Journalist at L’Equipe and France Football, Florent Torchut, is one of the journalists who know Lionel Messi best for having followed him at Barcelona since 2016 and then at PSG by interviewing him at length three times recently.
The Breton signs biography of the “Pulga” (Solar editions), a remarkable work of investigation enriched by many testimonies collected in Argentina from those who grew up with the seven-time Ballon d’Or, which allows us to better understand the very singular personality of the 34-year-old striker.
We met him in Paris a few days ago to talk about his book and the Argentinian’s failed season.
Florent Torchut: I think he’s shy, not withdrawn, but a little outside the world in his bubble. As soon as he leaves the field, he becomes Leo Messi again, Mr. All-the-World, while we do not necessarily imagine that of a football superstar.
When you interview him at home, he opens the door and puts you at ease right away. His wife Antonella offers you something to peck or drink. A completely normal welcome from someone who could be your average neighbor.
How was your first long interview with him?
I had him a lot in the mixed zone at Barça, but in November 2019, the first head-to-head took place in the suburbs of Barcelona, a residential area where Ronaldinho had encouraged him to settle.
We arrived in a beautiful villa, a bit Californian style with sea views. Security opened the gate for us, and we saw him arrive, very casual in shorts, dressed a little faded… He’s not the kind of style.
He made me think a little bit of a teenager in his reception. The fact that I knew the people who had been around him in Argentina had facilitated our contact. It seemed extraordinary to him. He kept saying to me, “And you know him? He, too?”…
How does he behave one-on-one?
He is open to all questions but does not appreciate too much that they are chained on a particular player.
I had tried to talk a little in-depth about Kylian Mbappé, and at the end of the second question, I saw that we had to change the subject… We can try to prick him with some questions to get him a little, but it is a mistake not to commit with him.
It closes like a hedgehog. That was kind of the case during my first interview, by the way (laughs). You have to ask him more open questions, and it allows him to go and draw things from right to left and push him to confide better.
But he does not watch the time turn and remains available even if he seemed a little confused in his installation for the last interview in Paris. We were able to talk for 45 minutes without overflowing.
What is your analysis of his very average first season in Paris?
It is a whole. He came out of his Barcelona cocoon where he spent 21 years and where everyone knew everyone, from the person of security to the presidency.
He was in a bubble and was not prepared to get out of his comfort zone. In Paris, he spent three months at the hotel, disturbing him a lot. I had confirmation from his very close entourage.
Regarding the sporting side, he did not know which direction the team was going or what Mauricio Pochettino wanted to do with him.
He plays much further back than in Barcelona, far from the goal, which allowed him to be the best passer in Ligue 1 (Messi and Mbappé, 10 assists each, were doubled Saturday by the Rennais Benjamin Bourigeaud, 11 caviars, Editor’s note). Its balance sheet is unsatisfactory, but not everything is to be thrown away.
I’ve never seen anyone in football be so attached to routine.
Lionel Messi needs routine to flourish. Has this transfer disturbed him to the point of making him less effective?
Yes, this routine is extremely important to him. I’ve never seen anyone in football be so attached to routine, like a grandfather (laughs). He loves being at home and watching Disney with his kids.
Does he enjoy a little of Parisian life?
Not so much, but he didn’t go out much already in Barcelona. Night trips and bling-bling do not interest him. Parisian glamour is not his thing. He needs stable landmarks, surrounded by his wife and children. His first few months were complicated before he and his family found a place to live.
It took an hour to go to training to pick up his children in traffic jams, and it marked him because he did not know that in Barcelona. Only football interests him, he watches a lot of TVs, and his relations are very family, even clan with the South Americans of Paris-SG.
Messi doesn’t have many friends in the world of football. They can be counted on the fingers of one hand, Di Maria, Suarez, Aguero…
Who are the players in the dressing room that he meets outside?
For example, he sees Angel Di Maria or Leo Paredes making an Asado (barbecue in Argentina). These appointments are very family-friendly, surrounded by companions and children. After Asado, they can play cards, and it’s not necessarily very rock’n’roll.
Messi doesn’t have many friends in the world of football. They can be counted on the fingers of one hand, Di Maria, Luis Suarez, Sergio Aguero… That is its basis. He needs to feel confident. You have to tame him, and you don’t become friends with him in two minutes.
Does he get along well with Kylian Mbappé?
Very well. Mbappe knows what Messi stands for. Moreover, he immediately went to see him on the field after eliminating Argentina by France at the 2018 World Cup. There is huge respect between the two.
Messi always cited Mbappe as a player who could replace him and Cristiano Ronaldo in recent years. And then, Mbappé speaks Spanish very well, which facilitates the exchange, but it remains two players, not from the same generation. Mbappé is not necessarily invited with the Argentines for an Asado.
After a mixed first season, would Messi be tempted to go elsewhere?
He will stay because he does not want to leave on a failure, as with the Argentine selection. He will insist. I think that the two-three months without stakes that are coming will allow him to better find his place. He is ultra-competitive.
When he was young, he was a very bad loser, and for anything: a card game, the Playstation, or a match. He even had seizures because he hated defeat. He was also capable of being irascible in Barcelona when he lost, and even Busquets could not approach him. Fortunately, he has still made progress on that.
Will it guide the future recruitment of Paris-SG?
Legend has it that he would knock on the door of Josep Maria Bartomeu (the former president of FC Barcelona, Editor’s note) to say I want so-and-so or so-and-so. It never existed even if we asked his opinion, especially for the arrival of Antoine Griezmann. He is not a sports director, contrary to what we have heard or read.
The whistles against him were a matter of state in Argentina
How did Argentina experience their difficult months and the recent whistles after the elimination against Real Madrid?
His coming to Paris was experienced as a revolution, but the Argentines quickly followed him to a city they appreciated very much. Paris is the city of love, perfumes, museums, and glamour for this population.
I was in Argentina at the whistles against him; it was a matter of state, like the score of 3 in L’Equipe, which was very commented. The Argentines did not understand that the public had also whistled at the leaders.
Did these whistles affect him?
Yes, but at the same time, he understood them. It did not please him necessarily, but he knows that he must do better, especially in terms of statistics.
Marcelo Gallardo reminded the Argentines on the spot that they had a short memory and that he had been whistled and heavily criticized during the selection process.
But since the victory in Copa America, we can no longer touch Messi. It is an untouchable idol, a national heritage.