Guardiola's Battle To Keep Messi Interested At Barcelona

Having won everything at Barcelona, some fans have a real fear that Lionel Messi will seek new challenges elsewhere. This La Liga expert examines what Pep Guardiola must do to keep him at the Nou Camp.
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It was significant that the longest answer Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola gave after winning the Champions League final in May concerned Lionel Messi. Guardiola is a coach who consistently emphasises the group over the individual. The pass over the dribble.

Indeed, in his final training session before his debut game at the Mini Estadi as coach of Barcelona B, back in 2007, he could be heard shouting: “I don’t want you to be so individual, stop trying to be Leo Messi, keep passing… pass, pass, pass. It’s about moving the ball through the team, not about one individual.”

At Wembley, Guardiola was celebrating a team triumph with three different goalscorers, with stories of individual excellence right across the pitch and a finale where the captain’s armband, and trophy, were handed to Eric Abidal to celebrate his brave fight against a liver tumour.

But when the Barcelona coach was asked for an appreciation of Messi’s performance he set his normal rules aside and let something close to adoration flood out. “Messi is the one who makes the difference, who takes us to another level,” was part of the Catalan’s reaction.

“We have excellent players, great team work, tactics, we work hard but it’s Messi that takes us to another level. He’ll never be repeated. He’s the best player I’ve ever seen, the best player I’ll ever coach. I just hope that he doesn’t get bored in the future: we have to see to that.

“I just hope that the club has the intelligence to make sure we sign the players he’ll be comfortable having around him and he stays as calm and such a centred personality, because if we do that then he never fails.”

There were myriad messages in there as, in the passion of the moment, Guardiola dropped his guard a little and spoke from the heart as well as the head. Why did he mention boredom and the need to sign players who were the ‘right type’ for Messi?

The corroboration of the latter point came during the summer when Messi explained the importance of the atmosphere and team spirit at Barcelona. “The important fact is that we enjoy a really healthy spirit at the training-ground and in the team dressing-room,” Messi confirmed. “From my point of view, there are a few guys around with whom I’ve been playing or sharing rooms in La Masia with since the youth ranks. Right now I’ve got an excellent relationship with every single guy in our squad and I think that perhaps that helps explain how easy it is for all of us to get ‘extra’ from our play when it comes to matches – particularly difficult ones.”

There’s no need to make Zlatan Ibrahimovic seem like some sort of villain in this piece, because his numbers and his trophy haul at the Camp Nou were more than adequate. But when Guardiola talks about signing the right type of player, and avoiding mistakes, the two key examples would be Javier Mascherano and Ibrahimovic.

Mascherano and Messi happen to have been born and brought up within about half an hour’s drive of each other. Shared references, shared culture. But the key part of the midfielder’s added value to the dressing-room has been his ootball vision, tremendous work ethic and an outstandingly easy-going nature. Messi adores him and Mascherano’s arrival has been 100% positive in every aspect.

Ibrahimovic added technique and physical attributes to Barcelona but admitted that he was deliberately ‘static’ in a lot of games because he preferred the freedom to play as the whim took him; he occupied what is now Messi’s favourite position and generally shunned the all-for-one mentality which helps make the team so strong. The Swede became a thorn in Messi’s side, on and off the pitch, and despite 21 goals and nine assists, plus four trophies, he was shipped out.

What’s now more important than whether he can keep them in their No 1 position is whether they have the wit and the vision to ensure they protect, stimulate and maintain their brilliant asset

And Guardiola’s point about boredom? Obviously he meant it generically. What many people cannot be expected to understand is how the demands of a superstar footballer, and parts of the life they lead, dull even the sharpest cutting edge. Sadly very few of the potentially ‘great’ footballers are born with a full wardrobe of talents and character strength.

Once you are paid vast wealth every week and money becomes next to irrelevant, the requests of sponsors, the club, advertisers and media can wear and tear at the hungriest of appetites: the constant travel, the constant training, the same faces in the press conferences and, worse, the same damn questions.

For the moment Guardiola can rest assured that Messi’s situation is radically different. Under the coach, Barcelona is run with military efficiency and anyone who steps out of line, the president included, will be subject to a Guardiola court-martial.

But in Guardiola’s words, there was just a hint of how the coach imagines the future might unfold. The burnout factor is very high at Barcelona and Guardiola himself admitted last February that if he could sign for a six-month extension every time, in order to allow himself more liberty of decision-making, he would.

He’s contracted until the end of the coming season and, who knows, if things are going swimmingly then perhaps he’ll renew again. But in his words about hoping “the club has the intelligence to make sure we sign the players he’ll be comfortable having around him”, there was a gentle hint that Guardiola envisages a day when Messi will still be at the Camp Nou but he won’t be.

I’m certain that Sandro Rosell will make a sound, intelligent president during his reign but it is a natural, repetitive desire from every president of a great club to make a signing which will become part of his ‘legacy’ – a player who will be solely identified with that particular president and for whose success he can claim credit.

So far Rosell’s record isn’t too bad. Thanks to his connections with Nike and Brazil, he was part of the intricate negotiations to take Ronaldo to Barcelona from PSV in 1996 and was the principal reason Ronaldinho chose Barcelona over Manchester United in 2003.

But if there is a presidentially-driven ‘marquee’ signing aimed at emulating Messi’s impact on the club, will Rosell’s sole and guiding criterion be that the new man possess the qualities which make him fit with Messi and exhibit the same relentless work ethic as the current team? It would seem debatable. If not Neymar, and if not this transfer window, then a player like him, with bags of talent but questionable maturity, would be a gamble typical of Rosell.

But already Rosell has Leo Messi, one of the all-time greats. Barcelona have helped him become the best in the world and he has done the same for them. What’s now more important than whether he can keep them in their No 1 position is whether they have the wit and the vision to ensure they protect, stimulate and maintain their brilliant asset. History is definitely against them on that one – and that was Pep Guardiola’s point on that stunning night at Wembley last May.

This is an extract from Football Espana, a digital magazine launching this week, featuring columns from Michael Robinson and Guillem Balague, an exclusive interview with Terry Venables, and a comprehensive guide to every club in La Liga.

For more information, go to or Twitter: @football_Espana

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