Tuesday, June 25, 2024
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Producer of Messi ‘Rise of a Legend’ explains how he captured World Cup run behind the scenes

The world watched Lionel Messi win his first World Cup in 2022, but a new Apple TV+ docuseries provides a never-before-seen look at the triumphant journey in intimate detail. The four-part series, “Messi’s World Cup: Rise of a Legend,” chronicles Messi’s life story leading up to and through the 2022 World Cup victory in Qatar. Having been in Doha around that Argentina national team, the series was a nice peek behind the curtain in what became a rollercoaster ride for Messi and his teammates.

In “Rise of a Legend,” which is available on Apple TV+ starting Wednesday, the stresses and expectations of the world’s No. 1 ranked team at the World Cup are carefully crafted. Audiences are taken inside the Argentina locker room after the side’s shocking loss to Saudi Arabia on match day one. A solitary Messi is shown seated in a corner, his legacy with the national team on the line. But what makes the series a worthy watch are the anecdotes and first-person experiences that hadn’t been seen until now.

For instance, Messi’s mother Celia admitted that as a child, even she believed that her son was a “genius with a football.” When it became clear that football was his passion, however, she had to threaten him with it. “There would be no football until homework and chores are done,” she said.

The series has everything you’d expect from an in-depth Messi documentary: grainy VCR highlights of his youth days in Rosario, Argentina, bad haircuts and his quick ascension from academy to first-team football at FC Barcelona, his scoreless World Cup in 2010 under the guidance of Diego Maradona and the pain he endured after losing the 2014 World Cup final against Germany. The series peaked when the focus shifted to Argentina’s heated quarterfinal against its European nemesis, Louis Van Gaal and the Netherlands.

Messi’s somewhat awkward voiceovers throughout the series don’t land well, but the guest voices and Messi’s sit-down interviews throughout the series help the story progress. Those voices include 1986 World Cup winner Jorge Valdano, who refers to Messi the phenom as “an amphibian — half street, half academy” to describe what sets the Argentina captain apart from his peers. Messi’s Argentina teammates Angel Di Maria, enigmatic goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, Enzo Fernandez and Rodrigo De Paul, as well as head coach Lionel Scaloni, offer crucial insights into the minds of the players.

“We have to defend our hero,” Martinez said of Messi, as the series showed Argentina’s tumultuous ride to the World Cup final. “I’m dying for him in goal like I never did for anyone else.”

In the series, Messi’s evolution from pariah to national hero in his home country is the thread that connects Messi’s past with his present-day status as an idol. As World Cup glory was within their reach, the film captured a youthful Argentina team dancing and chanting after each win. Messi, the elder statesman, is often seen in the background simply taking it all in.

“Messi’s World Cup: Rise of a Legend” was led by Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning executive producer Matt Renner, who worked with a team of filmmakers and producers from around the world for the duration of the project. Among them was executive producer Juan Camilo Cruz. From his home in Bogotá, Colombia, Cruz spoke to The Athletic about his role in the series, the challenges the film crew faced in Qatar, Messi’s input in the creative process and what would’ve changed had Argentina crashed out of the World Cup.

Questions and answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

How did you get involved in this documentary and what’s your background in film?

I was lucky to be invited to be part of this project. I work with WME and (the Messi documentary) is a WME project. I’ve always loved film and I began to produce films mainly tied to armed conflicts around the world. I’ve worked in Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela and Colombia. I learned about documentary film making by working with people who worked on war documentaries. That forced me to view film making conceptually as vérité films. That’s how my career started. I recently worked on a film about reggaeton artist J Balvin for Amazon and that was the first time I worked on a project that wasn’t tied to an armed conflict. It was obviously less problematic.

What was your role in the film as an executive producer?

There were six executive producers on this film. Because it was such an ambitious project and because of the person involved, that being Leo, plus FIFA, licensing, the partners, the finances — it was complicated. Each producer had a different role and mine was more creative than anything else. I was in charge of the script, the editing process, filming in Qatar, directing the interviews and finally putting the story together alongside the many editors who were involved. There were so many challenges along the way that made it difficult to work solely based on the vision of one director. And the story is so clear. We knew from the beginning that it would focus on Leo’s 17-year career and his relationship with the people of Argentina. Having that North Star allowed all of us to contribute the story arcs of each episode and the general arc of the entire series.

What were some of the challenges you had to overcome within that creative process?

The biggest challenge was managing to place a camera alongside the most important footballer in history and within one of his most private places. The players around him were living the most important moments of their careers. It’s a very tense situation to be in. It’s private, it’s intimate and they have to be so incredibly focused. For us, it was about being part of the process without interrupting them, without intruding. We were that fly on the wall. That was the biggest challenge, putting a camera in a place where billions of people would’ve liked to be.

The team clearly allowed it. You guys were in the room during that viral video with Messi, Sergio Aguero, De Paul and Papu Gómez. No one knew at the time that a camera was inside Messi’s room.

Exactly. That was a massive challenge for us. To be able to capture those intimate moments as respectfully as possible without bothering them. As filmmakers, we cannot affect what we record. So it’s our job to be close to the players in those places. It was a huge undertaking because we were filming simultaneously in Argentina and Qatar. We had a lot of cameras capturing those moments throughout the World Cup, but it contrasted with the moments of solitude of these players and how familiar they were with each other.

It was our biggest challenge but also the documentary’s biggest accomplishment. We knew that millions of people would have already seen the World Cup. Now they’ll see the personal and intimate account from Messi.

After Argentina’s opening tournament loss to Saudi Arabia, did you think you were filming a Greek tragedy? Surely you didn’t expect that.

We always knew that the series wasn’t about the final outcome. That’s why it’s called the “Rise of a Legend”. It’s Messi’s career path. Many people in the documentary said that their opinions of Messi wouldn’t change whether he won the World Cup or not.

But that’s not true. If Messi had lost that World Cup, your story about his relationship with Argentina, for example, would’ve been conflictive.

That was a bet we were willing to make. The outcome was a complete unknown. That’s why the main idea was about being there and seeing what occurred. It’s about Messi’s ups and downs. I was with a group of Argentine filmmakers during that Saudi Arabia match. They live this sport in the same way that Leo does. It was devastating but I remember telling them that it was also the best possible start for the series. Our main character has already gone through his toughest moment. Let’s see how he recovers from this. And that’s partly what defines Messi. He hasn’t quit when faced with challenges. It was a tough way to start but I was happy about it! Of course, I thought, shoot, how is this going to end?

Argentina hadn’t lost in 36 matches. They had the best player in the world. They were tournament favorites. It felt like it was setting up to be a positive experience for Messi. But in a documentary, it’s always best to have an obstacle. For the players, it was an obstacle that produced a wake-up call. It was a slap in the face. And that’s what they communicated in the documentary. Every match for them was like a final.

Messi’s brand has always been carefully constructed. How involved was Messi and his camp in the post-production of the series? Did they comment on how they wanted the story to be told?

Fortunately, they didn’t, but they were part of the process and we were in contact with them. They gave us the access that we needed to tell this story. We had the great privilege to have two interviews with Messi. One before the World Cup and one after. That allowed us and (Messi’s team) to control what Messi said from beginning to end. That’s a great asset to work with. His team was very generous and very flexible in how we told the story, allowing us to tell it the way we felt was best. They were collaborative and they gave us an incredible amount of creative freedom. What makes this series so special is the access to Leo. No other series has Messi seated and talking about his experiences the way that he did. The cameras were there in his most difficult moments.

Messi reflecting during the 2022 World Cup final. (Photo by Liu Lu, Getty Images)

Despite that collaboration, was there ever any pushback from the players or the Argentina team about access?

No, it was all very positive. We never had any differences of opinion. It was quite the opposite. They understood that it was a privilege to record their experiences. Imagine if they weren’t able to relive it. It’s a bit of a spoiler but at the end when Messi is seated alone in his room, with the winner’s medal around his neck, that’s Messi. He’s being transparent. The camera was there and that says everything about Leo and his team’s generosity throughout this process.

I imagine that the main camera crew were Argentines to maintain some semblance of chemistry with the team.

Yes, but it was a multicultural production team, one that was aware of how to tell a story from an Argentine, Latino and global perspective. This wasn’t shot exclusively for a Latino audience, but also for a North American audience that understands football differently than us. It was important to have an Argentine feel to the story, but again, this was very collaborative and that was evident in each stage of the process, like choosing the right music. It had to be authentic and international. The story itself dictated how we told it. That to me was innovative.

What did you learn about Messi that you didn’t already know?

I learned everything about him! I’m not a big Messi fan. I didn’t know every detail of his story, like the signed napkin that became his first (Barcelona) contract. So I learned a lot about him.

Now what really surprised me was his work ethic and how he executes it. He has said often that he was born this way, that his talents were God-given. But the truth is that Messi is a tremendously hard worker and he’s very competitive. He’s a machine. I had never seen anything like that. He’s obsessed with football in a way that goes far beyond fame and money. If you take him out of a big stadium and drop him onto a s— pitch in Buenos Aires, he’s going to play with the same passion.

It was telling to see the look on Messi’s face while he played cards with his teammates. He’s always competing.

Exactly. It’s such a high level of competitiveness and work ethic that has shaped him as the winner that he became. The numbers say it all. They’re ridiculous. And it comes from his love of the game. I hadn’t seen it from that angle, but after witnessing it and seeing literally every possible camera angle of Messi, I understood and now anyone can understand how the mind of a champion works. That was very inspiring to see.

Will we see this production team following Messi and Argentina again in 2026?

Hopefully, I’d be happy to do it. I don’t have any information about that but the whole world would like to see Leo play in another World Cup. He’s incredible and it’s a privilege to be alive to watch him play.

(Top photo: Gustavo Pagano, Getty Images)

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