Lionel Messi is, perhaps, the greatest footballer of all time. Apart from a jaw-dropping scoring record, Messi is an entertainer, almost a magician on the football pitch. His mazy runs, little feints and overall grace on the football pitch leave the crowd mesmerised and opponents dumbfounded.
Off the field, he is often seen as a quiet person, but that has not stopped him from being one of the most sought-after athletes in the world when it comes to brand endorsements.
His status as the Greatest Of All Time — G.O.A.T — will probably be debated as long as football is played but it will take a brave man to argue against the little Argentine’s place in the elite list.
Too small to play?
Even as a child, growing up in a family with limited means in Rosario, a major port city in Argentina, Messi’s talent was apparent: a little boy who could dribble at will and dodge players all day long.
What worked against him was his small frame. But his grandmother made sure that it didn’t hamper his career.
A reluctant Messi joined Grandoli, a local club in Rosario that was perhaps one of the worst in the town in terms of performance, on the advice of his grandmother. She convinced a four-year-old Messi that Grandoli was a team that needed a player like him the most.
According to Luca Caioli’s book Messi: The inside story of the boy who became a legend, Messi’s grandmother Celia convinced a coach named Aparicio at the club to put Messi in their team despite him being much below the required age and being much smaller than his competitors.
Such was the persistence of Celia that the coach reluctantly agreed.
“OK, but I’m putting him near the touchline so that when he cries you can take him off yourself,” he was quoted as saying in the book.
Messi scored two goals in the match and Aparicio was left stunned.
“They couldn’t shake him! He is like a flea you can’t get rid of!” he said.
Two years later at the age of six, Messi joined his favourite club Newell’s Old Boys, the biggest team in Rosario. He has never looked back since. He scored 500 goals for the youth side of the club that was almost unbeatable at the time and was called “The Machine of 87.”
A compilation of Messi’s goals as a child would give you a glimpse of how he ruled the football pitches despite (or perhaps, beacuse of?) his smaller size.
End of the road?
However, at the age of 10, Messi was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency. His father’s insurance covered only two years of the payment. Newell’s decided to pay for it but then changed their mind.
Messi’s blossoming career as a footballer was on the verge of a premature end. In an interview with Sin Cassette in 2005, Messi revealed that he had to take an injection in his legs every day. It was a painful process.
With his father obtaining a job in Barcelona, he managed to arrange a trial with the Catalan giants with the help of their relatives in the city.
He impressed first team director Charly Rexach who wanted to sign him but the board was skeptical of signing a foreign player at such a young age. However, eventually, Rexach convinced the board and offered Messi a sort of a contract where the club agreed to sign him and take care of his treatment. It was, as the legend goes, written on a piece of a paper napkin.
The Outsider at La Masia
It took a year for Barcelona to be able to register Messi with the Royal Spanish Football Federation due to a conflict with Messi’s native club Newell’s.
It was, Messi revealed, one of the most challenging phase in his life. He didn’t understand the Catalan language and his fellow trainees were better built than him. They often isolated him both on and off the pitch. Nobody passed to him and when he made even the smallest of mistakes, they would yell at him.
This attitude of his fellow players had come from the coach in charge of the youth team who had instructed the players to not let a foreigner remain in the team.
But, as the saying goes, tough times don’t last but tough people do. Messi slowly won over the people at Barcelona though his utter brilliance. At 14, he had completed his growth hormone treatment and formed an integral part of Barcelona’s greatest youth side ever. In his first full season, he scored 36 goals as the team won a treble of the league, Spanish and Catalan Cups.
Rising through the ranks
Rejecting an offer to join Arsenal and follow his close friends Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique who moved to England, Messi remained at Barcelona to fight for a place in the first team that already had top players like Ronaldinho and Deco.
In 2004, Messi was called up to the senior team and he immediately caught the players’ eye.
“Messi was only 16, but he destroyed us all in a training session,” Ludovic Giuly said.
“They were kicking him all over the place to avoid being ridiculed by this kid, but he didn’t say anything. He just got up and kept on playing. Every play he made was dangerous. It was incredible. He would dribble past four players and score a goal,” he added.
Messi first played for the senior team in a friendly against Jose Mourinho’s Porto where he created a couple of openings after coming on as a substitute in the 75th minute. His performance made Ronaldinho acknowledge his talent and predict that the young Argentine would surpass his achievements.
In 2005, Messi played the first official match for Barcelona against city rivals Espanyol at the age of 17. Later that season he would score his first goal for the senior side against Albacete, with a delightful chip over the goalkeeper after an equally delightful assist from Ronaldinho.
On his 18th birthday, Messi signed his first contract as a senior player and the rest, as they say, is history.
A little boy from Rosario whose father was a steel factory worker and mother a domestic cleaner had come to Barcelona, a team filled with superstars and made a place for himself.
Despite the many challenges, Messi’s talent prevailed. In to his thirties, as he continues to bamboozle defences, his genius makes sure age is just a number for him.
Here’s an animated short by Gatorade about Messi’s journey: