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Roger Federer, Lionel Messi and the pursuit of greatness

August 7, 2021

The Barcelona complex. From Simon Kuper. Penguin; 416 pages; $ 27. Released in the UK as “Barça”; Short books; £ 20

The master. By Christopher Clarey. Twelve; 432 pages; $ 30. John Murray; £ 20

ONTWO OF THE most stylish and successful athletes of all time, Roger Federer and Lionel Messi, naturally invite you to compare. Mr Federer has won 20 men’s singles titles, a record he shares with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, and has reached more Grand Slam finals than any other male player. Mr Messi has won 34 trophies with Barcelona and has been awarded the Ballon d’Or, an award for the best football player in the world, six times. Mr Federer praises the Argentine striker’s skills in the same language that many experts use to describe his tennis: “There are always three options for him. He’s one of the few who have that. “

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In recent years, the similarities between the two sports stars have deepened. After the age of 35, Mr. Federer won three of his most important titles; At the age of 34, Mr Messi has just won an international tournament – the only prize he had missed so far. Sport was once considered the only career in which you only know your professional decline after 30. Mr Federer and Mr Messi both show that this no longer has to be the case.

So it fits well that two books about the athletes were published at the same time. In “The Barcelona Complex”, Simon Kuper, journalist for the Financial Times, analyzes how the Spanish football club became a giant, with Mr. Messi as “engine and standard bearer”. The Master, by Christopher Clarey, a New York Times journalist, is a more conventional biography based on interviews with the tennis player and his closest circle. Both books offer valuable insights into how athletic greatness is achieved.

Modern athletes are more disciplined than their ancestors, who often lived like rock stars and expected their bodies to give way before they reached middle age. Another Barcelona football legend, Johan Cruyff, was a chain smoker in the early 1970s. He was so unfit that during his time at Ajax, Cruyff hid in the woods while his teammates did the running training and only rejoined them for the final lap. Messi, on the other hand, credits a predominantly vegetarian diet with a career extension and benefits from his club’s focus on the science of nutrition, sleep and psychology.

By far the longest-serving member of Mr. Federer’s team is Pierre Paganini, a former decathlete who has been his fitness trainer since 2000. That’s what Mr Federer said. Modern tennis players need “explosive endurance”, that is, the acceleration of a sprinter and the endurance of a marathon runner. One of Mr. Paganini’s favorite exercises is to have Mr. Federer sprint between four numbered posts while holding a heavy medicine ball over his head.

The history of Barcelona in recent years is in many ways the story of Mr Messi. In everything from player signings to team tactics, Barcelona “gave Messi the keys to the club,” writes Kuper. Sandro Rosell, former club president, said: “When you have the opportunity to be the best player in every game, you have to be a bit of a dictator like Messi is.”

It worked for many years. Between 2006 and 2015, Barcelona played amazing football and won four Champions League titles (they had only won one in their history). However, the years thereafter were marked by a slight decline in the local area and enormous gross debt, which this year reached more than 1 billion euros (1.2 billion US dollars). Despite remaining an exceptional player, Mr Messi could be partly to blame. His astronomical fee – reportedly $ 674 million over four seasons from 2017 to 2021 – depletes the club’s funds and leads teammates to demand higher salaries, leaving less cash to sign new players. (When announcing Mr Messi’s departure from the club on Aug. 5, Barcelona cited “financial and structural obstacles”.) The rivals have also mimicked Barcelona’s tactics, refining the nifty passing style developed by Cruyff.

Both “The Barcelona Complex” and “The Master” emphasize the decision-making that helps to distinguish superlative athletes. Mr. Messi is rightly known for his ballet dribbling, pinpoint passing and his clinical finish in front of goal. Behind all these qualities, however, says Kuper, there is what sports scientists call “scanning”: looking around to take visual snapshots of the game. An insightful passage deconstructing Mr. Messi’s art documents how he spends much of every game walking around – only one outfield player covered less ground during the 2014 World Cup. Although his move is economical, Mr Messi is “moving his head right, left, right, left,” as his former coach Pep Guardiola noted. The best footballers in the world scan the field about 50 times a minute.

The best tennis players also use visual cues, such as the position of their opponent’s torso and hips and the way they hit the ball, to infer where the ball is likely to land before it is touched. “It happens so quickly that you have to hit the shot almost without thinking,” explains Federer. With the best candidates, says Marc Rosset, a former Swiss tennis player who looked after Mr. Federer, it is “as if they had more time for their brains to process everything”. The resulting impression of lightness is a brilliant illusion.

Both authors reject the notion that Mr Messi or Mr Federer have the upper hand. Mr. Clarey highlights the luck – particularly the decision of Peter Carter, an Australian tennis coach, to take a job in Basel – and the hard work that made Mr. Federer’s story possible. It would also be conceivable that Mr Messi was lost to football: the sport had long had a dogma about height and he needed a growth hormone, which was funded by Barcelona when he moved from Argentina, by a modest 1.7 meters to reach. If Mr Federer’s success was “a long-term act of will, not fate,” as Mr Clarey argues, the same is true of Mr Messi’s.

Publisher’s Note: This article has been updated to include the news of Lionel Messi’s decision to leave Barcelona.

This article appeared in the Books & Art section of the print edition under the heading “The pursuit of greatness”

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