Barcelona legend Xavi Hernandez has paid tribute to Lionel Messi in an emotional letterafter the Argentine star won his fifth Ballon d'Or on Monday (11 January). The former club captain says that his strong character has led him to be the best player of all time, but also to "desolation" when he loses, like the day he missed a penalty against Chelsea in the 2011-2012 Champions League.
Xavi wrote that he only met Messi when he made his breakthrough into the Barcelona first team at the age of 16, but he had heard long before that there was a prodigious Argentine talent at La Masia.
"You could tell he was different," Xavi wrote in an open letter to El Pais while reminiscing on his first impression of Messi. "Leo, above all, had a talent that is the hardest to achieve: he understood the game. He could pass well and he could dribble around anyone you put in front of him: he used to leave the best defender we had on the ground.
"A while after he came to the first team we shared a trip and I discovered an educated boy, who was respectful, humble and not conceited at all. And that makes him exemplary, because being what he is now, being the best, he hasn't lost those values, he hasn't lost a bit of that humility and he respects his teammates. I think Leo never wanted to be different from the others."
Xavi, nevertheless, admitted that he never imagined that that 16-year-old kid could become the best player of all time.
"He was different, but he was only 16 years old, so I thought he'd be good, but I knew that football is very complicated, that a lot of things interfere, I never imagined he'd be the best player in history," Xavi admitted. "Ever since I've known him he hasn't stopped evolving. He improved what he had and he has also turned himself into a goalscorer.
"He didn't use to score much and now he scores everything, he takes free kicks. And, like Pep [Guardiola] says, he dominates every aspect of the game. We'll never see something similar. Not only because of what he can do, but because of the time that he's been doing it for.
Hernandez believes that Messi's competitiveness and his strong personality have played a crucial role in his career. However, this also leads him to explode when his team loses, as was the case when he missed a crucial penalty in the Champions League semi-final second leg against Chelsea in 2011/12.
"Without him, Barcelona would not be the same, he is the cornerstone of the club's success during the last ten years. And that's one thing I can't ignore when talking about Leo because it is admirable: you can have a good year or two but being [the best] during such a long time proved the unusual winning character of someone who will not only like what he does, but is a perfectionist, who never has enough, that if he scored two he want three," he said.
"That character also leads him to get narky when he loses a game because he always wants to win. Nothing bothers him more than a defeat. I remember his desolation the day he missed a penalty against Chelsea and we were eliminated from the Champions League. But also when he failed a penalty against Manchester City despite us winning 3-1.
"You approach him to say that nothing matters but he responds: "Yes, it matters, I failed." And it's true, there have been days when I saw him very angry with himself and with the world in general but who doesn't? Furthermore, it must not be easy to be the number one and he, 99.9% of the time, deals with it really well."