Argentina were World Cup holders back in 1987 and Diego Maradona was the planet’s finest footballer but, in a poor part of the country’s third-largest city, Rosario, something very significant also took place: Lionel Andres Messi was born.
The third son to Jorge, a steel worker, and Celia, a cleaner, young Lionel weighed in at just three kilos and was a mere 47 centimetres in height. He grew into the greatest goalscorer in Champions League history – but it was anything but easy.
Football was part of MESSI’s life from day one. Rosario Central were crowned champions of Argentina two weeks before Messi’s birth, but little Lionel would inherit his father’s passion for the city’s other club: Newell’s Old Boys.
“When his mother sent him off to run errands, Leo always took his football with him,” his brother Matias once said. “And if he didn’t have one, he would make one out of plastic bags or socks.”
Even from the age of three, Leo and the ball were best friends. “I got given my first football when I was very young: three, maybe, or four,” Messi said a few years ago. “It was a present and from then on it was the only present I ever wanted, Christmas, birthday or whatever: a ball.”
Young Leo went along to watch his brothers play at local club Grandoli, a modest team with no money and a dirt pitch in the south of the city. Their youth coach back then was Salvador Aparicio – and one night he found himself a player short.
“I looked up to the stands and saw him playing with a ball,” he told Goal in a recording for partofthegametv before his death in 2008. “But he was so small, so we decided to wait for the other player to turn up. But he didn’t, so I asked Lionel’s mother if I could borrow him.
“She didn’t like the idea. She said he had never played [in a match] before. His grandmother was there too and she said: ‘Come on, let him play’! So they let me borrow him.
“The first time the ball came to him he just looked at it and let it pass. He didn’t even move. But the next time the ball came to him, it virtually hit him on the left leg. Then, he controlled it and started running across the pitch. He dribbled past everyone crossing his path. I was screaming for him to shoot, but he was too small. Ever since that day, he was always in my team.”
That was at the age of five and, before long, Messi was not only dribbling, but shooting and scoring too.
“Later, in the youth teams, he scored six or seven goals in every match,” Aparicio added. “Instead of waiting for the goalkeeper to kick the ball, he would take the ball off him and start dribbling all over the pitch. He was supernatural.”
At the age of nine, Messi joined the club he still supports even today, Newell’s, and was part of an exciting generation which lost just one match in four years. Little Leo, however, was the shining star of the Maquina de la ’87 (the ’87 Machine) – so named because all of its players had been born in 1987.
By the age of 11, however, it emerged that Messi was suffering from a growth hormone deficiency. Without the necessary treatment, his dreams of a career in football would be dashed.
Contrary to popular belief, Newell’s did try and pay for treatment for their promising player, but with the club in crisis and few funds available, Messi’s father grew frustrated. Social security saw to some of the medical bills, but the family were struggling to make ends meet.
Jorge Messi considered moving the whole family to Australia, but believed his son’s football skills could help them to overcome their financial problems. He offered Lionel to River Plate and the young forward impressed as a 13-year-old against boys three years his senior in a trial alongside future international team-mate Gonzalo Higuain.
But Messi’s father asked River for a job and a house in Buenos Aires and River took exception, while Newell’s were also playing hard ball. So the move never materialised.
Instead, Jorge met with representatives of a scouting firm who called Argentine lawyer Juan Mateo, and a video of Messi kicking an orange (113 times in a row) and a tennis ball (120 times) was sent to Barcelona scout Josep Minguella.
Remarkably, that was enough to secure a trial at Barca and Messi travelled to the Catalan capital along with his father and one of the intermediaries, Fabian Soldini.
The forward’s first contract was signed on a napkin by his father, Minguella and former Barca midfielder Carles Rexach, but his future remained uncertain for three years. Jorge was out of work and the club went back on several promises until a €4,000 per month contract allowed the family to breathe easily in 2004.
Later that year, a much taller and stronger Messi made his debut for the first team at the age of 17 and also scored his first Barca goal – with a beautiful lob – against Albacete that same season and the rest is history.Read more: EL Clasico