In 2012, U.S. sportswriter Wright Thompson travelled to Rosario, Lionel Messi’s hometown, to learn more about the city’s most famous son since Che Guevara. The best footballer in the world is an intriguing enigma: painfully shy and seemingly taciturn in interviews, he only comes to life in public on the football pitch, where he sparkles like no player in history has before and perhaps like no player will again.
Thompson hoped that seeing where Messi grew up and what he came from would allow him to gain a better understanding of Messi the man, a celebrity whose face and name are recognised all over the world but one who, caught between the demands of his Argentine past and his Catalan present, cannot be said to have a singular identity. What Thompson found was surprising and depressing in equal measure: nothing.
Well, not ‘nothing’ in a literal sense – he found Messi’s family home still standing and still owned by the family, and he was fortunate enough to chat to Messi’s brothers, who were loitering outside, as well as the doctor who first treated Messi with growth hormone injections – but he found that the prevalent feeling towards the most iconic footballer of his generation in his hometown was one of apathy.
There was nothing in the city to commemorate Messi’s achievements or to bask in his fame: no photos of the city’s most famous sportsman on the walls of its bars, no daubs of his name on any of the walls and no-one as enthused by his exploits as Thompson himself. Most of the Rosarinos he approached preferred to focus on the fact that Messi had left Argentina at a young age. He appeared in their eyes to have forfeited the right to be affiliated with their city. He was no more related to them than Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar.
Nineteen months after Thompson visited Rosario, I found myself in the city with a couple of Argentine friends. We had managed to get free tickets to watch Central play Gimnasia and had made the three-hour drive up from Buenos Aires in order to spend a few days seeing the sights. All being equally football-obsessed, we were excited by the opportunity to see Messi’s roots and pay our respects to the great man on the hallowed turf where it all began.
For me in particular, this was a tantalising prospect. I have been enthralled by Messi since pretty much the first time I saw him play on television in 2004. I have travelled to Barcelona to see him play on five occasions and I have been something of a good luck charm for him. In the matches I have seen, he has scored fourteen goals – and some of his best.
The first time I saw him, he played three consecutive one-twos with Dani Alves to work his way through Real Sociedad’s defence before rolling the ball past the goalkeeper. Later in the same game, he beat the entire back four, dribbling horizontally past them all before firing his shot into the far corner. Before my next game, against Bayer Leverkusen, I made sure to be pitchside to see him at close quarters: he scored five times. He added four more in Pep Guardiola’s last game at Camp Nou as Barcelona manager, including a perfectly arrowed drive that was hit from right in front of me.
Like any other Messi fan, I was aware that he was not really considered popular in Argentina, due in equal parts to never having represented a club there and to the perception that he had failed to play to his maximum for the national team. The maxim that all Argentines prefer Carlos Tevez was one of which I was aware, but I hoped it had passed its sell-by date.
I believed that Messi’s record-breaking goal haul for Argentina in 2012 coupled with Tevez’s fall from grace had righted this wrong. Even if Messi’s national team form was somehow not enough, the body of work he had amassed at Barcelona stood without equal. Messi is damn near indisputably the best footballer ever to lace his boots – surely his fellow Rosarinos would be proud of that.
Thompson’s article gave us the address of the old family home, located a few miles from the city centre in an area of which unaccompanied tourists would be best advised to stay well clear, while a few more minutes of research gave us the location of the pitch on which Messi played his first football at five years old, captured in a video that went viral almost as soon as he burst onto the scene with Barcelona.
The barrio in which both are situated, General Las Heras, is obviously significantly poorer than the city centre of Rosario. As we approached, I was on the lookout for signifiers that matched Thompson’s descriptions and saw them in abundance. We passed the same grubby, imposing tower blocks, the same stray dogs by the roadside and the same brightly coloured but peeling murals, including the one of the Rolling Stones. As when Thompson visited, there was no mention of Messi.
We found the family house, parked the car and got out. It was a bizarre moment: after all, a house is just a house, regardless of who it belongs to. This particular one had evidently been as modest as those around it for the majority of its existence, but now a tall iron rail fence had been erected in front and small security cameras and intercoms placed by the door and the mailbox. We all knew there was no way Messi was within 6,000 miles of the spot, yet it was hard to imagine ever being closer in proximity to him.
A few neighbours milled around in front of their houses further down the street, strangely paying our trio, comprised of a couple of relatively wealthy guys from Buenos Aires and an obvious extranjero, no attention whatsoever. Clearly, the locals are used to visitors coming to gawk at the barrio’s biggest attraction.
For a few moments we stood outside, staring at the house and wondering whether we should knock and leave a message. We decided the idea was too brazenly silly to countenance. I wished I had realised that Messi’s house, like any other, would have a mailbox, so that I could have brought a note thanking him for his football and letting him know that, in the extremely unlikely event that he felt like he needed my approval, he had it.
Next, we made our way to Centro de Educación Fisica No 8, where Grandoli FC, the children’s team Messi represented, play their games. We drove around searching for a few minutes, stumbling across unkempt patches of grass that could have been the one but did not look quite right, before, spotting a field much larger than the others – big enough to accommodate a full size pitch but nothing else – overshadowed by two tower blocks on one side and open on the other. Suddenly and simultaneously we all said aloud, “there it is!”
Entering via an open gate, we stood on the adjacent set of steps that make up the small supporters’ terrace. We loaded up the YouTube video of Messi aged five and saw on the screen the same field that we saw before our eyes. This was, without a shadow of a doubt, the spot where Messi’s family had brought little Leo in 1992 and watched in awe as he revealed himself to have powers above and beyond the comprehension of anyone on the planet.
I was not expecting anything to mark the site like the spectacular mural of Carlos Tevez in his home barrio, the infamous Fuerte Apache in Buenos Aires, but the silence and emptiness I found in General Las Heras was just as remarkable.
There was no reference to Messi anywhere. The walls around the Grandoli pitch were, by Argentine standards, unusually free of graffiti. There was no sign or indication that we could see that confirmed that this was the spot where Messi first kicked a ball in anger. It was just a kids’ pitch, no different to any other I had seen except for the cloud of hungry mosquitoes which hovered above it at ankle height.
It is hard to imagine that there is a more encouraging message one can send to the youngsters that continue to learn with Grandoli than Messi’s: that despite the huge disadvantages faced by the kids that grow up in their environment, talent, hard work and sacrifice can still take them wherever they want to go. The very best is one of them. Still, nothing. It is like he was never there at all.
I immediately set about speaking to as many Argentines as possible about their thoughts on Messi. The two friends accompanying me on this trip had already explained that they preferred Diego Maradona, whose style they felt was more authentically Argentine: more individual, courageous and full of heart. Messi’s relatively cold, clinical ruthlessness made him a product more than a player – the best graduate of the best school in the world as opposed to a bona fide gift from the gods. Most others I spoke to shared that view.
“We don't know him; he's never played here,” I was told by one of the first people I asked. When I put it to him that Messi was the best player in the world, he rolled his eyes. “There are many better players - Cristiano, for one.”
A Central fan told me that Argentina was very much like England in that most people would much rather their club does well than the national team. Consequently, their idols tend not to be the best Argentines from an objective standpoint, but those that best represent the side that they go and watch every weekend.
Perhaps the most illuminating response came from a friend who explained that cultural differences have a lot to do with my perception of Argentina’s coldness towards Messi: “Sometimes I feel like in Europe people rush into recognising and celebrating players who have done nothing for you or your club. Example: buying a Ronaldo Real Madrid jersey as soon as he was signed. What? Why?”
It is evident that many Argentine fans feel that a debt is owed by Messi to his country. They will not love him until he has repaid it.
“Here he is a nobody. He may deserve a statue in Barcelona, but in Argentina... when he delivers a World Cup, maybe.”
This brings us back to the present and the 2014 World Cup, shortly to kick-off in Brazil. There is no doubt that if Messi were to dominate the tournament, leading Argentina to glory and lifting the trophy in the Maracanã, of all places, then the debate over his standing would end overnight. He would join Maradona as an untouchable and the adulation would continue for decades after his career’s end.
Through no fault of his own, however, Messi is very probably not going to lift the World Cup on July 13th. Argentina’s squad is just not strong enough to accomplish the feat. First choice goalkeeper Sergio Romero plays second fiddle to Croatia’s Danijel Subašić at Monaco and has made just four appearances this season. While Pablo Zabaleta and Ezequiel Garay are very capable defenders, their probable colleagues Federico Fernández and Marcos Rojo inspire much less confidence.
From a tactical point of view, too, Argentina are at a disadvantage. They are likely to play a very vertical counter-attacking game, sitting deep and springing forward with Ángel Di María, Sergio Agüero and Gonzalo Higuaín as well as Messi, an approach which maximises the four’s individual ability by allowing them lots of space with which to work, but one that has no recent history of success at this level. There is not a great deal on the bench that suggests they are going to be capable of changing their approach should an opponent park the bus.
Alejandro Sabella’s men are likely to carry on the tradition established by sides like Jogi Löw’s Germany and José Mourinho’s Real Madrid, whose shock-and-awe reactivism destroyed most opponents who allowed themselves to be suckered in to playing high up the pitch, but collapsed when sides twigged what was going on and simply sat deep and refused to be drawn out. Romania, a limited side who will not be at the World Cup Finals, held Argentina to a goalless draw in March by doing exactly that.
If and when Argentina are eliminated, the popular reaction in Argentina will be one of realism. Everyone I know there understands that the goalkeeping situation is a huge problem, that the defence is some way short of being dynamic enough and that the system used is worryingly one-dimensional. Messi will not be blamed for their eventual defeat.
At the same time, he will not earn the adulation that he deserves from his countrymen. When he retires and returns to Rosario, he will not be treated like Maradona, remaining widely revered forever. He will be continually reminded that he never played for Newell’s Old Boys; that he did nothing for the national team; that he never repaid the debt his talent meant that he owed – one that his colleagues’ deficiencies meant he never could repay to begin with.
It may seem bizarre to find a multimillionaire athlete widely accepted as the greatest in his field the object of pity – particularly when rumours abound that his conduct towards teammates has at times been more than questionable and when the fact is that, of his own volition or otherwise, he avoided paying up to €15m in tax between 2010 and 2012 – but pity is what I will feel for Lionel Messi when the curtain comes down on his career and the records show that he never won the World Cup.
He will always be caught between the two cities that define him. In Barcelona, he will be worshipped but not quite accepted. A significant element will remember him as the foreigner who stashed his money off-shore, forever avoided speaking in Catalan and had Argentine meat shipped in by the planeload. In Rosario, the burden of what he never achieved will always count for more than what he did. He has never forgotten where he came from, but his countrymen will never forget that he left.
Unless Messi wins the 2014 World Cup, he will never have a place in the world where he fits in with everyone else. Yes, he will have money, awards and unprecedented professional acclaim, as well as a loving nuclear family and close relationships with the people with whom he grew up. He will still be an incredibly fortunate man, by all accounts, but he will never have a home.
Rob is on Twitter @robbro7.