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Short and Successful

Posted 11/18/2022 by Ben Hartley

A young Lionel Messi juggles a soccer ball on the grounds of FC Barcelona. photo courtesy of the Associated Press

A look into Lionel Messi’s path to becoming arguably the greatest soccer player in history.

Although soccer is the world’s most popular sport, it is one of the lowest scoring athletic competitions out there. Regardless, players such as Lionel Messi have been able to defy the nature of the sport by reaching nearly impossible statistics. So far, Messi has amassed 785 goals and 346 assists across his 994 career appearances, not even including club friendlies, matches that don’t have any effect on a teams standings in their league. While these numbers alone are very impressive, it is his upbringing that make Messi’s accomplishments most notable. 

Messi was born on June 24, 1987, in Rosario, Argentina. From a very young age, he was always surrounded by a rich culture of soccer. After all, Messi’s native country, Argentina, was home to arguably the greatest soccer player to come before him, Diego Maradona. In reference to Messi, Maradona was once quoted saying, “I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi. Messi is a genius, and he can become an even better player. His potential is limitless, and I think he’s got everything it takes to become Argentina’s greatest player.” In reaching this level of recognition, Messi was greatly supported by his family. He grew up playing with his older brothers, Matias and Rodrigo, as well as their friends. Similarly to the present, Messi was never scared of going up against bigger players. No matter the size of his opponent, it was hard to steal the ball from him because it was practically glued to his feet. Messi’s mother, Celia Cuccittini, worked as a cleaner, while his father, Jorge Messi, was a steel factory manager. Messi’s love for the sport can be partially credited to his father. When Messi officially began his career at just five years old, he played for a club called Grandoli that was coached by his father. 

In 1995, Messi joined the youth ranks of his local football club, Newell’s Old Boys. It was there that he began to gather global attention. His short stature did not stop him from dribbling past the best defenders he played. However, when Messi was just eleven years old doctors diagnosed him with a congenital condition called Growth Hormone Disorder (GHD). This is a deficiency that occurs when the pituitary gland in the brain is not capable of producing enough growth hormone to stimulate proper growth and development. While the disorder prevents growth in adolescents, the side effects in adults may include poor bone density and reduced muscle mass, as well as mental and emotional symptoms such as fatigue, depression, and poor memory. GHD can be treated through daily subcutaneous injections of synthetic human growth hormone. Patients with GHD typically administer these shots to themselves at home shortly before going to sleep at night. When Messi was first diagnosed at age eleven, he stood approximately four feet and two inches tall. At the time of his diagnosis, Messi’s family was incapable of paying the monthly $1000 required for the treatment. Fortunately for Messi, his talent on the soccer field would end up paying for his medication. 

In the year 2000, just eleven days before Christmas, thirteen year old Messi received the biggest gift of his life. He was offered a contract to play for FC Barcelona, one of the most prestigious clubs in the world. In addition to giving him the chance to play for the club, FCB also offered to pay for the synthetic hormones Messi required to grow. Just three months before receiving the contract, the technical secretary of FCB, Carles Rexach, arranged for Messi and his family to make the trip from South America all the way to Catalonia. During this trip, Messi impressed many coaches with his talents, but they were hesitant to sign him because he was very short and still quite young. Everything changed, however, when Rexach saw Messi playing in the flesh for the first time. A game had been arranged between players of FCB’s youth teams; a chance for Messi to demonstrate his potential for superstardom. In a moment of reflection, Rexach stated to ESPN, “What I will never forgot is that a walk of three to four minutes, whatever it takes to walk around the pitch, took me 15 minutes because I was stunned and excited watching him (Messi), seeing what he did with the ball, his movements, his dribbles and his vision. I knew that was him, without anyone telling me, because he was the smallest on the pitch by a long way and I could see something very different in him.” Before receiving the contract, Messi’s father began to grow anxious at the prospect of FCB not signing his son. Rexach soon realized that he would have to act fast if he hoped to sign Messi, for the boy’s talent began conjuring the attention of other Spanish clubs such as Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid. 

On December 14, 2000, Rexach eased the nerves of Jorge Messi by jotting Messi’s first contract onto a napkin inside of the Club de Tennis Pompeia cafeteria. The napkin, still preserved in the Andorran bank to this day, reads the following: “In Barcelona, on 14 December 2000 in the presence of Messi’s Minguella (agent) and Horacio Gaggioli, Carles Rexach, Director Football of F.C.B., hereby agrees, under his responsibility and regardless of any dissenting opinions, to sign the player Lionel Messi, provided that we keep to the amounts agreed upon.” One of the men who signed off on this contract was Josep Minguella, Messi’s agent at the time. It was Minguella who delivered the news of the signing to the Messi family who were then staying at the Plaza Hotel in the city of Barcelona. This story marks the beginning of Messi’s successful career with the club. It was not until Lionel was thirty-four years old that he stopped playing for FCB and transferred to the French powerhouse, Paris Saint-Germain F.C. 

Although Messi has won four Champions League titles and ten La Liga (Spanish League) titles with FC Barcelona alone, he still has yet to win a World Cup with the Argentinian National team. Messi has made four appearances in World Cup tournaments since his first one in 2006, yet he has fallen short of winning each time. In the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, the Argentinian national team, captained by Messi, painstakingly lost to Germany in the final with a score of 0-1. The 2022 FIFA World Cup kicks off in Qatar on November 20th, marking one final chance for Messi to carry a trophy around the streets of his native country. In an interview with ESPN, Messi was quoted saying, “Surely, this will be my final World Cup. I am counting down the days until the World cup. The truth is, there’s a little anxiety, ‘Well, we’re here, what’s going to happen? It’s my last one, how’s it going to go?’ On one hand, I can’t wait for it to arrive, but I’m also desperate for it to go well.” It will certainly be interesting to see how this year’s World Cup will play out. While it will be difficult for Argentina to win out over tough competitors such as England, France, and Brasil, a win would solidify Messi’s legacy as the greatest player to ever touch a soccer ball.