Lionel Messi’s mastery of the art of the free-kick comes not just from his genius, but from hours of practice after training and the influence of Diego Maradona.
Fernando Signorini was the fitness coach for Argentina at the 2010 World Cup and in his biography, Call to Rebellion, he sheds light on Maradona’s part in Messi’s development as the ultimate set-piece specialist.
“In February 2009, just a few months after Maradona took over as coach of the national team, we played a friendly against a local team in Marseille,” Signorini writes.
“We practised the day before and, after the session, Javier Mascherano, Carlos Tevez and Messi stayed behind for shooting practice. Messi put the ball down and looked up at the goal slightly to his left.”
“When he struck the ball it went some way over the bar to the goalkeeper’s right. He was annoyed and headed towards the dressing room passing me as he went. I said, ‘Are you going to go and shower after that rubbish? Stop getting annoyed, go and get a ball and try again’.”
Signorini says Maradona overheard the conversation, put his arm around Messi’s shoulder and embarked on a tutorial, telling Messi: “Don’t hurry the shot so much, slow your swing down, because if not the ball does not know what you want it to do.”
Maradona demonstrated by promptly planting the ball in the top corner with Messi looking on admiringly. Daily free-kick practice sessions after training became part of Messi’s routine at Argentina and Barcelona.
Current Barcelona keepers Marc Andre ter Stegen and Jasper Cillessen are his victims day in, day out, at the club’s Joan Gamper training ground.
“You have to practise,” Messi told Marca last year. “It’s training and habit, like any other skill.”