BARCELONA, Spain—Given a rare night on the Barcelona bench last Sunday, Lionel Messi yanked on the seat in front of him, hunched his shoulders over the chair back and kicked it with his cleats. He seemed not so much the world’s best soccer player as a restless kid in a movie theater.
He is 23, with a grown-up’s income reported to exceed $43 million this year. Yet Messi still has a boy’s floppy bangs, a boy’s slight build and a boy’s nickname, the Flea. Even the ball stays on his feet like a shy child clinging to his father’s legs.
It is a boy’s fearlessness, enthusiasm, calm and humility, too, that help explain why Messi is already considered one of the greatest ever to play the world’s game. In the space of 18 tense days from April to early May, Barcelona played four Clásicos against its archrival, Real Madrid. The Madrid strategy was to strangle beauty out of the matches, to use nasty muscle against Messi, to shoulder him down or shiver him with a forearm or take his legs in scything tackles. Once, he was sent rolling as if he had caught fire.
Messi made small appeals for fairness with his eyes and hands, but he remained unflappable and without complaint. He did not yell at the referee or clamp a threatening hand around an opponent’s neck or fake a foul and dive to the ground. He remained apart from ugly words and scuffles and expulsions that marred the matches. Instead, he trumped cynicism with genius.
With a boy’s ardor, Messi put Barcelona in the final of the Cha...