Lionel “Leo” Messi is now a FIFA World Cup winner, likely cementing his status in the eyes of most soccer fans as one of his sport’s greatest players ever.
The 35-year-old Argentine has a fully stocked trophy case, including a record seven Ballon d’Or awards, given to the international soccer player of the year by French news magazine France Football. The only major item missing was a World Cup trophy until Sunday, when Messi’s Argentina defeated France in a 4-2 penalty shootout after an extra-time thriller.
But being recognized as the GOAT — which stands for greatest player of all time — has never been Messi’s goal.
“It doesn’t change anything for me to be the best or not,” Messi told France Football last year. “And I never tried to be, either.”
Instead of dreaming of soccer superstardom as a child, he focused on achieving smaller goals, completing one at a time before moving onto the next, he said.
“I fought for my dreams,” Messi said. “At first, it was to be a professional player. Then, I tried to surpass myself and achieve new goals every year.”
The approach may sound familiar: It’s reminiscent of psychologist Carol Dweck’s theory of the growth mindset, which posits that talent is only a starting point.
“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work,” Dweck wrote in her 2015 study titled “Growth.”
Many non-athletes champion their own versions of the growth mindset, from billionaire Mark Cuban to actor Will Smith. Studies show that students who are taught the “growth mindset” by educators are able to improve their test scores more than their peers, over time.
Of course, Messi has always been a talented athlete, even as an undersized child who was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency at age 11. But the diminutive superstar, who stands at 5-foot-7, is consistently adamant that a strong work ethic has been his key to continued success.
He puts in long days of training, “day after day, year after year,” to keep improving on the soccer pitch, he’s noted in past interviews. And despite long being recognized as a global superstar, it took him roughly 16 years over five World Cup tournaments to finally land his elusive prize.
The new trophy adds to his significant collection, alongside the hefty income he’s pulled in over his 18-year career. He’s the world’s highest paid athlete of 2022, making roughly $130 million this year, according to Forbes.
That includes a roughly $75 million base salary from his club team, Paris Saint-Germain, and $55 million from endorsements and other off-field endeavors, Forbes estimates.
In other words, being the best is very lucrative. But in his interview with France Football, Messi maintained that being among the game’s all-time greats was never his original intent — rather, it was the outcome of hard work amplifying innate talent over the course of many years.
“For me, just being able to be considered or cited as one of the best players in the world is more than enough,” he said. “It is something that I would never have dared to imagine or dream of.”