Former Barcelona fullback Sylvinho discusses his old friend’s meteoric rise from talented teenager to the world’s finest footballer in an interview with Goal.
Together, they fulfilled a dream. As Champions League winners with Barcelona in 2006, Sylvinho sat out the final against Arsenal on the bench and Lionel Messi missed the Paris match through injury. But in 2009, as Pep Guardiola’s great side completed the treble, both men started the historic game.
By then, Sylvinho was the veteran — in the team for the suspended Eric Abidal at the age of 35. Messi, meanwhile, produced a coming-of-age performance — one that changed his career forever. As he rose majestically to head home past Edwin van der Sar on that night in Rome, Messi had completed a cycle. The boy had become a man.
“When I met Messi, I was 30 and he was only 16 or 17 — he was virtually half my age,” Sylvinho told Goal in an exclusive interview. “I was one of the oldest players in the squad and he was the youngest.”
Back then, little Leo was shy and still unsure of himself. But the club’s Brazilian players — Ronaldinho, Deco and Sylvinho in particular — took the young forward under their wing, making him feel comfortable in his new surroundings and bringing him out of his shell. And how he grew.
“We had a great friendship,” Sylvinho said. “We had a lot of fun back then, we laughed a lot, we played a lot. Maybe that helped him, but it was normal because we were a lot older and Leo is a great person. He has a great relationship with everyone, he is a great guy, he is laid back — and on the pitch he is a phenomenon.”
History maker | Messi has picked up four Ballons d’Or since Sylvinho left Barca in 2009
Messi had been brilliant under Guardiola in 2008-09 as the Catalan club claimed La Liga and the Copa del Rey, but the 2009 Champions League final will go down as a watershed moment in the career of the Argentine attacker. In it, he was up against Cristiano Ronaldo, who had won the Ballon d’Or the previous year and was looking for a second straight title in Europe’s premier club competition.
But that final was all about Messi. His header sealed a 2-0 win en route to superstardom at the age of 22 and Sylvinho signed off in style in his last game as a Barcelona player, safe in the knowledge that his friend would go on to make history for the Catalan club.
“I had five great years at Barcelona,” Sylvinho said. “We won two Champions Leagues, three leagues, a Copa del Rey, and I played with some of the best players in the world — players like Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets and, of course, Messi.
“What can I say? It was a great time of my life and Messi for me is still the best player in the world. He is at such a high level. Players like Leo are phenomenons and the greatest in the world. They always need to be scoring important goals like the one in the 2009 final. That was a special moment for me in my last game for the club — and a special moment for Messi as well.”
It’s almost six years later, and Messi has added another Champions League to his haul of trophies. He is now in the hunt for a fourth European Cup crown as Barca faces Sylvinho’s former side Manchester City at Camp Nou in the second leg of the teams’ last-16 tie Wednesday, having won the first match 2-1.
But the Brazilian, now an assistant coach at Inter, acknowledges the expectations on Leo’s shoulders are much more elevated these days.
“It’s not easy being Messi,” he said. “It’s not easy because when he goes out on the pitch, people expect two or three goals, brilliant moves, they expect Champions Leagues, they want everything. It’s not easy for him, but he always responds. He has grown into a great, great player who scores lots of goals and I’m very happy to see him doing so well.”