Lionel Messi placed the ball and all around the ground they watched, 98,299 pairs of eyes on him, waiting. Phones were held ready, the moment recorded from every angle and the shot absurd from all of them. In the directors’ box at the Camp Nou, the Barcelona president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, turned to his companions. “This is going in for sure,” they agreed, and it did, bending past Liverpool’s wall and into the top corner beyond Alisson. He had done it again. “We live with a genius, but we live with genius as if it was normal,” Bartomeu says when reflecting on Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg win the following morning.
He has seen this before. “We’ve been watching Messi for years, living with him, and I know he’s extraordinary, but I see it as normal now,” he says. “When he took the free-kick, almost all of us knew it was going in. A few seconds before, we were saying: ‘It’s perfect, a little further out where it’s best for him.’ When he’s very close to the area, there’s not much space; when he’s further back, he’s too far away. Someone said: ‘Bloody hell, this one’s going in for sure.’ And that’s normal.
“I was watching the images, looking at the wall, and there’s a small space and Leo is very clever. If you look, the ball goes by right next to his [the defender’s] ear. It might even brush his ear on the way past. But Leo is special. We see a wall; he sees a gap. And it goes right there. He’s a genius, it’s talent, pure.” He is a threat too. Bartomeu says that when opposition directors take up their seats, the first thing they usually ask is: “Is Messi playing?” They know too; some of them even enjoy it, the president insists.
The ridiculous has become routine. Last weekend, when Barcelona won their eighth league title in 11 years, defeating Levante 1-0 with another Messi goal to wrap up the championship three weeks early, they wore celebratory T-shirts with the slogan: “The extraordinary thing is that it seems normal.” It could have been made for him.
Messis’s run to 600 club goals
“It’s not just the goals, it’s that Messi sets you apart from other teams,” Bartomeu says. “Leo is a genius and it’s been so, so many seasons, so, so many games. We live an extraordinary era but for our fans, it feels normal. And you also have to remember he came here at 13, he was raised here. He knows everyone and everyone knows him; he’s just part of the club. Externally, he creates such huge expectation but internally we don’t experience it like that. He lives it all very normally too. And while he’s exceptional, he plays for the team. Look at yesterday – he could have scored more, but he passes to teammates.”
Bartomeu adds: “You enjoy watching him. And you wonder what will happen when Leo retires from football.” The first question is when that will be. Bartomeu says he has not asked Messi – who will be 32 in June – what the perfect age would be, what he has in mind, but there have been discussions about a post-football future. There are plans, too, for a post-Messi era on the pitch.
“He might even play until he’s 45, who knows?” the president says. “We know he’ll play three, four, five years more, we don’t know how many – as many as he wants. We’re preparing: players like [Ousmane] Dembélé, [Clément] Lenglet, Arthur are there to build a team for when Messi stops playing, but I still see it as a long way off. I don’t think that day is near. And we tell the players who play and train with him: ‘Make the most of every minute.’
“We are talking to the family but it’s very early to say. He’s a footballer. So we talk football. But he will stay here with us. He’s a club man. I talk always about Pelé, who was always associated with Santos, the only place he played. Leo belongs to world football, but he has always lived at Barça. He will be a one-club man. Leo will never leave. He’ll stop playing, but he’ll always be with us.”