As a boy growing up in the Argentine city of Rosario, wee Lionel Messi often played soccer with the older children, a diminutive lad in a world of sprouting young giants.
Like so many others in his native country, The Kid would pretend to be national hero Diego Maradona, weaving through the much larger, beefier defenders on the dirt playgrounds of Rosario, hoping to one day tug on the fabled powder blue-and-white stripes of Argentina’s national team.
Unfortunately, the medical community figured The Kid’s dream would never come to fruition.
The Kid, you see, was diagnosed early on with a shortage of growth hormones. Doctors predicted that Messi likely would never even reach a top-end height of 4-foot-7 in his life, a potentially huge setback for someone so young, so enthusiastic, so skilled.
What the physicians could not measure, however, was the size of Lionel Messi’s heart.
By age 13, the diminutive Messi had wowed a scout from European powerhouse Barcelona who had come to Argentina in search of fresh talent. The Barcelona rep was so impressed with Messi he quickly scribbled the details of a contract on a napkin, an offer that included nightly hormone treatments that would be injected into The Kid's legs.
With the club picking up his medical expenses — a $900 per month bill his folks, Jorge and Celia, simply could not afford — The Kid and his parents packed their bags and moved to Barcelona. While his dad got a job working for the football club, Lionel’s performance on the development team sent notice that he was a superstar in the making.
Some 10 years later, the amazing story of The Kid named Messi continues to unfold.
He proved the doctors wrong, reaching a height of 5-foot-7.
He proved the critics wrong, laughing at all the naysayers who insisted he was too small.
And now, the great Maradona refers to Messi as “my successor” — the same Maradona The Kid emulated many years earlier on those mucky pitches in Rosario.
Today, Messi, the one-time pipsqueak doctors figured would remain a shrimp for the rest of his life, is the biggest star of the world’s biggest sport. All that remains is winning a title on its biggest stage, the one known as the World Cup.
The Kid won’t be lacking for inspiration. Each time he looks towards the sidelines, he will see The Legend, Diego Maradona, pacing up and down the turf in his role as Argentina’s manager.
At this point it would be premature to call South Africa the passing of the torch from The Legend to The Kid. Until Messi can lead Argentina to a world championship like Maradona did with such flair, such pizazz, such skill, there always will be unfinished business on the table.
In order to bring Argentina its first World Cup crown in 24 years, Maradona has given Messi free reign to roam the pitches of South Africa, a tactical move aimed at exploiting Messi’s creativity with the ball.
No surprise there. Maradona is one of Messi’s biggest fans, calling him the world’s best player, with apologies to Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
It’s hard to argue with his logic, given the impressive streak Messi had sewn together the past 12 months.
Having not yet reached his 23rd birthday, Messi already has won soccer’s two most prominent individual prizes, capturing both FIFA player-of-the-year honours and the Ballon d’Or as Europe’s top performer in 2009. In the process, he led Barcelona to the coveted triple: winning the Champions League over Manchester United; finishing atop La Liga; and emerging victorious in the Copa del Rey, aka the Spanish Cup.
Messi then embarked on perhaps the most dominant offensive run seen by any player in recent memory, a streak early in 2010 in which he scored 11 goals in five games, including back-to-back hat tricks. No wonder Barcelona manager Josep Guardiola publicly commented that Messi probably was the best player he had ever seen.
But the best was yet to come.
On April 6, with English powerhouse Arsenal paying a visit to Barcelona’s cavernous Camp Nou in the second-leg of a Champions League quarter-final, Messi stole the show, scoring four goals in a game for the first time in his La Liga career. The final score: Lionel Messi 4, Arsenal 1.
Reporters covering the game wrote that the ball appeared to be glued to Messi’s magical feet. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger went one better, comparing Messi to a dominant character in a video soccer game.
“Once he’s on the run, Messi is unstoppable,” Wenger said. “He’s the only player who can change direction at such a pace.
“He is the best player in the world by some distance. He’s (like) a PlayStation. He can take advantage of every mistake we make.”
For those who grew up competing against him during his childhood days in Rosario, nothing has changed. He’s the same old Lionel Messi who used to juke them out of their cleats back home.
“I have friends who played with me when I was a kid in Argentina who tell me they see me play on TV and I play the exact same way as I used to,” Messi said.
Maybe life on the field hasn’t changed much. Off the field, well, that’s a different story.
On more than one occasion in Barcelona, Messi has been spotted on the street by a fan who stopped their car and got out to get his autograph, halting traffic in the process.
Then there was the time in Venezuela when a girl jumped out of the stands just to kiss Messi, who was representing the Argentine national team at the time. When he saw her about to leap down, Messi told her to reconsider. No dice. If Lionel Messi could not be stopped, neither would she.
Yet, through all the notoriety, The Kid has remained humble, never forgetting about the struggles he endured and the odds he overcame to reach this point.
Late in the 2008-09 season, Messi’s two goals propelled visiting Barcelona to a 6-2 thumping of rival Real Madrid right in the Santiago Bernabeu — Real’s worst defeat since 1930. After each of his goals, Messi, pointing at both the fans and the TV cameras, lifted up his Barcelona jersey, revealing a t-shirt that read “Sindrome X Fragil” — Spanish for Fragile X Syndrome — in support of children who suffer from it.
He also is involved with UNICEF, an organization he and his father approached because, in Messi’s words, it was impossible for him to ignore the world’s problems.
In South Africa, behind the glitz and glamour of the World Cup and it’s fancy, multi-million dollar stadiums, those problems — poverty, disease, racial inequity — still fester.
Maybe it’s fitting, then, that The Kid comes to South Africa with a chance to carry Argentina to a World Cup title while helping the host country’s children-in-need at the same time. Should it play out that way, it would be the stuff of which legends are made.
Just ask The Legend, Diego Maradona.
Or those doctors who, all those years ago, predicted he practically would be a midget for the remainder of his life.
Instead, Lionel Messi has become a giant — a 5-foot-7 giant at that — in the beautiful game.
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THE MESSI FILE
Name: Lionel Messi, 22
Club Team: Barcelona
International Resume: 44 caps, 13 goals.
Did you know?: As an 18-year-old, Messi became the youngest player to ever appear in a World Cup game for Argentina when he came on as a substitute during a game against Serbia at the 2006 tournament in Germany.