Messi's relationship with his Barcelona teammates is strikingly symbiotic. For all of Barça's ball possession, little of it would matter if Messi were not there to finish. To understand what Barça might be like without Messi, look at Spain during much of Euro 2012, when La Roja kept other teams from scoring but had trouble doing so itself. Yet Messi needs his Barça teammates if he's to play at his highest level. Without them—and especially without the intuitive understanding he shares with Xavi and Iniesta—Messi can sometimes be frustrated and diminished, not least when he's playing for Argentina.
When fans from his home country want to sting Messi, they say he's more Catalan than Argentine. It's not true. Messi still consumes Argentine beef and maté tea, speaks Spanish with an Argentine accent and is awaiting the birth of his first child with girlfriend Antonella Roccuzzo, who's from his hometown of Rosario. Then again, Messi also embodies traits more commonly associated with Catalans, who are known for dealmaking, efficiency and a cleverness that has a softer edge than its Argentine counterpart. While Maradona's brilliance came by any means necessary—including scoring a goal with his fist in the 1986 World Cup—Messi is known for his fair play. Despite the sometimes brutal defending he faces, he does not dive. Messi's rise into the sporting stratosphere has paralleled Barcelona's. Small wonder that Barça's fans in the Camp Nou consider him one of their own.
The 5'7" Messi is a master of many things, from balance and coordination to speed and a seemingly limitless imagination on the field. Alas, describing his talents in his own words, as many have learned, is not among them. Perhaps by design, Messi is as reserved as Maradona is bombastic. Fortunately, Messi's teammates are happy to speak for him. They grow animated when asked the question, As someone who has reached the top of the sport yourself, what do you see in Messi that impresses you the most?
On a sun-filled morning at the team's training complex, Xavi's eyes widen and he gets jazz hands as he talks about Messi. "The hardest thing in soccer is to take on the defender and dribble around him," he says. "Well, Messi dribbles around four, five, six, seven and scores. That's practically impossible today. Everybody is physically strong, tall. In a combination play you can get there, but he does it by himself and does it in each game. In soccer there are two speeds: physical, the speed of your legs, and mental. I only have this one"—Xavi points to his head—"but he has both. That's why he's the best in the world."
Other elements are in play too. Fàbregas explains why he thinks Messi is the real thing: "When the final ball is played he's always on the end of things, but it's because he makes the really big effort to get in the nice positions. His desire is so big that he makes the other players look like they don't want it as bad."
What's more, Messi's teammates say, he's the last person you'd expect to issue an Are we talkin' about practice? rant in the Allen Iverson mold. "[He] could say, 'O.K., I'm the best, but in training I don't care, I can be lazy,'" says Piqué, "but he's working at the same level in training as well. It's unbelievable."
Xavi thinks Messi will spend his entire career at Barcelona. "He's happy, and he was raised here," Xavi says. "I don't think he can leave for another club." That's not to say Messi will stand still. In the face of new challenges, remaining at the top requires reinvention. Barcelona lost enough of its edge last season to finish second in the Spanish league behind Real Madrid and go out in the Champions League semifinals to the eventual surprise winner, Chelsea. Pep Guardiola, the Barça coach and mastermind who also developed as a player at La Masia, left his job at age 41 after a remarkable four-year run. (He's taking a year's sabbatical with his family in New York City.)
Can Barcelona return to dominance under Guardiola's former assistant, Tito Vilanova? And can Messi and Barça find ways to beat teams that follow Chelsea's playbook and pack as many players as possible in the defensive end? "That's the key about Messi: As a player he's reinventing himself each season, improving year after year," says Carles Folguera, the director of Barcelona's youth academy. "He's not only a top scorer but an assist leader as well. He can play on the wings and up the middle. That's his own ability to grow and improve and take a hard look at himself."
With all the changes, there's a sense that Messi is entering a new phase of his career, like Picasso making the transition from his Blue Period to Cubism. In that case, Messi has chosen the right place, a city in which soccer and art are one and the same.
The procession never stops. In the shadow of the Camp Nou, Barcelona's 98,000-seat stadium, the FC Barcelona museum attracts an endless stream of visitors. Foreign tourists are among the pilgrims, of course, but so are waves of Catalans: schoolkids on field trips, old-timers reliving childhood memories, teenage girls tittering over giant photographs of Piqué and Messi and Fàbregas. The shrine to Barça's past and present is the most visited museum in the city, more than those devoted to Picasso and Miró, more than the museum at La Sagrada Família.