Under Sabella, his goalscoring rate drastically increased; where he had scored only 17 goals in 61 matches under his previous managers, he scored 25 times in 32 appearances during the following three years.[199][229] Messi netted a total of 12 goals in nine games for Argentina in 2012, equalling the record held by Gabriel Batistuta, Argentina’s all-time top scorer, for the most goals scored in a calendar year for their country.[231][232] His first hat-trick with the Albicelestes came in a friendly against Switzerland on 29 February 2012, followed by two more hat-tricks over the next year-and-a-half in friendlies against Brazil and Guatemala. Messi then helped the team secure their place in the 2014 FIFA World Cup with a 5–2 victory over Paraguay on 10 September 2013; in addition to providing an assist, he scored twice from a penalty kick, taking his international tally to 37 goals to become Argentina’s second-highest goalscorer behind only Batistuta. Overall, he had scored a total of 10 goals in 14 matches during the qualifying campaign.[199][233] Concurrently with his bettered performances, his relationship with his compatriots improved, as he gradually began to be perceived more favourably in Argentina.[229]

2014–15: World Cup and Copa América finals

Ahead of the World Cup in Brazil, doubts persisted over Messi’s form, as he finished an unsuccessful and injury-plagued season with Barcelona. At the start of the tournament, however, he gave strong performances, being elected man of the match in their first four matches.[153][234] In his first World Cup match as captain, he led them to a 2–1 victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina; he helped create their early opening goal and scored their second strike after a dribble past three players, his first World Cup goal since his debut in the tournament eight years earlier.[235] During the second match against Iran, he scored an injury-time goal from 23 metres out to end the game in a 1–0 win, securing their qualification for the knockout phase.[236] He scored twice in the last group match, a 3–2 victory over Nigeria, his second goal from a free kick, as they finished first in their group.[237] Messi assisted a late goal in extra time to ensure a 1–0 win against Switzerland in the round of 16, before starting the play that led to their match-winning 1–0 goal in the quarter-final against Belgium, helping Argentina progress to the semi-final of the World Cup for the first time since 1990.[238][239] Following a 0–0 draw in extra time, they eliminated the Netherlands 4–2 in a penalty shootout to reach the final.[240]

Messi battles Germany’sMats Hummels for the ball during the final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Billed as Messi versus Germany, the world’s best player against the best team, the final was a repeat of the 1990 final featuring Diego Maradona.[241][242] Within the first half hour, Messi had started the play that led to a goal, but it was ruled offside. He missed several opportunities to open the scoring throughout the match, in particular at the start of the second half when his breakaway effort went wide of the far post. Substitute Mario Götze finally scored in the 113th minute, followed in the last minute of extra time by a free kick that Messi sent over the net, as Germany won the match 1–0 to claim the World Cup.[243] At the conclusion of the final, Messi was awarded the Golden Ball as the best player of the tournament. In addition to being the joint third-highest goalscorer, with four goals and an assist, he created the most chances, completed the most dribbling runs, made the most deliveries into the penalty area, and produced the most throughballs in the competition.[234][244] However, his selection drew criticism due to his lack of goals in the knockout round; FIFA president Sepp Blatter expressed his surprise, while Maradona suggested that Messi had undeservedly been chosen for marketing purposes.[245]

Another final appearance, the third of Messi’s senior international career, followed in the 2015 Copa América, held in Chile. Under the stewardship of former Barcelona manager Tata Martino, Argentina entered the tournament as title contenders due to their second-place achievement at the World Cup.[246][247] During the opening match against Paraguay, they were ahead two goals by half-time but lost their lead to end the match in a 2–2 draw; Messi had scored from a penalty kick, netting his only goal in the tournament.[248] Following a 1–0 win against defending champions Uruguay, Messi earned his hundredth cap for his country in the final group match, a 1–0 win over Jamaica, becoming only the fifth Argentine to achieve this milestone.[249][250] In his 100 appearances, he had scored a total of 46 goals for Argentina, 22 of which came in official competitive matches.[199][250]

As Messi evolved from the team’s symbolic captain into a genuine leader, he led Argentina to the knockout stage as group winners.[251][252] In the quarter-final, they created numerous chances, including a rebound header by Messi, but were repeatedly denied by Colombia’s goalkeeper, and ultimately ended the match scoreless, leading to a 5–4 penalty shootout in their favour.[253] At the semi-final stage, Messi excelled as playmaker as he provided three assists and helped create three more goals in his side’s 6–1 victory over Paraguay, receiving applause from the initially hostile crowd.[251] Argentina started the final as the odds-on title favourites, but were defeated by Chile 4–1 in a penalty shootout after an 0–0 extra-time draw. Faced with aggression from opposing players, including taking a boot to the midriff, Messi played below his standards, though he was the only Argentine to successfully convert his penalty.[254][255] At the close of the tournament, he was reportedly selected to receive the Most Valuable Player award but rejected the honour.[256] As Argentina continued a trophy draught that began in 1993, the World Cup and Copa América defeats again brought intense criticism for Messi from Argentine media and fans.[257][258]

Player profile

Style of play

“I have fun like a child in the street. When the day comes when I’m not enjoying it, I will leave football.”

—Messi explains his approach to the game in May 2011.[15]

Due to his short stature, Messi has a lower centre of gravity than taller players, which gives him greater agility, allowing him to change direction more quickly and evade opposing tackles.[259][260] Despite being physically unimposing, he possesses significant upper-body strength, which, combined with his low centre of gravity and resulting balance, aids him in withstanding physical challenges from opponents; he has consequently been noted for his lack of diving in a sport rife with playacting.[9][260][261] His short, strong legs allow him to excel in short bursts of acceleration while his quick feet enable him to retain control of the ball when dribbling at speed.[262] His former Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola, once stated: “Messi is the only player that runs faster with the ball than he does without it.”[34] Although he has improved his ability with his weaker foot since his mid-20s, Messi is predominantly a left-footed player; with the outside of his left foot, he usually begins dribbling runs, while he uses the inside of his foot to finish and provide passes and assists.[263][264]

Messi prepares to shoot with his dominant left foot during the final of the2014 FIFA World Cup.

A prolific goalscorer, Messi is known for his finishing, positioning, quick reactions, and ability to make attacking runs to beat the defensive line. He also functions in a playmaking role, courtesy of his vision and precise passing, and is an accurate free kick and penalty kick taker.[260][265] His pace and technical ability enable him to undertake individual dribbling runs towards goal, in particular during counterattacks, usually starting from the halfway line or the right side of the pitch.[259][265] Widely considered to be the best dribbler in the world,[266] and one of the greatest of all time,[267] with regard to this ability, his former Argentina manager Diego Maradona has said of him: “The ball stays glued to his foot; I’ve seen great players in my career, but I’ve never seen anyone with Messi’s ball control.”[264] Beyond his individual qualities, he is also a well-rounded, hard-working team player, known for his creative combinations, in particular with Barcelona midfielders Xavi and Andrés Iniesta.[259][260]

Tactically, Messi plays in a free attacking role; a versatile player, he is capable of attacking on either wing or through the centre of the pitch. His favoured position in childhood was the playmaker behind two strikers, known as the enganche in Argentine football, but he began his career in Spain as a left-winger or left-sided forward.[221] Upon his first-team debut, he was moved onto the right wing by manager Frank Rijkaard; from this position, he could more easily cut through the defence into the middle of the pitch and curlshots on goal with his left foot, rather than predominantly cross balls for teammates.[34] Under Guardiola and subsequent managers, he most often played in a false nine role; positioned as a centre-forward or lone striker, he would roam the centre, often moving deep into midfield and drawing defenders with him, in order to create and exploit spaces for passes, dribbling runs or combinations with Xavi and Iniesta.[15] Under the stewardship of Luis Enrique, he returned to playing in the right-sided position that characterised much of his early career.[168] With the Argentina national team, Messi has similarly played anywhere along the frontline; under various managers, he has been employed on the right wing, as a false nine, or in a deeper, creative role as a classic number 10 or attacking midfielder.[228]

Reception

A prodigious talent as a teenager, Messi established himself among the world’s best players before age 20.[47] Diego Maradona considered the 18-year-old Messi the best player in the world alongside Ronaldinho, while the Brazilian himself, shortly after winning the Ballon d’Or, commented: “I’m not even the best in Barça,” in reference to his protégé.[268][269] Four years later, after Messi had won his first Ballon d’Or by a record margin,[61] the public debate regarding his qualities as a player moved beyond his status in contemporary football to the possibility that he was the greatest player in history.[5][261][270] An early proponent was his then-manager, Pep Guardiola, who had as early as August 2009 declared Messi to be the best player he had ever seen.[271] In the following years, this opinion gained greater acceptance among pundits, managers, former and current players,[101][272][273] and by the end of Barça’s second treble-winning season, Messi’s superiority, ahead of Maradona and Pelé, had become the predominant view among insiders in continental Europe.[274] A frequent dismissal, however, has centred on the fact that Messi has not won the FIFA World Cup with Argentina, leading some in the sport to instead cite him as the best club player in history.[275][276][277]

“I’ve seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentinian football and his name is Messi.”

—Diego Maradona hails the 18-year-old Messi as hissuccessor in February 2006.[54]

Throughout his career, Messi has been compared with his compatriot Diego Maradona, due to their similar playing styles as diminutive, left-footed dribblers. Initially, he was merely one of many young Argentine players, including his boyhood idol Pablo Aimar, to receive the “New Maradona” moniker, but as his career progressed, Messi proved his similarity beyond all previous contenders, establishing himself as the greatest player Argentina had produced since Maradona.[13][219] Jorge Valdano, who won the 1986 World Cup alongside Maradona, said in October 2013: “Messi is Maradona every day. For the last five years, Messi has been the Maradona of the World Cup in Mexico.”[278] César Menotti, who as manager orchestrated their 1978 World Cup victory, echoed this sentiment when he opined that Messi plays “at the level of the best Maradona.”[279] Other notable Argentines in the sport, such as Osvaldo Ardiles, Javier Zanetti, and Diego Simeone, have expressed their belief that Messi has overtaken Maradona as the best player in history.[280][281][282]

Messi, pictured here before a friendly match in February 2011, has been compared toCristiano Ronaldo (left) for much of their careers.

In Argentine society, Messi is generally held in lesser esteem than Maradona, a consequence of not only his uneven performances with the national team, but also of differences in class, personality, and background. Messi is in some ways the antithesis of his predecessor: where Maradona was an extroverted, controversial character who rose to greatness from the slums, Messi is reserved and unassuming, an unremarkable man outside of football.[191][283][284] An enduring mark against him is the fact that, although through no fault of his own, he never proved himself in the Argentine Primera División as an upcoming player, achieving stardom overseas from a young age,[9][191] while his lack of outward passion for the Albiceleste shirt—he does not sing the national anthem and is disinclined to emotional displays—have in the past led to the false perception that he felt Catalan rather than truly Argentine.[226][227] Despite having lived in Spain since age 13, Messi has said: “Argentina is my country, my family, my way of expressing myself. I would change all my records to make the people in my country happy.”[285]

Comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo

Main article: Messi–Ronaldo rivalry

Among his contemporary peers, Messi is most often compared and contrasted with Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo, as part of an ongoing rivalry that has been compared to past sports rivalries like the Muhammad Ali–Joe Frazier rivalry in boxing, the Björn Borg–John McEnroe rivalry in tennis, and the Ayrton Senna–Alain Prost rivalry from Formula One.[286][287] Although Messi has at times denied any rivalry,[288][289] they are widely believed to push one another in their aim to be the best player in the world:[151]since 2008, Ronaldo has won three Ballons d’Or to Messi’s four, and four European Golden Shoes to Messi’s three.[290][291] Pundits and fans regularly argue the individual merits of both players;[151][292] beyond their playing styles, the debate also revolves around their differing physiques—Ronaldo is 1.86 m (6 ft 1 in) with a muscular build—and contrasting public personalities, with Ronaldo’s self-confidence and theatrics a foil to Messi’s humility.[293][294][295] Messi faces Ronaldo at least twice every season in El Clásico, which ranks among the world’s most viewed annual sports events.[296] Off the pitch, Ronaldo is his direct competitor in terms of salary, sponsorships, and social media fanbase.[296]

In popular culture

According to France Football, Messi was the world’s highest-paid footballer for five years out of six between 2009 and 2014; he was the first player to exceed the €40 million benchmark, with earnings of €41 million in 2013, and the €50–€60 million points, with income of €65 million in 2014.[159][297] Since 2008, he has been Barcelona’s highest-paid player, receiving a salary that increased incrementally from €7.8 million to €13 million over the next five years.[67][68][135] His current salary of €20 million net (€36 million before taxes), established in 2014, is the highest ever in the sport.[159] In addition to his salary and multi-million euro bonuses, much of his income derives from endorsements; SportsPro has consequently cited him as one of the world’s most marketable athletes every year since their research began in 2010.[298] As a commercial entity, his marketing brand has been based exclusively on his talents and achievements as a player, in contrast to players like Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham.[299]

A mural of Messi’s likeness in theSan Siro district of Milan, photographed in 2013

At the start of his career, Messi mainly held sponsorship contracts with sports-oriented brands like Adidas and Pepsi, both of which he has represented since 2006.[296][299][300] As Barça’s leading youth prospect, he had been signed with Nike since age 14, but transferred to Adidas after they successfully challenged their rival’s claim to his image rights in court.[301] From 2010 onwards, concurrently with his increased achievements as a player, his marketing appeal widened, leading to long-term endorsement deals with luxury brands Dolce & Gabbana and Audemars Piguet.[299][302][303] Additionally, Messi was the face of Konami’s video game series Pro Evolution Soccer, appearing on the covers of PES 2009, PES 2010, and PES 2011. He subsequently signed with rival company EA Sports to become the face of their series FIFA and has since appeared on four consecutive covers from FIFA 13 to FIFA 16.[304][305] Messi is also a global brand ambassador for Gillette, Tata Motors,Turkish Airlines and Qatari telecommunications firm Ooredoo, among other companies.[306][307][308][309]

Messi’s global popularity and influence are well documented. He was among the Time 100, an annual list of the world’s most influential people as published by Time, in 2011 and 2012.[310][311] His fanbase on the social media website Facebook is among the largest of all public figures: within seven hours of its launch in April 2011, his Facebook page had nearly seven million followers, and by November 2013, he had become only the second sportsperson, after Cristiano Ronaldo, to amass over 50 million followers.[295][312][313] According to a 2014 survey by sports research firm Repucom in 15 international markets, Messi was familiar to 87% of respondents around the world, of whom 78% perceived him favourably, making him the second-most recognized player globally, behind Ronaldo, and the most likable of all contemporary players.[314][315]

Other events have illustrated Messi’s presence in popular culture. A solid gold replica of his left foot, weighing 25 kg (55 lb) and valued at $5.25 million, went on sale in Japan in March 2013 to raise funds for victims of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami.[316] A 2013 Turkish Airlines advertisement starring Messi, in which he engages in a selfie competition with Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, was the most-watched ad on YouTube in the year of its release, receiving 137 million views, and was subsequently voted the best advertisement of the 2005–15 decade to commemorate YouTube’s founding.[317][318] World Press Photo selected “The Final Game”, a photograph of Messi facing the World Cup trophy after Argentina’s final defeat to Germany, as the best sports image of 2014.[319] Messi, a documentary about his life by filmmaker Álex de la Iglesia, premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August 2014.[320]

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