Explaining how Lionel Messi got his motivation back at Barcelona
The New Year began badly for Lionel Messi and for Barcelona. The Argentine attacker returned to training later than most of his teammates, but a bust-up with coach Luis Enrique saw the forward benched at Real Sociedad on Jan. 4.
A halftime substitute at Anoeta, Leo looked barely interested in the second period – and Barca lost 1-0 to David Moyes’ men. The next day, Messi missed training with gastroenteritis (an ailment described by Xavi just days earlier as "an excuse for something else"), before setting alarm bells ringing by following Chelsea’s Instagram account.
The relationship between player and coach had become so tense that Luis Enrique told the Barca board he did not think the pair could coexist any longer.
Suddenly, however, all of that has been confined to the past and Messi has returned to his brilliant best in recent weeks with some superb performances and six goals in his last four matches.
So what changed? Goal takes a look at the reasons behind the forward’s newfound motivation:
Backing from the fans at the Camp Nou
Through thick and thin, Barcelona’s fans have stayed loyal to Messi, conscious of all the Argentine attacker has given the Catalan club over the past decade.
Four days after the defeat to Real Sociedad, Barca thrashed Elche 5-0 at home in the Copa del Rey and the Camp Nou constantly got behind Messi by chanting his name. When the Argentine converted from the penalty spot, he blew kisses to the fans in appreciation for their continued show of support.
Before the league game against Atletico on Jan. 11, Messi then received a special trophy for becoming La Liga’s all-time top scorer and had his name chanted by the entire crowd once more. Luis Enrique, incidentally, did not applaud, but Barca went on to play perhaps its best game of the season as Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez all scored in a convincing 3-1 win.
Messi has not forgotten how Barca fans stood by him in the past and, just before Christmas, he sent a special message to his supporters. "I want to say thank you to all my followers, who are always there in everything I do," he said in a video dedicated to his fans. And in 2013, he thanked the Barca faithful for their patience while he took time out to recover from injury. "Thank you all for being by my side," he told them.
Boardroom calm as Bartomeu calls elections
Messi’s relationship with the current Barca board has been a bone of contention for the Argentine since Sandro Rosell succeeded Joan Laporta in 2010.
Suspicious that Rosell was plotting his sale, Messi lacked "feeling" with the former club chief and things came to a head when Barca’s economic vice president Javier Faus claimed the Blaugrana had "no reason" to give their best player a new contract in 2013 — because he had only signed an extension the previous year.
Messi hit back by saying that Faus "has no idea about football" and relations between player and board have remained somewhat sour ever since. Bartomeu, who succeeded Rosell after the latter’s resignation in January 2014, has tried to mend the relationship with Messi. But the Barca president has come under increased pressure in recent times and has calmed the tense atmosphere at the Catalan club by bringing forward elections — originally planned for 2016 — to the end of the current campaign.
That has pleased Messi and, additionally, the Argentine is happy he is receiving better support from the club than in the Rosell era, with Bartomeu going out of his way to defend the Argentine in recent weeks. "He is the number one — whoever wins the prizes," Bartomeu said after Messi lost out in the Ballon d’Or to Cristiano Ronaldo recently.
Getting his frustration off his chest
Messi rarely speaks to the media and hardly ever appears in the mixed zone after Barcelona games. But he was interviewed by club channel BarcaTV following the 3-1 win over Atletico on Jan. 11 and took the opportunity to give his side of the story. The Argentine reassured fans he had no intention of leaving the club and also denied he had demanded Luis Enrique’s sacking.
"I have no intention of leaving," he said. "We have to be united because there are important months ahead."
Later, Leo caused controversy prior to the Ballon d’Or ceremony when he claimed he did not know where he would be playing next year. But he rectified it hours afterwards in the mixed zone as he reiterated that he has no intention of leaving Camp Nou any time soon, while also describing his link with Luis Enrique as "a normal player-coach relationship."
On the rare occasions he has a problem with Barca (as with Faus in 2013), Messi talks to the media to air his grievances and his words usually have the desired effect as the issue almost always goes away. This time, he has also been liberated by getting those frustrations off his chest.
Learning to live with Luis Enrique
Messi and Luis Enrique may never be best buddies nor fully agree on tactics or training methods, but the Argentine has decided to put their differences aside for the good of the team for what is left of the current campaign.
The 27-year-old is well aware that a change of coach midway through the season would likely be fatal for the club’s hopes of winning trophies in 2014-15, having already missed out on major silverware under Gerardo Martino last term. In addition, Messi does not want to be the one responsible for the 44-year-old’s departure and, in any case, he knows elections in the summer could well result in a coaching change.
The Argentine has described the pair’s relationship as "normal," while Luis Enrique recently said he hopes Messi is at Barcelona "for many years to come." And with Barca now playing its finest football of the season, the situation has improved markedly.
Missing out to Cristiano Ronaldo in the FIFA Ballon d’Or
Not so long ago, Messi was on top of the world after winning the Ballon d’Or four years in a row, but he has now lost out on the prestigious prize to Cristiano Ronaldo in both 2013 and 2014. Ronaldo, who also won the 2008 award with Manchester United, is now only one behind Messi and revealed after the gala in Zurich that he plans to catch the Barca forward.
"This is an unforgettable moment and I’m not going to stop here," Ronaldo said. "I want to catch Messi." And his agent Jorge Mendes subsequently said: "He is already thinking about winning his fourth Ballon d’Or."
Later, in an interview with France Football, Ronaldo explained: "Messi is part of my motivation and I’m sure I am part of his motivation as well."
Naturally, Leo’s competitive streak means his pride has taken a hit at losing out to Cristiano in back-to-back Ballons d’Or and he is determined to win the award next January and prevent the Real Madrid forward from drawing level at 4-4.
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