GOING to the studio in Barcelona, Spain, where footballer Lionel Messi was about to shoot an advertising campaign felt like entering some top secret government spy meeting.
There were security guards in suits welcoming us reporters as we drove in to the building past roller shutters in the back entrance.
Inside, there were about 50 to 60 people buzzing around, a lot of them speaking urgently into their walkie-talkies. One of them came to me as I got off the car and put a wristband on me so everyone would know what I was there for.
And what I was there for, would be to meet Messi himself, currently the undisputed greatest footballer in the world.
It’s been a football season where fans and experts alike have literally run out of superlatives to describe how good the Argentine is. Just last weekend, he scored another two goals to help his club – FC Barcelona – win the Spanish football league championship, La Liga.
More importantly, the brace helped him equal Ronaldo’s (the overweight Brazilian version, not the one from Portugal) record of 34 league goals, and brought him to a staggering 47 goals in all competitions, from just 53 games.
He’s the current FIFA World Player Of The Year and European Player Of The Year, and figures revealed last week made him as the highest earning footballer in the world. He overtook Goldenballs himself, David Beckham, by pocketing over £30mil in 2009 alone, and I guess that in a way explains all the security and VIP treatment.
But behind all the goals, accolades and money, Lionel Messi, 22, actually comes across as just another shy young guy in person.
I was lucky enough to spend pretty much an entire afternoon following (more like stalking) him around the studio as he went from one set to another filming a World Cup advertising campaign for Maxis, but he didn’t really talk at all, not that I would’ve understood anything since my command of Spanish is limited to hola, gracias and burrito. Oh, and bailamos.
Maxis launched a service that will allow customers to watch all 64 World Cup matches, live and delayed, on iPhones and certain BlackBerry models. Lionel and Chelsea star Frank Lampard, as well as local football legends Datuk Soh Chin Aun, Santokh Singh, James Wong and Hassan Sani are the ambassadors for this new service.
You’d probably have already seen the TV ads with Datuk Soh, the local football legend and former Malaysian captain. There’ll be similar ads but with Lionel and Frank Lampard coming out real soon.
Fernando Torres had signed on to be one of the ambassadors as well, but had to pull out at the very last minute due to a knee surgery that also ended his Premier League campaign this year.
When Lionel was shooting his part of the campaign, he would either be juggling a football or just sitting around looking bored every time there was a break between takes. It was pretty clear that all this photo and video shoot business still isn’t his cup of tea.
The only time he looked vaguely comfortable during the shoot was when they were filming scenes of him performing some skills – dribbling, shooting, juggling and stuff like that. That’s when he went from shy young guy to frighteningly talented football superstar.
Lionel is a small guy, so much so that when he was growing up, he had to be treated for a growth hormone problem. He’s only about my height (170cm), but probably half my size, though, considering my current girth (ahem).
That doesn’t really say much about how small he is, but take my word for it, the dude looks like a kid.
So here’s this guy, with a baggy shirt on and knee-length shorts that made him look even shorter, walking around unassumingly and looking like a morose teenager.
Then, the director brings him to an indoor pitch (made with real grass in the studio just for this shoot), throws him a football, and suddenly he has everyone in gasps of delight.
“Magical Messi” is one of those overused superlatives to describe him, but having seen what he can do with a football, it’s hard to disagree.
During the shoot he dribbled with a ball and zig-zagged through some training obstacles while a camera moved alongside him to capture everything. But he was dribbling through the obstacles so fast, the camera just couldn’t catch up! They had to ask him to slow down, which was pretty funny.
Another cool part was when they positioned the camera right next to a goal post, literally less than a foot away from it, and Lionel was supposed to shoot at the goal as close as possible to the camera. It was crazy. He pretty much hit the top corner every single time from around 10m out, never once hitting the camera.
And I suppose that’s why he’s like the sacred child of the city of Barcelona, because the people here get to watch him perform his magic week-in, week-out. He thrills them in every match with the same skills that had us captivated at that shoot.
It’s also another reason for the heavy security measures and our secret backdoor entrance. According to one of the crew members, if the public found out he was there at the studio, there’d be throngs of fans and paparazzi waiting outside.
After about four hours of shooting, Lionel was finally done. It was the moment I’d been waiting for. I was the first one to march forward and ask if I could have a photo with him, and though I could tell he wanted to just get out of the studio before the rest of the crew decided they wanted a photo too, he nodded shyly and did his best to not look distressed when the camera clicked.
He managed to escape after taking another couple of photos, but it wasn’t over for him yet. The folks from Maxis were hoping to meet him and pass him a gift pack, and of course, hopefully have a picture taken with him while they were at it, too. So I tagged along as well, hoping to talk with him a bit if there was a translator somewhere.
But as we were waiting in the hallway upstairs, we could see Lionel sitting by himself in a waiting room reading the newspaper, having the peace and quiet that his status in the city and world football probably doesn’t afford him very often.
He came out and said “hi” to everyone real quick, but he didn’t look comfortable at all walking through the group of about 10 of us in the hallway. It was like he just wanted to go home after a long day of feeling completely like a fish out of water.
In the end, Lionel’s people decided to get everyone out of the hallway and into the car park, so they could get that one last picture and Lionel could leave immediately after.
The whole situation looked rather odd because it was a group of corporate big-wigs all hoping to get a picture with this tiny kid, who’s flanked by his management people and bodyguards, and whose only real talent is to kick a ball around a field. That is, after all, the old cliche about footballers.
But having seen him up close, having witnessed just a glimpse of his extraordinary talent, I wouldn’t deny him a penny of that £30mil. You can tell that all he wants to do is play football, and if that’s what the fans want to pay to see him do, then so be it.
* All the awesome photos in this post are courtesy of the equally awesome Bonnie Yap.