Lionel Messi: Here and Gone

Wright Thompson travels to Argentina to investigate Lionel Messi’s youth and the strange relationship between Messi and his hometown in Argentina. Thompson looks at his start from his old club Newell’s old Boys and his move to Barcelona.

The article looks at how Messi is perhaps trying to re-establish his roots in Argentina, the country he left as a 13 year-old and could the best player in the world actually be looking for love in his own hometown?

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Other players seem to chase the ball, while Messi moves in concert with it, full speed to full stop. Then, when the game ends, the fire inexplicably goes out: vanishing eye contact, single-syllable answers — a flatline. The more I read, and the more I watched, the less I understood. Maybe in Rosario, where he was born, that might change.

In the coming days, the pattern would repeat itself around town. You’d never know he was from Rosario….”You don’t feel it’s the city of Messi,” David Treves said. “If you are the best player on the planet, and you don’t even get the most miserable bit of love from your own people, most would say, ‘Go to hell. I will stay in Barcelona and just keep filling my wallet.'”

It was Sunday afternoon. Across the ocean, Messi and his Barcelona teammates were kicking off. The game was being broadcast all over the world, but not in Messi’s own bar. I looked up at an enormous high-def television, which at the moment was tuned to a cooking show called “Clasico Shawarma.”

“He hasn’t won anything for Argentina,” he said.

Just as we saw little of him in Rosario, many of its citizens see little of him in themselves. Messi is as unknown to the people of his hometown as he is to me, sitting in my office watching his famous goal against Getafe over and over on youtube. They don’t understand how he plays, or how he acts, and they don’t see a clean cause and effect, no X+Y=Z, that would explain either. Diego Maradona, they get.

There was a problem, though, an ocean separating potential and realization. When Messi was 9, he stopped growing. Doctors discovered a hormone deficiency and put him on a regimen of daily injections, which he gave himself, carrying around a little cooler when he went to play with friends.

His soccer club, the local professional powerhouse Newell’s Old Boys, agreed to help pay for the drugs, but, as costs mounted, it eventually stopped. Frustrated, his father found someone who would pay: Barca. So when Leo was 13, after The Machine of ’87 won its final championship, he and his dad, Jorge, moved to Spain.

The Argentine national team coaches found out about him through a videotape, and the first time they sent him an invitation to join the squad, they addressed it to “Leonel Mecci.” In the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, playing outside the familiar Barcelona system, he struggled, at least in the expectant eyes of his countrymen. His coaches and teammates didn’t understand the aloof Messi, who once went to a team-building barbecue and never said a word, not even to ask for meat. The people from Argentina thought he was Spanish, and in the cafes and pool halls, they wondered why he always won championships for Barcelona but never for his own country. They raged when he didn’t sing the national anthem before games. In Barcelona, Messi inspired the same reaction. People noticed he didn’t speak Catalan and protected his Rosarino accent. He bought meat from an Argentine butcher and ate in Argentine restaurants. “Barcelona is not his place in the world,” influential Spanish soccer editor Aitor Lagunas wrote in an e-mail. “It’s a kind of a laboral emigrant with an undisguised homesick feeling.”

Messi never reveals anything. When Sports Illustrated sent star profiler S.L. Price to interview him, Price got 15 minutes of bland, semi-annoyed answers. An Italian journalist named Luca Caioli wrote an entire biography of Messi that contained basically one revelation: friends and family admitting that Messi is unknowable even to the people closest to him. “When he’s not doing so well,” close friend Cintia Arellano told the writer, “Leo is a little bit solitary. He retreats. He withdraws into himself. He was like that even with me sometimes. It was like drawing blood from a stone trying to find out what was going on inside.”

The former Newell’s team official in charge of Messi’s growth hormone payments still carries around receipts, which seem like forgeries, trying to prove that he didn’t make the dumbest decision in the history of professional sports. Burn scars remain. Vecchio couldn’t even see his former player. Two years ago, talking to a reporter from a London tabloid, he offered the lament of all jilted launching pads: Messi forgot his roots.

“It’s over 10 years since we spoke,” he said then. “It’s a shame kids forget some things when they find success. In 2006 I heard he was in Rosario and I went to his house to catch up with old times. They told me he wasn’t there, but it was a lie. He must have been afraid I would ask him for something. Money changes people a bit.”

Messi’s friends are a little in awe of him. Years ago, he was better than them, but the difference now is exponential. Leguizamon saw a photograph of Messi screwing around at Barca practice, playing keeper. His form was perfect, naturally, like he’d been playing the position forever. Leguizamon even called and asked if the picture was real. “Yeah, he’s Messi,” he said. “We are conscious of the fact that we have the best player in the world in front of us, but there is a certain confidence in the feeling we are all equal. We speak about the lives of everyone. We mess around. There are jokes.”

The Internet is full of tribute videos with some version of the title “Messi doesn’t dive,” a trait rare in a sport where players roll around on the ground like gunshot victims when an opponent so much as breathes on them. Theories abound about why Messi won’t fall, about his character or his respect for the game, but I think it’s much simpler. If he dives, he loses the ball. The boy forced to grow up fast is only happy at play. He laughs when he scores. He pouts when he loses. He gets moody. When he was young and got kicked out of practice, the coach saw him with his face pressed against a fence, the longing palpable even from a distance. When he got ejected from a match as a pro, he wept. A common adjective emerged: childlike. He acts remarkably like a 13-year-old boy.

After an injury, when he needed a month of rehab, he came here to do it. And though tabloids once connected him to one supermodel after another — he’s not so childlike that he doesn’t know how to do that — he has settled down with a girl he knew growing up. Her family knows his family, and vice versa, and she is now pregnant with his first child, due in October. Newell’s has already made plans to present the child with a special club membership card.

Even in the Barcelona locker room, his mind is often in Rosario. After a recent game — the one we watched at VIP — Messi’s former doctor, Diego Schwarsztein, texted him. He sent the message soon after the whistle. Ten minutes later, Messi replied. All these things, and the many more I could cite, are the actions of a man searching for something. Whatever his motivation, Messi is actively building a relationship between himself and the city that was, for so long, his hometown in name only. It goes beyond simply returning. He is creating roots.

“It was very hard for him leaving Rosario,” he said finally. “He suffered a lot.”

There it is, at last, beneath a lot of layers: the familiar sight of cause and effect. Something about the pain of Messi losing his childhood seems to make him always be looking for it — or even still living it — whether he’s got a ball at his feet in a packed stadium, or visiting the town where that childhood was lost. I read a interview not long ago with Bruce Springsteen where he said he spent years driving past the house where he grew up, night after night, and a psychologist told him he was trying to go back in time to change the things that happened in that house. Does Messi come back to Rosario because it’s normal for someone to miss his family, or is he subconsciously trying to change something about his past, or is he simply stuck at age 13?

Read the rest of the article “The strange relationship between LIONEL MESSI and his hometown in Argentina”

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