That it fell to Barcelona’s Lionel Messi to score the match-winning goal away to arch-rivals Real Madrid on Sunday was of little surprise to his legions of devotees, who already view the diminutive Argentinian as something of an immortal giant on the football field, and even to casual fans.
El Clasico – the lyrical Spanish name for matches played between the two powerhouses of the country’s domestic game – was played out in front of a majority Madrid crowd who were hoping that their own footballing prince, Portuguese poster boy Cristiano Ronaldo, would cut the 1.7-metre-tall Messi down to size. But it was Messi who stole the show – blowing the Spanish La Liga title race wide open and bagging his 500th Barcelona goal to boot in the 3-2 victory.
His astonishing goal return was reached in just 577 senior games – vindicating former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola’s decision to move the South American from the right wing to a more central role in 2009. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner’s performance in Real Madrid’s Bernabeu stadium was all the sweeter given speculation concerning his continuing travails with Argentina, his topsy-turvy performances in Barcelona’s failed Champions League campaign and his forthcoming 30th birthday – a major career milestone for any professional footballer. Yet grabbing two goals – including that match-winner – swiftly put paid to any thoughts of a Messi decline.
He was born Lionel Andrés Messi on June 24, 1987, in the Argentinian city of Rosario – the birthplace of revolutionary Che Guevara. Though noticeably smaller than most boys of the same age, Messi was a determined individual, joining his two older brothers when they played football with friends. Signed to the youth system of Rosario-based club Newell’s Old Boys at 6 years old, his height soon came to the attention of doctors, who diagnosed him with a hormone deficiency. His parents decided to give Messi a nightly growth-hormone injection – but the medication was an expensive outlay.
When his footballing skills came to the attention of Barcelona at the age of 13, and he was offered the chance to uproot to the Spanish coastal city and become part of the team’s youth system, the Messi family packed their bags for Europe. There, after an informal Barcelona contract was hurriedly signed on a paper napkin, the Catalan club paid for Messi’s medical treatment – and the quiet, reserved boy quickly made his name, despite suffering from homesickness.
At 16, he made his debut for the first team, in a friendly match against Porto, and soon became the youngest player to score in La Liga. Despite his small stature, fans quickly took to the Argentinian of Italian and Spanish descent. He was strong, precise and could dribble his way through a packed opposition defence. Comparisons with his countryman Diego Maradona – also small in stature and blessed with a similar genius skill set that saw him lead Argentina to victory in the 1986 World Cup – became all the rage.
After receiving Spanish citizenship in 2005, the little pocket dynamo didn’t look back. Playing a major part in eight La Liga and four Champions League titles has come interspersed with numerous personal awards and accolades, including for Best Player at the 2015 Globe Soccer Awards in Dubai, which he personally attended. His Ballon d’Or triumphs – marking him out as best player in the world – have been all the more remarkable given the level of competition, not least from the aforementioned Ronaldo.
Yet his life has not been limited to his on-the-field performances, with activism taking up much of his non-playing time. In 2007, and in response to his own medical struggles as a child, he established the Leo Messi Foundation for underprivileged youths. The foundation recently announced that it would be supporting the campaign to fight hepatitis C, and in February this year, Messi visited Egypt to promote treatment for the blood-borne disease, which is highly prevalent in the country.
In 2010, the devout Catholic was appointed a Unicef goodwill ambassador. In this role, he has not shied away from making his feelings known, especially concerning the Middle East’s various conflicts. In 2014, he spoke up for the Palestinian children caught up in the fighting between Israel and Palestine, when he said on Facebook that “children did not create this conflict, but they are paying the ultimate price”. In March this year, he spoke again on Facebook of being “heartbroken” on witnessing the continuing conflicts in Syria and the suffering of the country’s young. Children – not just from Spain, but from across the world – make up a sizeable proportion of his fan base. In December last year, he demonstrated a big heart when he met a delighted young Afghan boy at match in Doha. The boy had become an internet sensation after posing with a homemade shirt made out of a plastic bag with the scrawled words “Messi 10”.
Success on and off the field has not meant a life without troubles, however. His international appearances – despite his gold-medal triumph in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing with Argentina – have not led to the country lifting a Fifa World Cup, despite reaching the final in 2014, and many observers say that his country’s supporters don’t give him the respect he deserves. Indeed, last year, he retired from international duty after missing in a penalty shoot-out in the Copa America final defeat to Chile, only to reverse his decision within two months citing his “love of the country”.
Messi, who frequently raises both arms to the sky after he scores as a tribute to his late grandmother, has also been dogged by financial impropriety. In July last year, both Messi and his father were given a 21-month suspended prison sentence and fined millions of euros by a Catalan court for tax fraud involving endorsement earnings.
With only one year left on his current Barca contract, the wealthy father-of-two, described variously as “a miracle from God” and the “Mozart of football” by fellow professionals, is expected to sign a new deal soon. And with some years left to strut his stuff on the football field, Messi’s stock will likely remain sky-high. But while the likes of his court case reveal him as an Icarus-like figure that could be felled by his own global stardom and ambition, there’s little sign right now that his ever-soaring wings will melt away in the sun of an astonishing career any time soon.
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