A plea straight from the heart

Messi is making his way back from injury but he needs to be extra careful in a big season

A plea straight from the heart

Welcome back, Leo, when you are good and ready. We have missed your smile, your ability to turn sport into art, your way of simplifying soccer as if it were child’s play. With you on the field, we might forget the commerce that made Barcelona sell its shirt to paymasters in Qatar.

Your 50-day absence represents the longest separation since you arrived at Barça at the age of 13. In exchange for your quality, the club agreed to pay the medical bills to help you outgrow growth hormone deficiency.

The management, the medics, and the players sharing your time at La Masia academy knew what was coming long before you lined up in the first team alongside Ronaldinho, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and Carles Puyol in 2005.

You were 17 at the time. Your progress at Barça and with Argentina’s national side has been a continuous story of growing historic delight.

The 16 trophies won with Barcelona came with the most intense, at times the most beautiful, soccer most of us may ever see. Your 91 goals during 2012 broke the record set four decades earlier in Germany by Gerd “Der Bomber” Müller.

He was a goal machine. You are so much more — a winger, a striker, a playmaker, anything you want to be. Your four Ballons d’Or for the world player of each year from 2009 to 2012 could become five when the award is announced on January 13.

There are only three names in the frame: Cristiano Ronaldo, Franck Ribéry and you. This despite your injury layoff, much of it spent in retreat in Rosario, Argentina. The hamstring tear on November 10 was the last of several muscle ailments that you said happened because of bad luck. Medical experts ranging from those who have had hands-on experience with you to others who just surmise think the breakages were caused by your body’s being pushed beyond reason.

If we count the 427 games, and 338 goals, for Barça alone it would sum up a lifetime achievement packed into a career possibly only now at halftime. Add 83 games and 37 goals for Argentina, and factor in the sheer force of opponents, the vast majority of them far bigger and more physical than the 5-foot-7, 150-pound body you possess.

Most of them are not quick enough to catch you. But they try. And all your quick bursts, all the twisting and turning, the darting movements you utilise to escape being caught and to emerge, magically, with the ball, puts pressure on the sinews.

But you are, as far as we know, mortal.

Maybe not, because the new Spanish dictionary has coined a word, a new adjective: “inmessionante.” It apparently has two meanings — perfection in playing, or the player of all time.

Such a performer journeys to many stadiums. And that means time in the air, travelling first class but still in pressurised cabins. It also means the sales and marketing folks can’t get enough of you.

The taxman too, given the way you and your father, Jorge, were summoned to court in September, followed by allegations that your father used foreign bank accounts to launder money. 

The drawback of fame, perhaps. But we might only imagine the calls on your time, the distractions, the sycophancy, the line of multinational companies seeking to buy into your image. We appreciate, also, the commitments — demanding energy and more flights — that you undertake for your charitable foundation.

Clearly, you take pride in funding a youth setup for your original club, Newell’s Old Boys, and in donating 4 million Argentine pesos, or about $815,000, to a children’s hospital in Rosario. You are still relatively new to fatherhood. If anything good comes from being sidelined through injury, it could be the time to share with your girlfriend Antonella Roccuzzo and Thiago, your child now 13 months old.

Incidentally, that was a nice photo on your Instagram account this week showing you and Antonella enjoying your last final moments of relaxation in Rosario.

Barcelona hasn’t fallen apart. Neymar has grown somewhat into your space. Pedro signed off 2013 with a hat trick that was almost “inmessionante” in its timing and opportunism. And the team leads the league.

Rumor has it that Paris Saint-Germain, another club financed from Qatar, could bid 250 million euros, or $344 million, to buy out your Barcelona contract. Surely, however, if the time came for you to leave, one imagines Manchester City getting in on the act. City’s owner in Abu Dhabi might spend what it takes — and City’s director of football, responsible for recruiting players, is your old friend from Barça, Txiki Begiristain.

But first things first. The next big challenge for Barcelona is the Champions League, against Manchester City, in February. Beyond that might lie Bayern Munich, now coached by your former mentor Pep Guardiola, and the team that put you out of Europe last year when your hamstring problems was just beginning.

Your colleagues want you back. Xavi Hernández said a few days ago that if he was to choose one player throughout history, it would be Lionel Messi.

That could possibly place Xavi and you in opposition come next summer. Plenty of what has been broadcast and written during your lost 50 days is irrelevant to what you represent as a sportsman. But your weeks back home, where your father once worked in a steel factory and your mother cleaned apartments, must have reinforced the one thing missing from your career.

You have the skills to be up there with Diego Maradona, even with Pelé. But because you turn 27 years of age in June, this could be your best shot at winning the World Cup, as they did. 

Come back carefully. Think of your own words when the injury struck last November: “There’s no need to look for things that don’t exist,” you said. “I’ll play all I need to do — when my body says it’s OK.”

In a season elongated by the World Cup, please, dear Leo, don’t let eagerness push you too hard, too soon.

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