Meeting the world’s greatest player is a disarming experience. You half expect Lionel Messi to dominate a room in the same way his talent dominates a football pitch. Instead, he ghosts in: quiet, self-effacing, comfortable in his own skin. The afternoon I sat down with him at the Nou Camp – I was working on a book about football and childhood at the time I was running late, busy with another Barcelona player. Messi didn’t even let me know he was waiting. He just waited. Afterwards, while we talked, he didn’t once look at his watch or give any sense that he was a man in a hurry. Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised: after all, we were remembering some of the best years of his life.
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He’s growing up, of course on and off the pitch: he and his partner, Antonella, are expecting their second child this summer and his goal against Atletico sealed Barcelona’s 23rd La Liga title this season. But, without question, the boy we talked about for my book is the key to the man – and the footballer – Messi has become. Here, in his own words, are his childhood memories:
“I was born in Rosario, the biggest city in Santa Fe province. We lived in a nice, ordinary house in a neighbourhood in the south of the city called Barrio Las Heras. It’s still my barrio. We have the same house – although we’ve done it up since I was a boy – and I always go home to visit when I can and still see lots of the same friends. Family, too: I have five older brothers and cousins and we all still remember getting together to play football every weekend, amongst ourselves or against other little teams of boys.
I got given my first football when I was very young: three, maybe, or four. It was a present and from then on it was the only present I ever wanted, Christmas, birthday or whatever: a ball. At first, I used to collect them. I didn’t want to take them out in the street in case they burst or got damaged. After a while, though, I started taking them outside and actually playing football with them!
There was green around the house but no garden to play football in. There was an abandoned military base nearby, called Batallon, which had some pitches and sometimes we’d sneak in there for a game through a gap in the fence. But usually, playing football meant playing in the street, outside my house or anywhere else in the neighbourhood where there was a game going on. In those days the road was unpaved, just dried earth. It wasn’t the best of neighbourhoods but it was the kind of neighbourhood where everybody knew everybody and we were out in front of our houses, so my mum wasn’t worried about me.
I started playing when I was five. At first, I wasn’t always allowed to play with the bigger boys but that changed as I got older. It’s funny: sometimes my older brothers didn’t want me to join in those games in the street.
That wasn’t just because I was small. They said it was because they were playing against older boys. The thing was that the other boys wouldn’t be able to get the ball off me: my brothers were worried that I would end up getting kicked or that something bad might happen to me if the other boys got angry. I don’t really remember that but it’s what my brothers have told me since.
Almost at the same time as I started playing football in the street, I joined our little local club, Grandoli. In fact, it wasn’t just me: the whole family was involved at the club; all of us played there at different age levels and my dad was one of the coaches. We used to spend the whole of Sunday at Grandoli because we would have a member of the family playing in every different age category, from me through to my uncle in the senior team. We’d be there all day!
When I started, we were playing in a sevena- side league, against other little teams from the southern neighbourhoods of Rosario. I only got the chance to play as young as I did because of my grandmother. Grandoli didn’t have a team for boys as young as me but, one Sunday, an older boy didn’t turn up for his game and my grandmother pushed me forward to play. The coach wasn’t keen at first but he let me play in the end.
That first game for Grandoli was with older boys. When it came to training with boys my own age, my dad was our coach. By then, I was playing every hour of every day that I could. I’d go to school, come home and, straight away, go out with a ball. Then I might go training at Grandoli, come home, have something to eat and then be back out in the street again. I was always out in the street. And always playing football. I even kept a ball with me when I was indoors! My brothers didn’t have to worry any more: the other kids in the neighbourhood sort of looked after me. They got to know me, got to know what I was like and how I played football. By the time I was eight or nine, I didn’t have to be afraid of being kicked by anybody. I could just play.
You know, I never really had any players who were heroes for me. Like all Argentinians, I admired Maradona. I remember watching videos of him playing for Boca. And I remember that I used to enjoy watching Pablo Aimar play when he first came through. But there wasn’t anybody who was an idol for me as a boy. I grew up with my brother and my cousins, playing in the street. I watched and learnt things from there and, when it came to playing matches, my dad used to say things afterwards about how I’d done. I thought he was nagging me, really! My family have guided me in my life, but in playing football? Sincerely, the truth is: no. I’ve always just done what seemed to come naturally. And haven’t had to think about it.
“I was always out in the street. And always playing football. I even kept a ball with me when I was indoors”
These days, I don’t watch a lot of football and don’t really follow it so much but, back then, I used to go to games all the time. With my dad and my cousins and uncles, we’d go to watch Newell’s Old Boys, one of the two big professional teams in Rosario. I guess we were fans then! When I was young, I think that being a footballer was what I always wanted to do, although it was a dream. I never imagined it would come true and, of course, I never imagined the way in which it would come true. As a boy, I just played because I loved the game but, in the back of my mind, there was a dream of playing professionally, of some day being able to play on the pitch at Newell’s where we all used to watch games together.
After a year and a half at Grandoli, I started training with Newell’s, too; also seven-a-side, but we played in a more competitive league. Newell’s was a much bigger club and my last year there gave me my first experience of playing eleven-a-side on a full-sized pitch. It was also at Newell’s that I first went to see a doctor about being small. I had always been smaller than other boys of my age but it didn’t really worry me when it came to football. Perhaps at the start of a game I could tell that other boys were looking at me and that made me feel uncomfortable but, once we kicked off, they saw how I played and there’d be no problems after that! So I never thought of it as something to worry about.
Newell’s sent me to a clinic where they did all sorts of tests and the doctor told us that I had a dormant hormone. I was growing but much more slowly than was usual. The doctor said I needed a treatment that would wake that hormone up so I’d begin to grow at the same rate as other kids. I was eleven, maybe twelve, when I started the hormone treatment. I had it for a year in Argentina, which my dad paid for. Then, when I came over to Europe, Barcelona already knew all about it and they took over the cost of it, although that’s obviously not what made me come here.
I was still a boy, thirteen years old, when I came over to Spain. Dad came over first to find out about things and then, in September I think, I came over for a trial for 15 days. We went back to Argentina and then, in February, we all came – the whole family – and I started at the Nou Camp. It was a fantastic thing and what I wanted to do. But it was strange, too. And difficult: there was nothing here that I was used to from my life back at home; no playing in the street, none of our little football matches, the picaditos. And the boys I was meeting and training with had very different customs; they’d all been brought up in a very different way. The most obvious thing was that, here in Barcelona, I couldn’t just run out of the house, meet up with my mates and start a game! I still feel completely Argentinian, you know, in my habits and way of living – I still have drink mate, an Argentinian drink made with dried herbs – even though I feel very comfortable in Barcelona because I’ve been here so long.
Maybe one thing I brought with me from Argentina was hating to lose! Hating to lose at anything. At everything. I’m always ‘heated up’ on the pitch: we call it calenton. Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve never liked losing. I’ve got a feeling that sometimes, when I was playing football in the street with my brother and his friends, they’d lose a game on purpose. They’d let me win because they knew that, if they didn’t, there’d be trouble. It’s a different mentality, perhaps. I remember when I first got here, when I was 13, and we played little matches in training: I hated losing but I’d see local kids who’d lose and it didn’t seem to bother them. I just couldn’t understand that!
I still go home to Rosario every Christmas and summer and when the national team plays. I still see lots of friends from my barrio, although it’s different for the kids there now. Even in Argentina, people are worried about their kids’ safety and so you don’t see so many picaditos in the street any more. Thinking back, I suppose I missed out on some of the experiences of childhood, back at home and after I came over to Europe: friends would come by and say we’re going out and I would say I couldn’t because I had a match the next day. But I don’t regret it because it’s what I wanted. I’m happy because, more than anything, I love playing football. And it’s been like that since I was very young. I enjoy playing: it’s not something that feels like a job. It still feels like fun, like it did when I was a very small boy.