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Starting today and continuing until January, Goal.com will publish exclusive extracts from Graham Hunter's new book on Barca. In this piece, he examines the management of Messi

BARCA: THE MAKING OF THE GREATEST TEAM IN THE WORLD
EBOOK OUT CHRISTMAS DAY, 2011. PUBLISHED JANUARY 2012 BY BACKPAGE PRESS

When a tearful Lionel Messi limped out of a Champions League match against Celtic on March 4, 2008, it spelled the end for his and Barcelona's season. It also led to a clandestine meeting of Camp Nou power-brokers, who formulated a radical strategy to protect their 18-year-old golden boy and ensure his place at the forefront of a new era at Barcelona.

After Messi collapsed holding the hamstring of his left leg after 38 minutes against Celtic at Camp Nou on March 4, 2008, Ronaldinho and Deco were first to arrive and console, distraught at another calamity for their injury-prone young friend. Messi limped off the field in unrestrained tears – a moment which signified that his, and his team’s season would go up in smoke.

A war cabinet was convened in the wake of the injury. Present were the director of football, Txiki Begiristain, and two vice presidents: Ferran Soriano and Marc Ingla.

Ingla takes up the story: “We were disappointed with the fragility of Messi and his repetitive muscle strains. After the Celtic match we constructed a holistic plan for his future performance: to manage the number of meals he had; what type of food he should eat; how many hours of sleep he had to get; what type of stretching he had to do every day. It was a multi-faceted plan to keep him healthy and to minimise injuries. We put lots of work into it and invested lots of money to help him.”


Brazilian flair | But the fun fizzled out on the pitch for Deco and Ronaldinho

Juanjo Brau was a fitness and rehabilitation coach who had been working with Messi, but not exclusively, since prior to the 2006 World Cup. It was decided that Brau would be dedicated to Messi, helping him avoid injury, rather than recover from it.

Messi's diet would now include previously unknown quantities such as fish and vegetables and these changes in the way he maintains his body have made him leaner and stronger, less susceptible to injury and quicker to recover. However, there was more to the plan than that.

Ronaldinho and Deco were to be removed from the team – partly to clear the decks for a new coach but, those in the war cabinet decided, this was equally to save Messi from their destructive influence.


Ronaldinho and Deco were to be removed from the team - partly to clear the decks for a new coach but, those in the war cabinet decided, this was equally to save Messi from their destructive influence


Ronaldinho and Deco were living the high life away from the pitch – convinced like so many gifted, rich young athletes before them that they were so talented, so full of the magic dust which makes superstars that they could bend the rules and still excel. They were wrong.

Deco's contributions became ever less decisive. He also picked up more niggling injuries and took longer to shrug them off. Ronaldinho was falling from a greater height. The difference was that he gained weight, betrayed by the same physiology which afflicted his mother, brother and sister. From being the world’s best footballer, he turned flabby.

The Barca board saw that Messi would have to be superhuman not to be led astray by players whom he not only idolised, but who had treated him like he was family. Messi was a stocky figure by now – grown to his full height, increasingly strong and explosive with the ball - but hooked on the Argentine diet of red meat and carbs. If he found a taste for nightlife too, then Barca might lose three great players instead of just two. The Brazilians had to go.


If Messi found a taste for nightlife too, then Barca might lose three great players instead of just two. The Brazilians had to go  


Ingla told me: “Ronaldinho and Deco were completely out of control. They had been our best players for a couple of years and we lost them.” There remains massive affection for Ronaldinho – Soriano calls him the “rock star” signing, one that transformed Barcelona's play and their place in world football. He brought the magic back to the Camp Nou.

Soriano told me: “It was becoming clear that Ronaldinho was not going to be a lasting star, although we thought in 2005 that we could achieve this and we were talking to his brother about extending his contract to 2014. By 2007 we knew that he wouldn’t be the club’s icon. We had decided - that was going to be Messi."

Ingla spoke for all in attendance at that pivotal meeting when he told me: “To unleash all the power and the image of Messi, we had to push out Ronaldinho and Deco.”

www.backpagepress.co.uk

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With every extract published, Goal.com will be giving away one copy of Graham Hunter's new book. To have a chance of winning an ebook or hard copy of Barca - The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, answer the following question: Who set up Lionel Messi's first ever goal for Barcelona? Send answers to competitions@goal.com - the winner will be announced in next Friday's extract.

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