Lionel Messi: “Right now I think I am still learning new things."

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At 25, Lionel Messi is already widely acclaimed as arguably the greatest player ever to kick a football — and only now is he entering his prime. But unlike many of his flashier contemporaries, Barcelona’s Argentine maestro remains an enigma: quiet, unassuming, self-deprecating to a fault and almost entirely closed to public enquiry.

In a hotel on the outskirts of his adopted city, while Dolce & Gabbana designer Domenico Dolce takes his photo, Esquire gets some rare face time with the man himself. The scariest revelation (for Champions League defenders, at any rate)? He’s convinced he can only get better.

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It’s a crisp, clear winter’s day in Barcelona, and Lionel Messi is in his underpants. It is a little incongruous, given that those around him are fully clothed, but he seems comfortable enough with the situation.

No, it’s not an over-ebullient goal celebration — though Lord knows he’s had cause for a few of those of late. And despite the fact we’re in a suite on the most discreet floor of a suburban hotel, nor is it the kind of less salubrious occasion at which footballers sometimes drop their keks.

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It’s a photo shoot, for this issue of Esquire, and if you were the best footballer in the business right now with a face that can launch a thousand sportswear brands — not to mention Catalan beers, Turkish airlines and Japanese face washes — you’d probably be pretty familiar with the set-up, too.

As “One and Only” by Adele plays from an iPod (somewhat-inappropriate-seeming sample lyric: “Nobody’s perfect, trust me I’ve learned it”), Domenico Dolce, who with his design partner Stefano Gabbana runs Italian fashion powerhouse Dolce & Gabbana, takes the photographs.

This is also something that happens if you’re the best footballer in the business right now. Having snapped Messi in a slick double-breasted suit and some Italian Riviera-style shorts, Dolce has decided that what Messi needs next, clothes-wise, is fewer of them.

So now La Pulga — “The Flea”, as he was nicknamed once upon a time — is sitting on an unfurled Colorama in Y-fronts and an open white shirt, a crucifix hanging from a chain towards his navel, while Dolce sprays him with a bottle of water for that fresh-from-the-shower look.

He doesn’t fuss or fidget, and lets the designer move him around into position; though when a spritz of water gets him in the eye he laughs for a second and looks at his brother, Rodrigo, who is standing by the monitor watching yet another episode in his younger sibling’s strange and exhilarating life unfold.

As for the details of that strange and exhilarating life, we’re sure you’re familiar with a few of them.

You probably know the fairy tale of Little Leo Messi, the child prodigy who — legend has it — swapped his beloved marbles for a football aged four and stunned his father Jorge with his first touch of the ball.

It was this Messi who showed such promise as a youngster playing for Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario, Argentina, that word stretched across the Atlantic to Barcelona FC, who agreed to relocate his whole family to Spain and pay for the hormone treatment he needed to ensure he would reach his genetically predestined height of 5ft 7in.

Latterly, you’ll know about the No-Longer-Quite-So-Little Leo Messi, who has been the superstar player of Barça more or less ever since, and has had a team of almost as stratospherically talented men built around him in a way that’s more reminiscent of an NFL quarterback than a La Liga forward.

It was this Messi who, last December, smashed Gerd Müller’s apparently unassailable tally of 85 goals scored in a calendar year set in 1972 by netting 91 of his own,and once again stoked the debate about whether he was one of the greatest players of all time, alongside Pelé and Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff, or the best, with the potential to outrank them all — a tempting proposition given that he’s still only 25 years old with legs that show no signs of tiring.

But like we say, you knew all that. The stats, the records, the accolades, the awards — to which an unprecedented fourth Ballon d’Or trophy for player of the season was added in January.

You know what his face looks like — simple, unworldly; like a saintly medieval peasant — and how the ball stays at his feet as though kept there by some kind of magnetic force field. You know how, each time he helps Barça FC to another victory, as he inevitably does, he will always deflect personal praise in favour of commending the efforts of his team.

How he has a reputation for modesty, and privacy, and self-effacement. What you don’t know, and is hard to pin down, both on and off the pitch, is the man himself.

We can help you a little bit with that one, but just a little. Messi is certainly low-key, quiet and self-contained. When he arrives at the 14th floor of the Rey Juan Carlos I Hotel, having hopped out of a white Audi SUV at the front door and passed unheeded by the guests in the lobby despite the fact his picture is plastered on billboards across the city (including the hotel’s own Barça FC gift shop), he shakes hands and nods politely as names that he does not need to remember are thrown his way.

He’s whisked away into a dressing room where he changes out of his jeans, gleaming white trainers and T-shirt — on which a picture of Mike Tyson, a very different sort of sporting personality, is printed — and into the preordained selection of finest Italian tailoring.

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Then, a few clicks in, as is often the way at photo shoots, the attention shifts. Soon Messi is left kicking his bare heels between shots, while the crowd of stylists, directors, assistants and managers gathers around the monitor and emits sighs of “che bello!” as the images appear.

He doesn’t ask for so much as a drink of water, nor does anyone offer; he sits quietly, waiting to be needed again. (The fact that he hardly speaks seems typical: in Luca Caioli’s biography, Messi: The Inside Story of the Boy Who Became Legend, his Barça teammate Cesc Fàbregas is quoted as saying that they wondered at first if Messi might be mute.)

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Just once or twice does he wander over to peek at the pictures through the forest of heads.

“Only his intimate circle knows the real person,” says an Argentinian journalist in Caioli’s book, “even after reading many things about him one cannot really know him.”

Writers who do attempt to capture him in biographical form often find themselves resorting to interviewing his primary school teachers or describing the history of soya production in Rosario in order to build a picture of his world given that getting the information from the man himself is no mean feat.

Another biography, Messi by Leonardo Faccio, appears to be written on the basis of a 15-minute interview with its subject. (I must confess that, having noticed this trend while doing my research, I did pay particular attention to the soft furnishings in the hotel suite, just in case.)

It’s hard to get to know Messi because he is very well protected. That’s partly because the people looking after him are his family — his father Jorge and brother Rodrigo set up Leo Messi Management (his other brother Matías, younger sister María Sol and mother Celia are back in Argentina).

But it is also, of course, because he is a multi-million-euro brand who cannot afford the kind of reputation-and-deal-damaging misdemeanours that have brought down other sports stars such as Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. 

Not that you get the sense that such slip-ups are a huge risk with Messi: there was an incident when Barcelona won the league in 2011, in which he was reported to have attempted to open an emergency exit — mid-flight — while the players were celebrating on the plane home, but the footage circulated online showed that he was simply banging a plastic panel in jubilation, and he looks as shocked as anyone else when it comes away in his hands.

As Faccio says in his book, Messi seems to have “a halo of goodness”.

When Esquire does get to put some questions to Messi through a translator — an interesting negotiation in itself, though we’ll save the details of that one for another time — a few subjects are decidedly off-limits.

His perceived rivalry with pomaded Real Madrid stud muffin Cristiano Ronaldo is a no-no, as is money, his private life, or the notional possibility that he might one day not play for Barcelona FC (“because it is not real”).

Subjects that are on-limits include his career and achievements on the pitch and the works of the Leo Messi Foundation, which was set up in 2007 to improve the lives of under-privileged children in Argentina and beyond.

As a result, Messi answers a lot of questions with platitudes — and no doubt sincere ones — that are familiar to anyone who has ever seen any footballer interviewed, anywhere. On surpassing Gerd Müller’s goal tally, he says modestly, “Breaking records comes as the result of several things; in football it happens if your team helps you. That is why I think it’s not important to think about it too much.”

On whether there is a particular element of his game still to be perfected, he says, “Right now I think I am still learning new things, and there are surely lots of things to improve.” 

Occasionally though, a titbit of information will sneak through. Though he says his career hopes are simply “to win a match”, he does confess to a dream of playing in the final of the World Cup — something that he would hope to achieve with Argentina in Brazil in 2014.

He also admits that he has not kept in touch with Pep Guardiola, the former manager of Barcelona who is credited by many as having been instrumental in his development — though Messi also seems to be coping perfectly well under the management of current coach Tito Vilanova.

Even though he intends his private life to remain exactly that (the reason for which, he says, he will never write a memoir), he does reveal that the birth of his first child, Thiago, to his long-term girlfriend Antonella Roccuzzo, has been life-changing.

“Knowing that Thiago is at home waiting for me makes me really happy,” he says. As for any ambitions for his three-month-old son, he says he is easy-going: “I am good with whatever he decides to do. I’m not obsessed about him becoming a football player.”

The same can’t be said of others around him: Thiago’s grandfather Jorge has reportedly already signed him up for the Newell’s Old Boys’ supporters club, and Messi’s friend and national teammate Sergio Agüero wasted no time in sending the new parents a teeny-tiny Argentina kit.

The crux of the matter, really, is that Leo Messi doesn’t need to tell us everything about himself.

We don’t need to know about his innermost thoughts or fears or desires in order to feel warm and fuzzy about his brilliance or to gasp slack-jawed at his skills. We don’t need him to say outrageous things on Twitter to make us pay attention, or to fatten the tabloids with stories of setting off fireworks in his bathroom.

In fact, perhaps Messi is at his very best when he — and apologies to cliché-phobes everywhere for this one — lets his feet do the talking.

The shoot wraps up. The Spanish production crew dismantles the equipment; the Dolce & Gabbana staff pack up to catch their private jet back to Milan; the Esquire team starts talking tapas.

Messi has plans, too — the next day, Barcelona FC will announce that he has agreed a contract extension that will keep him at the club until 2018 — though, of course, he hasn’t said as much. Instead, he grabs a quick sandwich from the spread that has been growing rapidly stale in the next room, gives a smile and a wave, and picks up the three pristine white paper bags of Dolce & Gabbana baby clothes that have been brought for Thiago.

Then the Messi brothers, Leo and Rodrigo, take the lift back down to the ground floor of the Rey Juan Carlos I Hotel and amble — again, unnoticed — through the lobby to the white Audi SUV.

One question Esquire asked Messi earlier is whether or not he has an ego. “I think not,” he says with a pause, “or at least, I don’t feel it.”

And it’s true: as Lionel Messi, the world’s greatest footballer (and you can quote us on that one) disappears off into the Barcelona hills towards the Camp Nou, his ego — like his innermost thoughts, fears and desires — stays as intangible as ever.

Photographs by Domenico Dolce.

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