This interview with Barcelona legend Carles Rexach comes from Sunday’s Olé. Rexach, who was with the club for 44 years, had a glittering career and was central to Cruyff’s revolution there before going on to have a great influence on the generation of youth players currently stamping on the big greasy face of the football world.
The interview was conducted by the ever irascible Ignacio Fusco, who’s dogged, laconic style of journalism does so much to antagonise readers and interviewees alike. Happily, as with the Pipo Gorosito interview back in March, Rexach is too much of a gent to be ruffled by the jerk.
The girls’ got the same look on her face that Messi must have given her more than once: his mouth half open, flummoxed, the eternal gesture of someone who’s just arrived in another city, another world. The girl’s name is Cynthia, Cynthia Arellano, she was a classmate of Leo in primary school. The report is on the program Informe Robinson , on the Spanish Canal Plus. Cynthia speaks, smiling now, but still nonplussed: “Once I asked him, with all the people in the ground shouting, how it felt to play in front of 80,000 people, how he was able to do the things he does. I don’t know – he said – it’s not me who does it.”
Who is it, then? Who are you?
“Many times they’ve asked me how he does it, and I think the best answer is this: not even he knows. Seriously: not even him,” says a smiling Carles Rexach, the manager with whom Messi made his debut in Barcelona, in a chat with Olé. A player in the World Cup in 1978, league champion with Barcelona in ’73/’74 but no longer working with the club, Rexach gave Messi his first ten minutes, as a replacement for Deco, in a 1-0 victory over Espanyol on the 16th October 2004 [not true – it was Rijkaard]. “I remember that people were telling me back then ‘This kid isn’t all that special, man; he’s looks like a 5-a-side player (jugador de futbolín).’ And I said to them: “Alright, do me a favour: every player you find that you reckon is a like this guy, a 5-a-side player, bring them all to me.’ Messi’s special: even if you haven’t got the slightest clue about football, you get Messi. There are some players you have to know really well in order to sign them. With Messi, no: even the blind can tell you how good he is.”
- So he’s a 5-a-side player…
- In the youth team they said he used to dribble a lot. He hogs the ball, they used to say.
- A glorier…
- Yeah, of course, but that’s how he is; let’s hope he keeps on dribblin and dribblin away; all the better, I used to say, as in football there aren’t even that many really skilful players. Even when he’d just arrived in Barcelona. Lionel was a great player, he was – but only when he had the ball. In the last few years, and it was inevitable, he’s come round to the idea that football is a collective game. Messi used to play on his own, and look at him now: five moves in a row he only touches the ball once, then finally, all of a sudden, he does his own thing. And i’ll tell you something else: Barça could even be boring without Lionel.
- Definitely. You see Barça play and they make it look easy, pam pam pam, but the breakthrough comes when Messi gets the ball. Without a guy like him, Barça mightn’t win as much. I’m not sure if i’m making myself clear: not even Maradona was as great an interpreter of the collective game as Messi is.
- Could you explain that further?
- Let’s see, let’s see [long silence]. Diego was more intuitive, pure inspiration, whereas Lionel – perhaps due to having been brought up on such a mechanical style of football – has learned to choose his moments. Lionel has a better understanding of when to put the finishing touch to a move.
- Among the many reasons that prevents the Argentine public from taking to Messi is, I suspect, his perfection. Diego’s sins, Ronaldo’s ego, the humble background of a Tevez or an Adriano, they make the fans see the player as one of their own. While Leo is so quiet, so flawless.
- Yeah, it’s true, but look at it this way: look at Puyol, he keeps his mouth shut. Take Valdés, the best Spanish goalkeeper and he doesn’t get called up, nothing. Xavi never opens his mouth either. The environment he’s in helps him maintain that tranquility. I have a great relationship with Messi and the most i’ve ever heard him say is “alright, yeah, no, okay and nah”. You’d do well to have anyone in your life like that. Besides, listen to this: neither Ronaldinho nor Ronaldo were able to take playing here so well and for so long. For that you need Leo’s calm.
- Speaking of pressure: now it might seem irrelevant, but was it not a bit too much for a 16-year-old to take on the responsibility of supporting his family, and in another country?
- Yeah, but the club strove for him to forget about that. They sought to find work for his father so the boy could forget about that pressure. You guys speak about his character, and Lionel suffered a great deal when his parents would go back to Argentina, when we still had to prove that his family worked here and that until that was sorted he couldn’t play, when the days were long and grey, when his teammates cried because they were alone and homesick… Look: I wouldn’t let my son go to Argentina at 13 years of age. It must be very difficult, but sure people just think about long-term success.
- Why do people get so annoyed, then, when people say that Lionel is Catalan, Carles, if he grew up and got used to living over there? Isn’t it logical that he should feel a greater affinity with his adopted city?
- Argentina’s problem with Messi is that he’s not anyone’s patrimony. At best, if he had come through the ranks of Boca, today there’d be lots of pro-Messi people, which of course, there aren’t. Having been formed over here, then, you consider him a foreigner. It’s ridiculous, but that’s how it is, and it may well affect him, his country, everyone. Messi does get nervous when he tries to imitate himself.
- You lot mustn’t believe what you’re seeing when you watch Maradona’s team.
- On the contrary to all those teams where they’d get the ball and it was a bloody chore to get it back off them, this Argentina team lives off its opponents’ scraps. And it’s strange, too, how few chances they create. All the less, football matches are decided in the box and Maradona has great players in both. Some people say Messi will only be a great player if he wins a World Cup, and it’s true that he’s still very young; he could even win two. And the day he wins the second, man, it will be a shame, as by then he’ll be 30 and he won’t have much time left. Let’s enjoy it: life is too short to speed it up any further.