Graham Turner on the player who has made football writers exhaust every superlative
It is one of the more remarkable statistics of the season – a couple of weeks ago Lionel Messi and Pepe were both suspended for one game after collecting five yellow cards.
The Barcelona beauty and the Bernabeu beast – could there be two more contrasting players? Messi, who is doing his best to prove the impossible can be done and Pepe, the snarling face of the Special One’s Real Madrid.
The Argentina international’s indiscretions were two handballs, two dissents and a mis-timed tackle. No need to detail Pepe’s cautions.
UEFA media officer Graham Turner has lived near Barcelona for 37 years. Between 1984 and 1987 he worked closely with Terry Venables as his translator and has seen Messi rise from initial obscurity to world star, a player whose shirt has caused friction between opponents all eager for the prize jersey.
Turner said: “The first time I saw him was in the Joan Gamper tournament pre-season. He’d come through the second team at lightning speed, being promoted beyond his age. We were all waiting to see what he could do and we weren’t disappointed. He made a tremendous impact.”
Football is littered with tales of kids who promise to be world-beaters only to lose their way. Turner said: “There were high hopes for Bojan who is now with Roma. He won underage titles with Spain and broke through to the Barcelona first-team but never pushed on and isn’t playing regularly for Roma, either. He’s a classic example of someone you expected to prosper but couldn’t quite make it.”
There were no such problems with Messi who, at 24, has made it with honours even though he is still three or four years off his peak. Of all his qualities Turner most admires the modesty of a player whose ego is in direct proportion to his breathtaking talent. “He’s very humble which makes him so popular. He’s quiet to the point of being timid. He loves the game with a passion and while some youngsters thrust into the limelight are sidetracked, there was never any chance of that with Messi.
“When he was younger every time he was tackled he hit the deck but he’s added to his physical stature and is now like a rubber ball, he just bounces around. He is obsessed with the ball, you knock him over and he just gets on with it. If you think by knocking him over that’s the end of it you are mistaken. Messi is not one for retaliation which is one of his great virtues. He can even play one-two’s off an opponent’s legs.”
Just as Paul Scholes always preferred to let his football do his talking Messi is uneasy with the inevitable media duties. “He’s not a natural because he’s so shy,” said Turner. “He’s not comfortable in the press spotlight and doesn’t really enjoy it but he’s learning. He has come to terms with the fact when you are such a big name it’s part of the job though he doesn’t have a media image as such. He just wants to do his job, enjoy his football and get back into the dressing-room. “
Messi’s modesty makes him popular with his team-mates who appreciate his team ethic. Turner said: “He gets on with everyone. When he first came into the team Ronaldinho took him under his wing and taught him a lot of things. The others realise how important he is to the team.”
The only criticism of Messi is that unlike Pele and Diego Maradona he has not yet made a big impact at a World Cup. On the other hand Maradona never won a European Cup medal. Turner said: “Comparing players from different eras is difficult. Messi is obviously helped by having wonderful passers of the ball like Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Dani Alves supplying him.
“At UEFA we have regular meeting with Europe’s top coaches and they believe the standard in the Champions League is higher than that of international football, just as the European Championship is better than the World Cup. The Champions League is where you stand up and get counted these days.”
Barcelona, who trail Real by 10 points, are unlikely to retain their Spanish crown but when the sides meet again in another clasico next month Messi will be doing his best to ensure that Barca’s recent domination over the rivals in head-to-heads continues.
Turner believes the current series should be upgraded to superclasico. He said: “They are the two most outstanding clubs in Europe at the moment. In Messi and Ronaldo they have the two best players and goalscorers. It’s quite a good battle to have on your doorstep. The Guardiola v Mourinho clasicos are a different dimension. They have produced games everyone wants to watch though whether we have enjoyed everything that has gone on is another matter. It’s a riveting spectacle, the tension is incredible. If you love football you have to love these types of games.”