"What I do is play soccer"

Lionel Messi is truly a king of the soccer world these days. Getty Images

This article originally appeared in the June 1 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

The best soccer player in the world is hungry. Walking through the steel belly of Europe's largest stadium, fresh off a Friday morning practice, Lionel Messi looks even smaller than his listed height of 5'6". The FC Barcelona forward added a line to his legend two nights before, against Real Betis, when he fended off shoulders, elbows and cleats, cut toward the end line from the right corner of the goal box, shrugged through a body check and squeezed the ball in front of the net.

The home crowd roared as Samuel Eto'o caromed in the goal. Now, Camp Nou lies so quiet Messi can hear his stomach grumble. He glances at his watch. Almost 12:30. With any luck, his brother's wife is stewing tomatoes and breading steak filets. But before Messi can eat, he must answer a reporter's questions, so he sits on a black leather chair in the stadium's VIP lounge and waits.

"I never think about the play or visualize anything," he says. "I do what comes to me at that moment. Instinct. It has always been that way."

The diminutive Argentine may not look like the best player in the world, but that designation -- subject to the hottest debate on the sports planet -- is as elusive as Messi himself. His speed, ball control, vision and style draw him comparisons to legendary countryman Diego Maradona, even if their personalities are so different. Messi is as understated as Maradona is flamboyant. And yet, in turning 2009 into the Year of the Flea, he has transcended individual skill, elevating FC Barcelona and Argentina's national team with his clutch scoring and brilliant play. Thanks to Europe's most potent offense, Barça is poised to complete a rare triple crown: After winning the Copa del Rey on May 13, the Catalans look to wrap up La Liga, Spain's top circuit, for the first time since 2006, while eyeing a Champions League final against Manchester United on May 27. And with the World Cup coming next June, Messi can put his stamp on a football era.

Just don't ask him to talk about it.

Lionel Messi is not the next David Beckham, someone more valuable as a brand than as a player. He is not a paparazzi magnet like A.C. Milan's Ronaldinho or a silky pitchman like Parisian teammate Thierry Henry. The soccer universe, with its huge endorsement power, fawns over articulate pop stars like Man U's Cristiano Ronaldo, who once declared, "I am the first, second and third-best player in the world."

But Messi would rather practice than sit for photos. "What I do is play soccer," he says, "which is what I like."

He avoids eye contact and speaks quietly in Spanish, letting his Argentine lilt soften curt answers. He stops talking when he gets bored, sometimes in the middle of a thought. But with a ball at his feet, the 21-year-old Messi is a genius of self-expression, stringing together tricks and techniques like words in impromptu poetry: right cut, left cut, give-and-go, between-the-legs…all at top speed. "I never think about the play or visualize anything," he says. "I do what comes to me at that moment. Instinct. It has always been that way."

Instinct has already earned Messi a spot upstairs in the FC Barcelona Museum, where rows of championship trophies gleam next to memorabilia dating back a century. While Messi talks, a plasma screen cycles through some of the greatest plays in club history, including his 60-yard weave past five defenders against Getafe in the 2007 Copa del Rey, Spain's playoff-style championship, open to teams from all pro levels. "Leo simply goes one way with his body and another with the ball," says Barça center back Gerard Piqué. "You have to either guess right or foul him."

Barcelona is scoring 2.9 goals a game this season, the fourth-highest output in the history of Europe's pro leagues. Messi is the catalyst. He attacks defenses, draws men out of position and sets up the setup passes, creating chances no statistic can track. "The way he runs past people, it's just effortless," Henry says. Messi had 37 goals in 50 games through May 16, including eight in the Champions League, Europe's annual showdown of top clubs. Persistent fouling has Barça execs calling on refs to protect him, but he refuses to drop and roll. "Messi never dives," Piqué says. "Not even in the area, where he could draw a penalty. In this sense, he is simple: 'I may be small, but you're not going to knock me down.'"

When Jorge and Celia Messi's undersized 5-year-old asked to play for the neighborhood club in Rosario, Argentina, the couple reluctantly agreed. They still worried two years later, when he joined the famed junior squad of Newell's Old Boys, the Rosario-based club that plays in Argentina's top division. "I had a growth problem," Messi says, "but that never stopped me from playing." Proof of that can be seen on his parents' grainy home videos. Here's the smallest boy on the field, ball at his feet, sprinting past two older opponents; after the first defender falls flat, the second tries to shoulder young Leo off balance but knocks himself to the ground instead. "His reflexes haven't changed," Jorge says. "He was always so short, but so fast. It was very difficult for another boy to take the ball away."

By 1997, 10-year-old Lionel looked two years younger than his teammates. Doctors finally diagnosed a growth-hormone deficiency and prescribed a new treatment. For four years, Messi took nightly hormone injections. "It wasn't for aesthetics," Jorge says. "We were worried that his growth issue would cause him physical problems in the future." Insurance helped cover the $650 monthly tab for only the first two years, leaving Jorge, a manager at a metallurgical company, to take over after that. With money tight and Argentina's economy crumbling, the family considered migrating to Australia before Leo's talent opened another door.

While scouting in Buenos Aires, 190 miles southeast of Rosario, Barcelona personnel director Carles Rexach heard enough about Messi to fly him to Spain for a tryout. The 13-year-old's size concerned team execs, but after watching him for 30 minutes on a field near Camp Nou, Rexach was convinced. "If we could just get him to understand soccer, the boy could be a spectacular player," he remembers thinking.

So in 2000, the club brought Messi's whole family -- including two older brothers and a younger sister-- to Barcelona, provided an apartment, got Jorge an administrative job and sent Lionel to school. La Masia, named for the 300-year-old stone farmhouse where it is based, is Barça's premier soccercentric academy. Players train almost exclusively with the ball. Coaches teach system fundamentals like placement and space, and when to dribble and when to pass. Small-field drills, with 11 players facing off in 17x14-yard spaces, help develop vision, reflexes and precision. "Messi's team would win in five minutes," says Barça assistant and former juniors coach Tito Vilanova. "It was too easy."

As Kobe walked away, lunch tray in hand, he turned back to cast his vote in the greatest sports debate on the planet: "Messi, you are the best!"

As Messi's game evolved, Barça's U-18 squad won tournaments in Italy, the Netherlands and Japan. In Tokyo, a crowd of nearly 30,000 gave him a standing ovation. He became a first-team fixture at age 17, helping the Catalans win La Liga in 2005. During practice, he watched and learned from Ronaldinho, the Brazilian forward who was twice named FIFA World Player of the Year. "It was a pleasure to train with him and see the things he did during games," Messi says. "Different things, impressive things, dribbling and juggling." Meanwhile, Messi's international play was also gaining attention. He was named best player at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship, leading Argentina to the title with six goals. He got his first cap with the senior team that summer, then played in the 2006 World Cup. When Argentina lost to Brazil in the 2007 Copa America final, Messi was named Young Player of the Tournament.

"I keep all the trophies," he says, hinting a smile. They occupy shelves at his parents' house back in Rosario and his brother Matias' house in Castelldefels, a beachside suburb 12 miles south of Barcelona. Lionel spends most of his free time at his brother's place, playing with his nephews, watching TV and hoping that his sister-in-law, Florencia, makes Milanesa Napolitana--breaded steak filets with ham, melted cheese and tomato sauce. He lives nearby, in a "normal" house, where his favorite awards have their own glass case, including the prize possession: his 2008 Olympic gold medal.

"At the Olympics," Messi says, "everything was beautiful." His fondest memory? "Eating at the Olympic Village." One day at lunch, a tall black man set his tray at one end of Barça's table. "Hola," the man said, grinning. "Soy Kobe." With smiles and small talk, Kobe Bryant worked his way back to Messi, then pulled him aside. "We chatted for a while," Messi says. "His Spanish is very good." As Bryant walked away, lunch tray in hand, he turned back to cast his vote in the great debate. "Messi," he called out, "you are the best!"

There is no quantitative method to compare players from different leagues and continents. Goals and assists fail to account for varieties of style and competition. Fans argue the point every day, in bars and cafés from Baghdad to Bogotá, and in NBA locker rooms, too. They also point out that awards often lag in timeliness and authority. Last year, Manchester United won the Premier League and the Champions League, but by the time Ronaldo took home both major individual awards--the Ballon d'Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year Award--his form had slipped, only to return this spring. Current and retired pros vote through the media. French legend Zinedine Zidane endorses Liverpool midfielder Steven Gerrard, who himself flip-flops between Messi and Liverpool striker Fernando Torres. Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard names A.C. Milan forward Kaká, the world's highest-paid player last year. Kaká's coach, Carlo Ancelotti, votes for Inter striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic. A blog at bestplayerintheworld.com tracks the media mentions: Messi leads with 41, while Gerrard and Ronaldo are tied with 11. Maradona, now Messi's national team coach, checks in regularly. "Messi reminds me of me," he says.

What does Messi think? He praises Ronaldinho, whose transfer left Messi as Barça's undisputed star. "When he was the best in the world, there was no argument," Messi says, ticking off his former teammate's titles: two Ligas, two Supercopas, a Champions League, a Copa America and a World Cup for Brazil. "Being named among the best at something is special and beautiful. But if there are no titles, nothing is won."

The table is set for Messi. He is coming off the best season of his career, and when the summer transfer window opens on July 1, teams throughout Europe are likely to dangle millions of euros to tempt Barça and its star. Both parties insist he's staying put to build a legacy for the club that gave him his shot. Messi is already the standard by which today's top young players are judged: Atletico Madrid's Sergio Agüero (a fellow Argentine), Real Madrid's Arjen Robben and 17-year-old Man U revelation Federico Macheda have all drawn comparisons to The Flea. For now, Robben says, "Messi is on another planet." And the World Cup, next year in South Africa, could etch his name in stone.

Legendary careers are not lists of trophies but rather a collection of great moments. Messi's goal against Getafe has drawn more than 13 million views on YouTube and is often shown alongside Maradona's "Goal of the Century." But Getafe is a second-rate Spanish club, whereas Maradona's bit of brilliance came against England during the 1986 World Cup quarterfinals. In this respect, Messi is just getting started. "People are forgetting he's not in his prime yet," Henry says. "What he's doing at this age is not something we're going to see often." And by "we," Henry means all of us: players, coaches and fans who watch sports to escape, to be transported. We who can now watch not only history but art in the making. Messi's magnificence makes Argentina an early World Cup favorite, and Maradona has even given him the No. 10 jersey he once wore himself. But victory is not always enough. If he can create beautiful goals on the world's biggest stage, we'll always remember this as the Lionel Messi era.

Not that Messi cares to discuss it.

"There are more important things in life than winning or losing a game," he says, then glances at his watch. "I have to go eat."

Chad Nielsen is a contributing writer to ESPN The Magazine.