Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

New book reveals how Arsenal lost out on young Messi

Superstar: Lionel Messi has become one of the best footballers in the world since his Barcelona debut
Guillem Ballague's new book on Lionel Messi

Arsenal may currently sit top of the Premier League table, chasing their first major trophy since 2006, but such lofty heights could have been commonplace for the north Londoners had an audacious attempt to sign a young Lionel Messi been successful.

The failed effort to bring the Argentinean megastar to England is just one revelation contained in Guillem Balague's new book 'Messi'.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Sky Sports' La Liga expert, who will be appearing alongside Gerry Armstrong and Gaizka Mendieta at The Devenish tomorrow evening to talk about his latest release, revealed: "There is always talk about that class of '87 with Messi, Cesc, Pique and then other fantastic players as well.

"It was at a time when foreign teams didn't really have scouts in these places but there was one guy, Francis Cagigao, who saw them and was trying to convince them to come.

"Arsenal got Cesc but tried for Pique and Messi too. It would have meant all of the bureaucracy of moving over again so Jorge, Messi's father, said no."

Had the transfer materialised, the recent history of English football would no doubt have been very different, irrecoverably altered by a player that Balague rates as the best he has ever seen.

On the man who has scored a staggering 223 goals in 257 Barca games, he said: "I saw maybe Maradona who was that influential but when it comes to consistency I think that's the difference with Messi.

"To play at such a high level, in 55 out of Barcelona's 60 games in a season, is in my eyes something that we haven't seen from anyone else."

And the difference between Messi and his famed Real Madrid rival Ronaldo?

"Ronaldo has the ability to win any game on his own, as we saw in the Sweden game (Portugal's World Cup play-off last month), but it's the consistency that is so important."

Such success has, of course, been hard-earned with Balague stating that perhaps the most striking thing he discovered in his research for the project was the traumatic upheaval suffered by a young Leo when members of his family retreated back to Argentina just one year after moving to Catalonia.

"At the start for Messi it was very difficult.

"The family is originally Italian, a culture where the mother is the centre of the universe, and when he was 13 she went back to Argentina.

"He cried and cried and it shows you the level of sacrifice, and the huge decisions, that young players are asked to make at the age of 12 or 13."

The 26-year-old has been out since last month with a hamstring injury but will return in the new year as Barcelona prepare to face Manchester City in the last 16 of the Champions League.

City boss Manuel Pellegrini was bullish about his side's prospects following the draw on Monday, but Balague has urged caution.

"Man United, in that final of 2011, thought that they knew how to beat them too but it was after that game was when people thought wow.

"Pep (Guardiola, the subject of Balague's previous book) brought Barca into 2050, it was football from the future.

"That period only lasted a year, until he left, but there are signs that under (Gerardo) Martino the move to a more classical, orthodox style is getting there.

"The fear isn't there as it once was, and they're still not as good as they were, but I wouldn't be too comfortable facing them.

"Although, City are one team that have all the weapons, if well applied, to win."

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