Written by By Nick Watt, CNN Written by
There are few players in the world who can inspire as many opinions as the prolific Argentine forward and long-time Real Madrid idol Leo Messi. But one viewpoint he trusts comes from one man: Paris Saint-Germain president Nasser Al-Khelaifi.
In February, after the clubs met in the Champions League, the PSG co-owner confidently declared: “If I were a football player, I would choose to play for Paris Saint-Germain.”
‘We will fight hard’
“I had a chat with Nasser a few weeks ago and I want to be realistic,” admitted Messi in a candid interview with CNN’s Tom Foreman, as he marked the eighth anniversary of his first win of the Champions League for Barcelona with a memorable performance in a 4-0 demolition of Paris Saint-Germain.
“I know we can fight hard and we can recover from any defeat, because this team has done that a lot of times. But, for me, I think it would be nice to be involved with this side.”
So what convinced him to choose PSG, who have already qualified for the group stages of the competition this season?
“I spoke to Nasser, because he’s a friend and I just said to him: ‘Why do you think I would want to play for a side that’s not one of the best sides in the world. It’s not the case,'” explained Messi.
“I just said to him that, if I’d had to pick a team to win the Champions League and it was me, I’d choose that side.”
‘You can’t buy the Champions League’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Messi’s home-town side are favourites to take the competition back to Spain in the coming months, but he admits he’s not taking the tournament lightly, especially when you look at the recent form of Barcelona and rival teams.
“You can’t just say: ‘We’re going to win this tournament.’ You have to go through, and if you give any team the game plan, they can score goals,” said Messi.
“When you lose, that’s when it’s difficult to recover. So I think it will be difficult. We have a team that is stronger than other teams, but you cannot just say: ‘We will beat these teams.’ You have to fight hard. If you just think: ‘We’ll beat them, we’ll win.’
‘We’re on the road to recovery’
In addition to his fall from grace with Real Madrid, the Argentine legend will be tempted to cash in on his incredible career as a sporting icon.
But, asked whether he’ll keep playing until he’s 40, Messi was firm.
“I’ve always felt a lot of love and affection from the fans and I want to keep going as long as I feel very good. Right now I feel good, but I think it’s normal that if you don’t feel well, it will go down,” he said.
‘I feel very good’
The Barcelona striker has often expressed desire to retire from playing in his homeland at 35. But for now, he wants to pass on the inspirational leadership he knows he can offer to a young team like Real Madrid’s.
“They are under a lot of pressure because they are world champions. I don’t think there’s anyone who knows them better than I do,” he said.
“Now they have to be mature enough to take the big moments of the Champions League and prepare and be able to play at their best and overcome any difficulties. It will be very difficult. But I’m sure that they can do it.”
Two things he doesn’t like: Tackling
‘Come on, that’s a joke’
PSG’s hopes of achieving that — the second trophy the club has lifted in four years in Europe — rest on the shoulders of the slightly-built, world-record signing Neymar, who, in Messi’s estimation, is the real deal.
“I’m not a huge fan of Neymar because he is a bit small,” said Messi. “So he needs to be able to play both ways and, for me, if someone is going to win the Champions League, that player needs to be a leader as well.
“You can’t come there with a short back and be a very quiet leader. Some players are outstanding technically, others are not, so what kind of player I need to be is someone who is going to be there by having their qualities and having their qualities matched with a good leader and also a team.”