Lionel Messi, FC Barcelona’s captain, has broken his silence on various topics in an exclusive interview with SPORT. He spoke about the club's failed move for Neymar, the news about his potential exit at the end of the season, the poor start to the current campaign and other things.
Last season was not as great of a season on a collective level. However, on an individual level, you achieved incredible numbers and you are a big favourite to win the Ballon d’Or. How do you balance that out?
It wasn’t a great year for how it ended but we had a great season until the last two games. Our elimination from the Champions League made our entire season look bad when we did really well. We were close to achieving the treble but that one game ruined it all. After that, playing in the final of the Copa del Rey was difficult. In the second half, we played well but we have it away in the first half. Of course, it looks like a ‘bad season’ because we only won LaLiga. We didn’t achieve our goals.
Do you feel like you’re the favourite for the Ballon d’Or?
I don’t know. The Ballon d’Or is strange, no one really knows who is the favourite. Recently they’ve looked more at the club’s results, which isn’t a bad thing. Sometimes it’s been for the World Cup which not everyone values the same. I don’t know. Honestly, there isn’t a specific line on which you can define the Ballon d’Or winner. I’ve never felt I was the favourite or not. As I’ve said before, individual awards are secondary to me.
How do you feel about your injury?
I feel better. It was really bad because it happened on my first day back and it originally looked to be something minor but, in reality, I have been out of action for the past 15 days. Now, I know what it is and I feel more at ease. I will return when I feel I have fully recovered.
Are you desperate to return to action?
Definitely. I’ve spent a long time on the sidelines. As soon as I started this happened to me and I can’t wait to return.
Will you be back soon? Will you play against Valencia?
No, I am still training on my own and I do not have a fixed date for my return. I will do tests and when we see that I am 100% fit, I’ll be ready. I won’t play against Valencia and we’ll see if I’ll be fit in time for Dortmund or Granada. But as I said, I don’t have a fixed date to return.
How do you think the team has started this season? Are you worried?
No, I’m not worried. It’s been a strange start because we’ve had a lot of players out injured. Against Athletic we played great. It isn’t an easy place to go. We couldn’t find the right pass in the final third but we had control of the match in the second half. We ended up losing the game and we didn’t deserve that. I saw a great team performance against Betis. The second half, in particular, was very good. But once again, away from home, it cost us against Osasuna. It doesn’t worry me but we need to know we can’t start that way. It’s been a really poor start and now, after the international break, we have to make sure everything clicks, become stronger and take control of the upcoming matches.
Would you rather win the Champions League if it meant losing the LaLiga crown?
No. When we start the season we always say the same thing that we want to win everything and try our best to achieve that. I hope we can settle in quickly, we want to win every title. But it’s clear I would like to win the Champions League because it’s been a long time since I last did that. As a club, and on a personal level, we must win the Champions League. But at the start of the season I wouldn’t take one or the other. I want to win them both.
Which of your rivals do you believe have strengthened better: Atlético, Real Madrid…?
I believe everyone has strengthened their squad with new signings. I believe Atletico have a great team and have made some good signings. It felt as if they were going to be weakened but they’ve created a great team, really good, with a lot of options and well balanced. Real Madrid have also signed well. Alongside the players they already had, they’ve brought in important players like (Eden) Hazard. Juventus have signed well, (Manchester) City too. Overall I think everything is more even and the bigger teams are getting stronger.
We come off the back of a huge disappointment at Anfield. You’ve already spoken about that but maybe you’ve never explained what you learn from nights such as that one in Anfield or Rome.
It wasn’t for one match in particular, but for various experiences we’ve had in the Champions League. One bad performance, even if you have a lead, could see you be eliminated. The English stadiums help their teams a lot. It’s also important to score goals away from home if you are going to win the Champions League. It’s so important. When we won the Champions League, this was the case too. If I remember correctly, we scored in every away match. On top of everything else we did well, we always scored goals. If you don’t score away from home, it makes life difficult for you.
That’s the main lesson you’ve learnt?
I believe so. I already knew this, because it’s obvious, but that match left a greater mark. Scoring an away goal is an important step.
Barça have brought in De Jong, Griezmann, Neto and Junior. How do you value the squad this year? Is it better than the one from last season?
I don’t know if it’s better or not. Last year we had a very good squad as well. It’s true that very important players have arrived and now we have greater depth, more variety, both in midfield and upfront. Next year will decide whether it’s better or not. It depends on what we achieve.
Barça tried to re-sign Neymar but it wasn’t possible. Would you have liked Neymar to see return?
Honestly, yes. I would have loved to have Neymar back. I understand those people who are against his return and it’s understandable for what happened with ‘Ney’ and the way that he left. But thinking about it on a sporting level, I personally think Neymar is one of the best players in the world and having him in our squad would increase our chances of achieving our objectives. But, in the end, it didn’t happen and we have to only think about the squad we have and focus on our goals.
Do you think Barça did everything possible to sign him?
To be honest, I don’t know. I didn’t have much information about how the negotiations were going to say whether or not Barcelona did everything possible.
Did you ever get the feeling, as has been rumoured, that the club pretended to make an effort in order to keep the dressing room happy?
I don’t know what happened with the board. I know that I spoke with Ney and he told me how things were going. He was desperate to come back. I don’t know if the club really tried or not. What I do know, Neymar was hoping it would happen. I also understand it’s very difficult to negotiate with PSG after all their previous back and forth issues with Barcelona. And it’s difficult because Neymar is one of the best around. Negotiations are never easy. I can’t offer an opinion because I don’t know everything. I know what was published and what they said.
Did you follow everything closely?
Yes, obviously I wanted him to come not just for the sporting side of things but also for the club. In terms of the image, marketing, sponsorships and to keep growing. It would have given the club a lift too. But it didn’t happen.
Did you speak with Neymar during the summer? How did he experience the whole saga?
I haven’t spoken to him since the transfer story ended. I got injured and he began to train again. What I do know is he was desperate to leave and come to Barcelona.
Did you believe the deal was done at any point?
As I told you, different things come out every day and you’re never quite sure what the real status of the negotiation is.
It’s said that the dressing room asked for Neymar's arrival. Was that true?
They report a lot of things but asked the club to sign him? No. Obviously we talk about what we’ve heard and that Neymar could arrive. We gave our opinions on whether it’d be good if he came or not but we never said they had to sign him. We gave our opinion in the same way we did with Griezmann and other players who arrived. And even those who didn’t end up coming in.
After seeing how the transfer played out, are you upset Neymar didn’t come?
No, I would have liked for him to return but I think we have a spectacular squad and we can achieve everything without him. So no, I’m not disappointed. Only I would have liked to play alongside him again, that's all.
This summer, as has happened before, there was a lot of talk about you being the one who decides what the club does. What do you think when you hear these things?
I’m used to it by now. It isn’t the first time I’ve heard that either. It’s clear this isn’t the case. The same thing is said about the national team. They claim I pick the players and the coaches or that my father does. I don’t pay too much attention to it. I know what my role and the truth is.
So the truth is you don’t control what happens?
Obviously not. I’m just another player. The only thing I want is to win and continue to lift titles. I also want to win another Champions League and give my best to the team, which is by playing football.
There were also reports that the dressing room at Barça didn’t want Griezmann, that they were hurt after he chose not to come and later changed his mind. Have you had the opportunity to spend time with him yet?
Very little to be honest. Since I returned, I’ve been injured and training on my own. I’m not really in the group. They went on the tour and when they came back we saw each other a little in the dressing room. But I’ve not been there in the training sessions. We’ll have the opportunity to share many things.
There are teammates of yours, Pique and Suarez, who have expressed that they aren’t happy with Dembele’s professionalism. He’s a player everyone has an opinion on so how do you view him?
I believe he’s an impressive talent who can do whatever he wants. He is very young and I think this year will be very important for him to make the step up that the whole of the Barcelona fan base wants to see. He needs to make that change to be more professional, to put that idea into his head, so he can be a success at Barcelona like he wants to be. I hope he doesn’t have the bad luck he’s had with injuries. Last year, when we needed him the most, he was injured. Hopefully that doesn’t happen this year and he’s able to show everything he has, which is a lot. As a player, he’s very impressive.
Of the last 21 new signings at Barcelona since the 2014/15 season, only six remain at the club. Why do so many players not make it here?
Because it’s very difficult to play for Barcelona. It’s the biggest club in the world and everything that comes with it is tough. The supporters, the groups, the media coverage... It isn’t easy to come in and step out onto the Camp Nou pitch. It doesn't matter for some and others feel it immediately. When someone has a strong mentality and is confident, everything works out. But not everyone is the same. Some people aren’t able to adapt to these things in the same way. It isn’t easy to play for Barcelona.
There have been four technical secretaries over the last few years. How has that been and does it affect the team?
No, the truth is it doesn’t affect us. It would be good for the club and everyone around if there was more stability and fewer changes. The role of the technical secretary is very important and it should be held by someone who identifies with the club and who has the strength and power to make important decisions. There needs to be a person with those characteristics in the role.
Does Puyol fit those criteria?
I don’t know if he wants that or what his ideas are, but he’s going along that route. Puyol would be ideal for that position. I don’t know if it’s something he would like to do because I don’t talk to him. But his image, how he was as a player, what he meant to this club, it would be a very good choice.
After the poor end to last season, there were rumours that Ernesto Valverde was going to be sacked. Did you worry he could be replaced?
When these things happen, everyone thinks the worst because we didn’t complete our objectives. Something similar happened in the previous year too although I believe it was worse on this occasion. As I said in the moment, we (the players) are to blame. The coaching staff had nothing to do with the performance we put in. Until that moment we had a great season, dominating the league from the first moment, making the final of the Copa del Rey. It was more an issue with us than with the coaching team.
The other day, Josep Maria Bartomeu said that according to your contract you could leave on a free transfer at the end of the season. Is it true and should Barça fans be worried?
I can’t confirm anything because there are confidentiality agreements in our contracts. What I can say is that I want to be at Barcelona as long as possible. I’ve said throughout my career that this is my home. But I also don’t want to have a long-term contract and only be here because of it. I want to be here because physically I’m fine, to play and be an important member of the squad. And as I said before, I need see there’s a winning team because I want to keep winning things at this club. For me, money or a clause don’t mean anything. Other things motivate me and the most important thing is having a winning team.
Is your idea to renew your contract year by year depending on how you feel?
My idea is to continue here for as long as I can perform well and my body allows me to do that. Afterwards, as I said before, my contract isn’t something that worries me or even something I manage myself. My father handles that with the president or whoever he needs to talk to. I only express my thoughts.
So the key condition for you to remain here is that there’s a winning team?
Obviously, I want to win and I want to win at this club. This is my home. I don’t have any intention of going anywhere but I want to keep competing and winning.
Are you in talks with Barça now?
My father handles that but we aren’t talking with Barça. He would have told me if so.
When you don’t play, either because of injury or you’re being rested, you watch the games with your sons. How do they help you get over it? And is it better to watch the games with them?
I enjoy it a lot more with them and I have more time to do that in the stands. It’s beautiful but I prefer to be out on the pitch and being involved as I’ve spent so long on the sidelines.
How is it being around your children after a bad game? Does Mateo still give you a hard time?
They suffer. Especially Thiago, as he understands it a little more. Mateo was angry when I said he supported another team and not Barcelona. It was the same when they said he celebrated Betis’ goal. It wasn’t true. It was one of our attacks that hit the side netting and he thought it had gone in. He’s beginning to understand what it means when we lose and what it means for me and the team.
Are they Barcelona supporters?
Yes, both of them. Neither likes to lose at anything. They’re very competitive. When they lose, they suffer too.
Is it sometimes tiring to be Lionel Messi?
Not tiring, no. I’m grateful to God that I’ve had so many incredible experiences and it’s wonderful. Although it’s true I would sometimes like to not be noticed. Especially when I’m with my children, at school or in the street. Sometimes I’ll take them at 8:30 am and people ask me for an autograph or a photo. I’m still half asleep. But I can’t complain about anything.
How did you feel when Luis Enrique confirmed his daughter had passed away?
It was horrible, something no one expected despite knowing a little bit about her treatment. It’s something you never want to think about and less so when it’s such a young person. Unfortunately, these things happen a lot in the world but you feel it more when it’s closer to home. To have experienced moments with her, gone to school with her alongside my children, to her being friends with a teammate’s son. It was horrible. They are things which you can’t explain and it impacts everyone. We all have children and to think of that situation is terribly difficult. I can’t say anything more because I don’t know how I would react if I experienced that. It’s a sensitive topic.
Recently Cristiano (Ronaldo) said he would like to go for lunch with you. Would you accept his invitation?
Yes, I don’t have any problem with that. I’ve always said that I don’t have any issue with him. We might not be friends because we’ve never shared a dressing room together but I always see him at award shows and there’s no problem. We actually spoke with each other for quite a long time at the most recent show. I don’t know if there will be a dinner because I don’t know if our paths will cross for obvious reasons, each one of us has our own life and our own commitments. But obviously I would accept the invitation.