Stay Messi, My Friend
Lionel Messi only seems like the least interesting man in the world. Listen closely and his silence speaks louder than most athletes' shouts.
This is one of four cover stories for ESPN The Magazine's June 8 World Fame issue. Subscribe today!
It is easy to find the most private superstar in the world.
Seriously, it is. You just put Hogar de Messi -- hogar is Spanish for "home" -- into Google Maps, and up pops an address in Castelldefels, a gorgeous, windswept village carved into a mountain on the outskirts of Barcelona. Occasionally, the listing disappears for a spell (such is the Internet), but it always returns, and there are even "reviews" of Lionel Messi's place available from other Google users to help prepare you for your visit: One offers a five-star rating and the helpful description Aqui vive Dios. God lives here.
Now, if it seems unusual that walking up to the house of a five-time Ballon d'Or winner is about as easy as finding a diner, that's because it is. Plenty of global icons awash in fame live in elaborate compounds built on swanky islands (Tiger Woods) or in villas constructed on privately owned roads with U.N.-level security gates (Cristiano Ronaldo). Messi's home, though, is on a regular street.
The avenue has withered trees, a crumbling sidewalk or two and a Continental feel. There are uneven curbs and cars parked at unusual angles. Occasionally, the postman mixes up whose mail goes in which box and one of Messi's neighbors accidentally gets an electric bill that runs about $1,200 per month.
Standing at the house, even behind the typical European fence, you can crane your neck to see the miniature soccer field Messi installed, complete with floodlights, for his kids. You can see the balcony looking over the Mediterranean. You can see the light smoke wafting from the tapered chimney.
You can see the driveway and the pool and the balconies, if you want. You can hear the occasional woofs of Messi's dog, Hulk, a gigantic French mastiff. You can be so close that it's possible, just for a second, to believe that the figure up the street -- the one with a ball cap pulled low and the purposeful saunter and the leash in his hand -- is Messi himself.
It isn't, you know. It never is. The sheer geography of Messi's home allows for a sense of intimacy, a sense of familiarity maybe. But it is an illusion: Even around here, Messi is a ghost.
LeBron James once bought cupcakes for his entire neighborhood in Ohio as a way to apologize for the TV trucks and fans that clotted the area, but Messi -- while unfailingly pleasant on the rare moments he appears -- is known only for waving back at those who live here. Messi never waves first.
In some ways, that fits with the paradox that is the concrete slab on which Messi's greatness is built. He does not run like a gazelle, does not jump as if on springs, does not possess the brute strength or power of a colossus. At 5-foot-7 and (maybe) 150 pounds, with shoulders that look to be made of papier-mache, Messi could disappear behind a door frame if he wanted. His old nickname, La Pulga, or The Flea, is generous.
Yet despite that, he dribbles through entire teams. He whips in shots that crackle like a summer storm. He dazzles so totally and consistently that he has created a career routinely described as "the best there ever was." So given that particular brand of wizardry, it shouldn't be surprising that Messi has conjured a way to live among the people and still hide in plain sight.
The real question is: Does Messi's reclusion matter?
This is Messi's choice, understand, his personal methodology. Most legendary sports figures wrap us in a multisensory experience, a litany of things we can see -- dunks, goals, shots, runs or throws -- but also a cacophony of sounds, an audio uniquely theirs.
Muhammad Ali spun poetry and stung like a bee. Michael Jordan trash-talked and hit nothing but net. LeBron said he'll never shut up and dribble, then shot buzzer-beating daggers. And it's not as if Messi is following some football code of silence either. Ronaldo suggested the reason people hate him is that he's just too good, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic compared himself to, among other things, a great white shark, Benjamin Button and Jesus Christ.
All of them crafted personalities and, in most cases, messages they were interested in conveying. They spoke to us.
Messi, whose global presence rivals any athlete's, does not. His soundtrack, such as it is, comes from a mixture of screams and shouts, gasps and gulps, all of which emanate not from him but rather from the millions upon millions who are mesmerized by the sweet magic pouring from his feet like cake batter.
This is how Messi has chosen to confront his fame.
He is the quietest superstar.
Lionel Messi is standing on a box. A few feet in front of him, a photographer lies on the ground, camera pointing upward. Behind the photographer, a man tosses a soccer ball toward Messi, who leaps off the box and taps the ball with his foot, legs extended as though he is ripping a shot into the net.
It is a beautiful cover shot for this magazine -- or at least it would be, except it is all wrong. The tosses are too high or too low. Messi is not timing his leap correctly. When he does leap, he extends the wrong foot. The pictures do not look right, and everyone is uneasy about how long Messi and his handlers will allow it all to go on.
This sort of tension is not unusual during the few days Messi does commercials or sits for interviews. Being the quietest superstar may seem like a simple endeavor, but it is not only about a low volume or a lack of quotes; it is a state of mind for Messi, an overarching approach to, well, pretty much everything that does not somehow connect to soccer, his family or his close circle of friends. Also, Messi does not hide his feelings about such extraneous concerns; in these moments, the unease slathered across his face is thicker than his beard.
Because of Messi's general disinterest in all business matters, as well as his demanding schedule with Barcelona and Argentina (through May 14, Messi had scored 34 goals in 35 La Liga games this season), his advisers generally try to schedule no more than one morning a month with time dedicated to promotion or media. During one such day in March, I ask a person close to Messi if this type of scheduling is effective for a player in such demand. "It is the only way he will do it," the person says through a tight smile.
This morning has been tricky. Adidas has taken over a small stadium just outside Barcelona to work with its biggest client, and the setup is elaborate: tents, lights, wardrobe, makeup, the works. Hours before Messi jumps on that box -- hours before he even arrives -- lighting techs linger over Iberico ham at the breakfast table while men carrying cameras of varying sizes shimmy past security guards both real and fake. (One of the spots being filmed apparently involves a police chase.)
The mood is relaxed enough until Messi lands on-site; then the pressure ratchets up. Everything is catered to make this easy for Messi -- there is a tent of his own to relax in and even a body double (really more of a freaky doppelganger) who has the same shaggy facial hair and ornate tattoos as Messi, bouncing around to help stage shots before the actual Messi steps in for filming. Yet everyone knows that Messi's tolerance is short. He is never rude to the producers or directors or camera people or crew; he is, by all accounts, polite and well-mannered. He is just ... distant, half-listening to what is said around him but rarely speaking himself.
In an attempt to streamline the process, the photographer has set up a large piece of cardboard covered with photos. This is to allow Messi to see clearly the poses and images that the crew hopes to get from him. Thanks to Messi's body double and a lengthy session a day earlier, Messi can literally look at (a version of) himself and just copy what he sees.
Messi glances at the cardboard. Two stylists spend roughly 20 seconds adjusting the drape of his jersey. Then he gestures to his body double, who twice expertly jumps from the box. Messi nods and steps onto the box.
None of the first few attempts is even close to what the shot requires. Messi looks twisted, and his jumps are disjointed. He is not kicking back with his trail leg at all, so he resembles a stiff flamingo. This is bad.
"No problem, let's try it again," the photographer says kindly from the floor, but the results do not improve. The photographer starts sweating. Messi begins to look exasperated. He has been in this makeshift studio beneath the grandstand for less than three minutes, but even the body double looks nervous.
Messi kicks another one wrong. Then a toss goes awry. The photographer's voice is a little sharper as he talks to Messi's adviser now. No one wants a flamingo on this cover.
Standing on the box, Messi pauses for a moment, as if he has just noticed the mood around him. Then he lifts his head at the thrower and, when the ball is in the air, leaps out -- still doing it wrong -- and taps the ball with his foot so that it arcs gracefully in a smooth parabola and lands near the prone photographer's groin. The photographer recoils (understandably). Everyone else laughs (understandably). Messi's face is blank.
Was it an accident? A purposeful icebreaker? An indication of Messi's feelings about this entire circumstance? Here is what I know about Messi's control of a soccer ball: He routinely shoots one into the top corner of a goal from 20 yards away without much trouble.
Also, two tosses later, Messi nails the picture out of nowhere, his leg kicking back like a thoroughbred. Then he nails it again. There is a cheer from those assembled.
The photographer quickly moves on to a few portraits. The stylists add a warm-up jacket, the photographer takes a few more portraits and suddenly Messi is leaving. He shakes hands with the photographer, nods to the others and walks out the door without looking back. The body double (and everyone else) exhales. Messi's entourage disappears into the hall.
It is over. Messi was on set for eight minutes.
Lest there be any confusion, it must be said: He does talk sometimes.
Not a lot, certainly. Messi doesn't do news conferences before games like most other big-name players, doesn't often stop in mixed zones afterward. He doesn't even speak in most of his commercials.
Interviews with unfamiliar reporters or outlets too are rare. For this story, Messi initially agreed to a face-to-face conversation but called it off a few weeks later, without explanation, sending word that he would answer questions only if they were emailed to an associate. (Even then, he answered only certain questions, and several of the ones sent were simply ignored.) Messi and I did meet, very briefly, shaking hands the day of the photo shoot: I said "Hello." He replied "Gracias." It was lovely.
Still, there are moments. As he has gotten older (he'll turn 31 during the World Cup), Messi has put himself in certain situations in which he cracks the door.
Earlier this year, he spent nearly half an hour being interviewed for an Argentine television show and speaking at length, for him, on subjects that ranged from his children (he loves them) to how a diet filled with chocolate and carbonated beverages led to frequent bouts of on-field vomiting earlier in his career (he eats healthier now).
Messi also gave his take on the feeling that this summer will be his final chance to claim the biggest prize that has eluded him -- a World Cup title -- and make amends for the four major final defeats he has been part of with Argentina (he would like this to happen).
Sometimes he even gets remarkably candid. For example, last year he appeared on a Uruguayan television show with his close friend and Barca teammate Luis Suarez, the star of Uruguay's national team. For much of the interview, Messi was happy to be something of a sidekick, but he became more animated while participating in a discussion on the age-old question of whether it is preferable for men to sit or stand while urinating (he sits). When the host of the show expressed surprise and concern about the men soaking the toilet seat (Suarez said he pees sitting down as well), Messi calmly explained, "You just point it down," while making a helpful hand gesture.
So clearly, he does speak (even about the most personal of subjects). He concedes, in the email, that "over the years you become less timid. I now do things I never imagined I would."
But then, speaking isn't the same thing as having a voice, is it?
Today, everyone wants to see things in the way that suits them. I prefer not to play this game.- Lionel Messi
Among Messi's true contemporaries -- those whose fame crosses continents and cultures instead of just cities or countries -- many, if not most, choose to say something, to do something, to show something that is greater than the sum of their physical accomplishments. I don't mean philanthropy (Messi, like many athletes, invests time and money in a variety of genuinely admirable ways), but rather an engagement with the considerable platform that his preternatural ability has provided.
Ali used his fame to advocate for civil rights and protest the Vietnam War. The U.N. made Pele an ambassador for ecology and the environment. LeBron James has seized upon social justice. Messi, while seemingly doing plenty of good with his charitable foundation and his relationship with UNICEF, appears to have little interest in connecting on anything greater. Perhaps a Messi-themed amusement park, to open in China in 2020, will provide enough of his illusory presence to satisfy his ravenous fans. As Messi said at its introductory announcement: "Hopefully, they will feel that I am around when visiting the park."
Those in Spain know that proximity does not equal openness. After nearly 20 years living in Barcelona, Messi is almost never heard speaking in Catalan (it qualified as stunning news when he posted a video on social media showing his son singing a Catalan nursery rhyme), and he has never said anything substantive about Catalan independence -- by far the biggest issue facing his adopted home. How much does Messi want to avoid the subject? When I asked him directly about his opinion via email, he -- or his people -- just deleted the question.
It is the same with Argentina. Messi has pointedly chosen not to offer support for any particular changes he wants to see in the country -- which has struggled to combat poverty and crime -- nor has he told his legions of followers what he believes needs to be done to revitalize his homeland.
This is his pattern. On issues of substance, Messi is a monster's shadow: easy to see but impossible to hear. Yet despite his personal restraint, it is clear that, one way or another, regular people still feel a kinship with Messi, even in the absence of anything other than his sheer excellence.
Given, then, what Messi means to the most popular sport in the world, is his silence novel? Delightful? A throwback to a simpler time? Or is it an abdication?
"Nobody is going to say he is not a good player -- it's about a lack of identity," says Cecilia Guardati, an Argentine journalist who covered Messi when he moved to Barcelona. "The Argentinian character -- Messi doesn't have it. He does not have a strong personality like Diego Maradona."
She pauses, then says, "With Maradona, you can hate him and what he says, but everyone likes that he shouts. Messi never, ever shouts."
The Maradona comparison is one Messi cannot shake, but it is also complicated; the two men are so different despite both being Argentines and inarguably among the greatest soccer players ever. Unlike Messi, Maradona is the quintessential Argentine: brash, brilliant and occasionally belligerent, a combination that overshadows the fact that he is also a womanizer and has battled drug addiction. Of course, he did lead Argentina to a World Cup title in 1986, while Messi has lost one World Cup final and three Copa America finals.
More important, Maradona embraced his role as a likable, if overly animated, villain, an erratically enigmatic legend who was entertaining even if he was absurd. Messi, by contrast, seems to have no particular interest in being either hero or villain, preferring simply to exist as a looping highlight video -- remarkable but with no particular context.
Asked about this approach over email, Messi said, according to his PR team, that "today, there are people with a lot of interests and everyone wants to see things in the way that suits them. I prefer not to play this game." The chosen trope, repeated often by those around Messi, is that soccer is the way Messi likes to express himself. And sure, fine, fair enough. Maybe there is some charm in that. Maybe there is sincerity that someone who is so skilled that on multiple occasions police have busted drug traffickers and seized bricks of cocaine that the dealers named after him (because, naturally, it was the best) wants to limit himself to sport and nothing more.
Maybe there is some simplicity in wanting to go through public life engaging only with that which is beautiful. But is that admirable? Or is it just weak?
At a minimum, we can say this: It isn't an act. Those who knew Messi as a boy in Argentina say he has been reticent since childhood, that he was, in so many words, a quiet runt. They say that he was so innocent that all an old coach had to do to inspire him was offer an alfajor, or Argentine cookie, in exchange for each goal. (For goals scored with his head, Messi received two cookies, and to maximize his treats, he once famously dribbled through the entire opposing team, flicked the ball up in the air as he neared the goal line and headed it in.)
In Barcelona, it is the same. Messi's first coach at Barcelona's youth academy, Xavier Llorens, says he knew right away that Messi was special because of the way the ball stuck to his foot when he ran -- almost as if it was connected to his shoelaces -- but also, he adds, "he was special because of his shyness." In the dressing room, sometimes the coaches and players had to double-check that Messi was even there.
Messi did his first significant television interview in November 2003 at age 16, shortly after earning a professional contract following a season in which he scored 36 goals for his youth team. The video is remarkable if only because Messi's center-part hairstyle and clear discomfort sitting across a desk from the Barca TV personality make it difficult to look away. At one point, Messi admits, "I am more nervous here than on the pitch," explaining that "when I get on the pitch I can forget everything, and that's where I do my talking."
Years later, it remains his approach. When Messi returned to the national team last summer following his short-lived retirement, he did not do a lengthy news conference or teary sit-down. He released a short statement explaining that he still loved playing for his nation, then went out and scored a hat trick in a crucial World Cup qualifier that sent Argentina on its way to a place in Russia. It was pure Messi: Everyone knew how he felt; he didn't need to say it.
It is the same on social media. Messi has 89 million Facebook followers and 91 million on Instagram, and no plans to start a Twitter account any time soon. According to a person close to him, that is largely because he is more comfortable with images: photos of him walking with his teammates or training on the field or playing with his three sons or lounging with his wife or cuddling with Hulk. Twitter is for words; Messi prefers art.
His neighbors in Castelldefels know. They might prefer it otherwise (who wouldn't like a garrulous millionaire living next door?), but they get it. The joke in the neighborhood is that the only thing anyone ever hears from Messi is him revving his car, because his Range Rover has the sort of gritty, guttural, souped-up engine noise that can wake babies sleeping in Madrid. Sometimes those vrooms are the only sign of Messi for weeks.
One day a few years back, a neighbor tells me, a group of Ukrainian soccer fans who had just arrived in Spain decide to come to Castelldefels like pilgrims, seeking to pay homage to their beloved Messi. They bring a Ukrainian national team jersey they want to give to Messi as a gift, and they set up on the sidewalk outside his house, waiting for even a sliver of a moment when they can deliver their offering.
Hours pass. One, two, three. The neighbor inquires how long they might stay, and the men reply that they are determined to give Messi their country's jersey. Four, five, six hours go by, and the neighbor inquires once more. We must give him our jersey, he is told again. The neighbor nods and goes on his way.
The next day, the neighbor says, he receives a knock on his door. It is his gardener. The Ukrainian fans finally left after 10 hours of waiting the night before, the gardener tells him, but not before corralling the gardener and, in a last-ditch attempt to have their gift delivered, asking if he -- that is, Messi's neighbor's gardener -- might pass along the jersey to Messi on their behalf.
"So I ask the gardener, 'Did you give it to him?'" the neighbor says. "But I am laughing. And he is laughing. Because there would be a better chance if they just threw it over the fence."
The neighbor shrugs then, because he knows what everyone around here has come to realize: that no one -- not those who find Messi on Google Maps, not even those who live across the street from the place where Messi sleeps at night -- is really his neighbor. None of us. We are only his audience, his viewers, his onlookers, a crowd of millions stationed outside his cocoon, lingering as near as we can so that we might catch a glimpse of his elegance during those times he chooses to fly.
For many, that is enough. Those Ukrainian fans, bless them, just wanted to be close, just wanted to say they spent a day where the best lives, even if they really only met the guy who gardens for the guy who lives next door. They just wanted to extend their hands and feel the warmth from Messi's glow.
Do we expect more than that from our superstars? Or should we? It isn't as though Messi doesn't give us anything, you know. When he plays and the ball settles at his feet, he allows us to imagine with abandon, allows us to dream with our eyes open.
But we also know that once the ball rolls to the side, he will vanish. We know there will be no memorable advertising campaigns or political endorsements or social commentary or calls to action from Messi, know that he will not lead us anywhere other than toward the goal. With Messi, we will get only these instants. These moments. These flashes.
And it is enough because it has to be. Because Messi does not worry if we want more or need more than that from him, because Messi does not worry at all.
For the quietest superstar, the game is all that has ever mattered. The rest is just noise.
Pere Bosch contributed reporting.