How Maradona helped Messi become the world's best free-kick taker
Posted On March 22, 2019
The Argentine learned the craft at La Masia but only became the world’s most lethal dead-ball specialist thanks to some advice from a living legend
In Saturday’s clash with Espanyol, Barcelona captain Lionel Messi did something he had never managed before: he scored two free-kicks in the same game.
That came as something of a surprise, given the Argentine has long since proven himself the world’s deadliest set-piece specialist. Indeed, no player has scored more free-kicks in Europe’s ‘Big Five’ leagues over the past 10 seasons than Messi (27). Not Cristiano Ronaldo (20). And not Miralem Pjanic (15).
His mastery of one of football’s most difficult arts is no accident either – rather, it is the culmination of years spent honing his craft.
In 2005, Barcelona staged a showcase for the young stars of La Masia. The format was simple: each child would tell the camera, “Remember my name” – some with more confidence than others, having first demonstrated their skills.
A young Argentine by the name of Lionel Messi closed out the video, having already made his first-team debut the previous year.
Messi let loose with a spectacular free-kick that flew into the corner of the net, a strike that sent tongues wagging inside and out of the club. Ironically, however, he was not known for his set-piece prowess at the time.
“Until that moment he had not taken too many free-kicks at La Masia,” Roger Giribet, an ex-team-mate of Leo’s in the Barca youth system, told Goal. “Victor Vazquez, who was amazing, and the left-footed Juanjo Clausi used to take them, Messi almost never.”
Former La Masia chief Albert Benaiges added that the famous old academy did not prioritise set-pieces.
“It was something we did not practice,” Messi’s old tutor said. “At Barcelona, we used to occasionally do free-kick drills with a wall. We would give the odd bit of advice, but it was not a part of the game we worked on particularly hard.”
Giribet did reveal that the La Masia hopefuls would sometimes stay behind after training to work on their free-kicks — “if we were allowed onto the pitch” — but the youth system’s philosophy at Barca veered away from specific drills in favour of instilling a greater natural understanding of the game.
As Giribet recalls, however, the youngster did receive some useful tips.
“We were once told how to place the ball. I think it was (former Barcelona B coach, now at Universidad de Chile) Guillermo Hoyos who told us we had to set the ball with the air valve on the grass — that way we would make it come down easier after kicking.”
Messi absorbed every lesson offered, but his talent was something different, an innate ability with the ball.
“While Messi took free-kicks differently when he came to Barca compared to now, it isn’t something we taught him at La Masia,” Benaiges explained. “It is a natural feature of his ability which he has been working on alone. His experience has served him well.”
It was, in fact, none other than Diego Maradona who took Messi’s free-kick abilities to the next level. In February 2009, in Marseille’s Stade Velodrome, the then-Argentina coach gave his successor at No.10 a masterclass in how to excel at the art.
Maradona’s assistant Fernando Signorini recalled to La Nacion that after one particular training session, in which Messi was preparing to leave in frustration after missing a handful of free-kick attempts, he was intercepted by his boss.
“I saw Diego coming, he took him by the shoulder and said: ‘Little Leo, little Leo, come here, man. Let’s try it again.’ It was like a teacher with his pupil,” Signorini said.
“He continued: ‘Put the ball here and listen to me: don’t take your foot away from the ball so fast because otherwise it won’t know what you want.’ He then stroked the ball with his left foot straight into the angle of the net, with Messi’s face full of admiration.”
Since that fateful meeting Messi has only gotten better at beating the wall. Thirteen years have passed since he introduced himself with that first free-kick seen all over the world, but Giribet remembers it as if it were yesterday.
“Everyone had to have two or three tries except Messi,” he laughed. “He was the only one to do it first time, in 30 seconds he had finished, even the camera operators were impressed.”
Now, even the most spectacular free-kicks barely raise an eyebrow — it’s just what Lionel Messi does, and better than anyone else in the world thanks to a little help from a living legend.