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Aware of his genius, but completely unaffected by it . . . Lionel Messi simply revels in playing the beautiful game, beautifully

Two things happened this week which should put Lionel Messi completely out of touch with the ordinary football lover; as remote as the possibility of Jose Mourinho sending the wee fella a telegram of congratulations and a bottle of exquisite red wine.

Messi is a throwback to the old, less commercial, less homogenised version of football most of us grew up with
Messi is a throwback to the old, less commercial, less homogenised version of football most of us grew up with

Messi became the all time leading scorer for Barcelona aged only 24, the kind of vintage when a promising youngster might just be making plans for how to celebrate his 100th club goal in about a year or so. Instead this prodigy, this gift from God, surpassed a record which has stood for several decades by overtaking Cesar's 232 mark with a hat trick which brings Messi to 234 goals for Barca.

That almost unbelievable achievement arrived at the same time as a survey which suggested the kid known as 'The Flea' is now football's highest earner at just under £28m per annum, ahead of traditional behemoths like Mourinho and David Beckham.

Richer than hell, more talented than almost anyone who has ever kicked a ball in the history of this planet and yet people don't feel he's from another universe like, say, Beckham, Mourinho, Cristiano Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane or Carlos Tevez. No super cars, no tarts, no discos, no ego, no punch ups, no arrogance, no 'attitude'.

When Messi erupts into one of his crazy slaloms that usually end in a goal it's like someone opened a box full of electrical sparks and bright, dangerous mayhem has escaped. Naturally when we watch that, at home, in the pub, at the stadium, the effect is to grab us in our delicate parts and send a jolt to the nervous system. Watching him is like mainlining adrenaline.

But there is something else, something which is almost unique in my experience. This is a kid who still reminds us of what we felt like when we first fell head over heels in love with football – be it the actual ball itself, the hurried game in the playground before school starts, the first time the team we support takes a major scalp or the fanfare of watching the World Cup.

The impish grin which flits across his face when he pulls off a trick, the absolute joy when he scores or gives an assist, the satisfaction which he takes in his work; these are the things so often judged to be missing in the modern millionaire footballer by the paying public. Instead of comparing him perjoratively to Pele, Alfredo Di Stefano, Enzo Francescoli, Diego Maradona, Ronaldo or Johan Cruyff what we, the chroniclers, should be doing is pointing out that Messi is a throwback to the old, less commercial, less homogenised version of football most of us grew up with.

For instance, during the last fortnight I have been in one on one interview situations with Messi three times. He didn't speak on Tuesday night, as most thought he might to celebrate his record, because he felt he's said enough over the last two weeks. But during the Sky, BBC and Uefa.com interviews I've had with him, what was evident is that Messi is just about the happiest guy on the planet.

He's aware of his genius, but completely unaffected by it. He knows he is venerated, that he is becoming the most recognisable sportsman on the planet – but he treats that like a curious and irrelevant by-product.

When he scored five against Bayer Leverkusen the other week, he made history; the first to achieve that in the Champions League, the first to score four goals twice in that competition. History? He couldn't give a stuff. But when I spoke to him post match in the tunnel at the Camp Nou he was inordinately proud that Christian Tello had come on, scored twice and demonstrated that the path from the Barcelona youth system to the first team remains paved with gold.

Moreover in the days which followed, he admitted he was genuinely moved – and it showed – that elite footballers all round the world, led by Wayne Rooney, were expressing a mix of admiration, disbelief and astonishment at his ability. So natural to him is what he's achieving that it is only when the upper level of world football throws itself at his feet shouting 'Messi, Messi, Messiah' does he actually begin to take account of how special his achievements are.

And the naturalness of the guy? Ever since I first met him and started to pepper him with questions, the task has been to try and get a feeling for 'the real' Leo Messi. It's our job.

Immediately the theme of how enchanted he is with the company of his brothers' kids, how much he enjoys playing with them, entertaining them and helping to give them financial security comes up.

One of the hardest things which has happened to him in his life was when, in the very early Barcelona years, his little sister grew so homesick that she and her mother needed to abandon Spain and return home to Rosario. More than the loneliness, he felt the impact that his change of life had ripped up the family template. So while they are all now wealthy, fulfilled and happy, there was no guarantee at all back then that the sacrifice of changing country, indeed continent, was going to be worth all the heartache. So to see his extended family running around his mansion near the sea in Casteldelfells now that the whole project has handsomely come to fruition gives him enormous satisfaction.

Just before interpreting for the BBC Match of the Day spin-off programme which goes out on Saturday mornings, I emphasised to Messi that this was a different audience to the previous Sky Sports Soccer Saturday piece. "This programme is intended for kids who are aged between 8-13," I told him.

Immediately he relaxed, started grinning, made his answers more light hearted and natural; patently happier to be doing a fun programme for youngsters than talking seriously about football to the mass audience.

Does that make him special? No, perhaps not compared to loads of mums and dads out there who value their kids' development and like to have a connection with youngsters. But this is a multi-millionaire world star who could easily shun anything which doesn't have an absolute bottom line dollar count because when people like that decide that the sun rises in the west and sets in the east then all their PR people, without exception, tell them that it has always been thus. I suspect what we also like about him, what keeps him in touch with our idealised image of what the most talented man in football should be like is the absence of artifice. Put him on the right wing at Barcelona mid game and surround him with Alamo style odds, by crowding four, five or six opponents around him, then so long as he's got Dani Alves near by he's delighted.

It's like a football version of a Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan movie: 25 bad guys and just one hero but a flash of limbs and some 'oohs' and 'ahhs' later and the good guy strolls on, unruffled. Messi and Alves make opponents look dull, and leaden. But it is never to humiliate or to show off. It's simply football freestyle. How can we riff this time, they seem to be saying? If we play these notes tonight, which tunes can we come up with?

I like to think that Messi has some of the same DNA Galileo or Da Vinci possessed: where we see shade they see light, where we see a blank wall, they see a corner to be turned with another corridor leading from it.

Pep Guardiola cited another, slightly more modern, comparison. Barcelona's coach, like the majority of his team, is a basketball fanatic and is beginning to talk about comparisons with Michael Jordan; an athlete who always seemed to be to be one quarter man, one quarter panther, one quarter eagle and one quarter ninja.

When I last interviewed Jordan, his hands were wrecked. Split, gnarled, bandaged, knuckles like pipe valves and he was coming back to basketball after, largely, looking like Don Quixote during his ill-fated tilting at baseball's windmills.

And that's the rub. Top- level sport brings pain, sacrifice, injury. Messi takes the abuse, almost never notices it, almost never retaliates and even more rarely even complains. How would he have coped with football's killing fields of the 1980s when just about anything was allowed when it came to 'stopping' Maradona, or Portugal's assassin tactics to eliminate Pele from the 1966 World Cup? Well we won't know. Thank God.

But it seems at the moment that what troubled Jordan, and all those like him who either became bored, burned out or bitter about handling greatness (the Brazilian Ronaldo, George Best, Mike Tyson, Tiger Woods, Paul Gascoigne etc) is a disease to which Messi is immune.

The very top level of sport is like a sauna. Great to get into, energising to be in for a while, damaging if you don't take a break, potentially fatal if you become addicted. For Messi, thus far, the hotter the better and he isn't even sweating.

"My absolute favourite thing to do?" he said, accepting that the question excluded playing, scoring, training and lifting trophies. "I'd say it was lying on the couch at home doing nothing".

Leo Messi, apparently from another planet, actually more like you and me than you could possibly believe. Only with a talent which proves, irrevocably, that God is a football fan.

Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, by Graham Hunter, is out now in paperback and ebook formats, published by BackPage Press.

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