Lionel Messi on His Sport

TIME’s Bobby Ghosh interviews soccer great Lionel Messi.

Feb 23, 2012 | By Bobby Ghosh / Barcelona for TIME
INA FASSBENDER—REUTERS

TIME’s Bobby Ghosh sat down for an interview with soccer great Lionel Messi. Off the field, Messi lives a quiet life, with his father in a Barcelona suburb. Here, the naturally reserved Messi offers some insights into his sport and life.

TIME:

You have a low-key lifestyle. Why is that?

LIONEL MESSI:

I’ve always been this way, ever since I was young. I’ve always really just liked football, and I’ve always devoted a lot of time to it. When I was a kid, my friends would call me to go out with them, but I would stay home because I had practice the next day. I like going out, but you have to know when you can and when you can’t. That's why I say nothing's changed since I was young. My friends would go out and I’d stay home. But not for nothing, because I knew it had to be that way, and at that moment, I was dedicated to football.

TIME:

What were your first experiences at Barcelona's famous La Masía training school like?

MESSI:

It helped me a lot because I came [from Argentina] alone, and I was with all the guys in the Masía, I was one of them. We were all from someplace else, and we helped each other. The truth is that there were a lot of happy moments because we were there together for a lot of time, and the relationships between all of us got stronger and stronger. Lots of happy times.

TIME:

When Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo scores in a game, do you feel pressure to do likewise?

MESSI:

No. I care about how Madrid’s doing because they’re competing against us, and they’re in our League, and because almost every year, we compete for the title. But against Ronaldo, no.

TIME:

You seem to be very competitive, how do you feel when you lose?

MESSI:

I am competitive and I feel bad when we lose. You can see it in me when we’ve lost. I’m in a bad way. I don’t like to talk to anyone. I just retreat into myself and go over the game in my head: the things that went wrong, what I did wrong, why we didn’t win.

TIME:

How long do you brood?

MESSI:

Until the next game. Luckily we play a lot, so it happens quickly.

TIME:

Does playing for Argentina in the World Cup bring a different kind of pressure?

MESSI:

No, we feel pressure with every match: not just me, but anyone who’s on a national team. What I can say that I learned [in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa] is that the most important thing is that the team be strong, that they be united. That’s what’s important in a tournament that is so short.

TIME:

How did you feel when fellow Argentines criticized you for your performances with the national team in the last World Cup?

MESSI:

Yes, yes, it hurt; it bothered me. Because they said things that weren’t true—that I didn’t care as much about wearing the [Argentine] shirt. I didn’t feel that, I didn’t think that. And now, I think what people there understand that this is a team game, and that I try to play the same way there as I do in Barcelona, and always do the best I can.

TIME:

Your countrymen are finally warming to you. Why do you think that is?

MESSI:

You see it in the affection that people there have, for what they say on television. Before, there was a lot of criticism and everything was bad. And now it’s not like that. That’s good, because every country I go to, people have always received me very well, and in my own country that wasn't happening.

TIME:

What do you think of the reception you get from fans around the world?

MESSI:

Incredible. It’s happened in a lot of countries I’ve visited, but it’s still surprising. I never imagined that so far from Spain or Argentina, people would have this affection for me. It makes me very happy.