The world's greatest soccer player's season might have already ended if not for an unusual training ritual that dates back to his childhood.
Lionel Messi goes into the Champions League final Saturday as the hottest player on the planet, having led Barcelona to the brink of a near-perfect campaign. But just nine months ago he was searching for confidence after a disappointing World Cup. Following his performances in South Africa last summer, when Argentina was embarrassed 4-0 by Germany in the quarterfinals, Messi decided to go back to basics.
Partly to fill dead time before the start of the new season and partly to restore his mojo, Messi took a pair of women's tights and some aluminum soft drink cans and set up a training target in a courtyard at the rear of his Barcelona home. For up to an hour at a time, he guided the ball through the target, often in bare feet and wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts.
Messi's use of tights and rocks and cola cans during his childhood in the Argentinean city of Rosario has been documented before, but it has not been revealed until now that he revisited the tactic recently. He stretches the tights between cans filled with rocks to give them sufficient weight. When the ball is kicked perfectly in the middle of the stretched surface, it bounces back to Messi, and he tries to keep the sequence going for as long as he can.
As a child he could execute several hundred repetitions in a row. Now he isn't quite as effective, but he still can keep going for several minutes, using both feet and sometimes even his head.
"Lio is a simple boy and the most important thing for him is to feel comfortable," a close friend of Messi's told Yahoo! Sports. "In life, that means having his family close to him and replicating the environment of happiness that he had growing up.
"When he was a little despondent after the World Cup – and please mention that most people felt he had played quite well but he was not satisfied with himself – he didn't want to just sit around or go running around a track for hours.
"When someone suggested for a joke that he should recreate a game with the tights and cans, he thought it was a great idea. The family found it funny and Lio loved it, and he used that method several times before pre-season training began. It has been spoken about since, and the people close to him think that it genuinely helped lift his spirits."
Messi's influence is the primary reason why Barca is a strong favorite going into its clash with English Premier League champion Manchester United, which it defeated in the Champions League final two years ago and will meet again at Wembley Stadium.
The 5-foot-7 magician already has helped Barca lift the Spanish league title and scored 52 goals in all competitions in a campaign lit up by his regular flashes of brilliance.
With midfield dynamos Xavi and Andres Iniesta also firing, Messi believes this is the strongest Barcelona side he has been a part of since arriving at the club as a 12-year-old.
"This is definitely the best Barcelona team I have played in, that is for sure," Messi said this week. "A lot of the players in the team are the same as a couple of years ago, but we are all older and more experienced.
"We deserve to be winning all these titles, and I don't think our level will decrease for many years because we are still getting better and there is a focus to continue on."