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WITH HIS TALENTED RIGHT FOOT, Lionel Messi collected the pass. He was standing on the FC Barcelona side of midfield, maybe sixty yards from the net he was determined to score upon.
No one else inside Camp Nou, the famed stadium of the Barcelona Football Club in Spain, shared Lionel’s belief that a goal was possible at that moment. Not any of the tens of thousands of cheering fans. Not any of Barcelona’s coaches. Certainly, none of Barcelona’s opponents, the players on the Getafe Football Club. And not even his teammates could have fathomed it, even though they’d been taught while practicing against Lionel to expect the unexpected.
How could they think a goal was possible? How could anyone? Lionel was by the right sideline in the middle of the field, with two defenders closing quickly on him and another four or five, plus a goalkeeper, waiting between him and the net.
The expected play, the simple play, even the “proper” soccer play, was for Lionel to find an open teammate nearby, then make a short, crisp, accurate pass in an effort to control possession and slowly build an attack.
That isn’t how Lionel Messi played soccer, though. That isn’t what brought him here to Spain, on the other side of the Atlantic from his birthplace of Argentina. That isn’t what made him a budding international star at just nineteen years old, one of the youngest top division players in all of Europe. That isn’t what got him into the starting lineup for Barcelona, or Barça, as its many fans call it, one of the biggest, richest, and winningest clubs in all the world.
From the time he was a small child, pushed by his maternal grandmother, Celia, to play with the older kids in the streets of his native Rosario, Argentina, Lionel had learned to dribble through crowds of outstretched legs and charging defenders.
It wasn’t just his footwork that impressed spectators, although that had always been mesmerizing. Onlookers used to say it appeared as if the ball was stitched to his foot, or at least attached on a string, when he dribbled. The description made sense considering as a kid he’d entertain crowds on a street corner by juggling a ball hundreds of times in a row, tapping it into the air over and over without it ever hitting the ground. He was so good at it, he’d leave a hat out to collect donations. Stunned adults would drop coins or bills into it out of appreciation, with Lionel earning valuable money for his working-class family.
But it was more than physical talent that drove Lionel Messi. It was the way he could, in a flash, think of what to do and where to go to escape a defense and push the ball toward a goal. It was mental. It was creative. It was pure soccer. It seemed impossible.
Especially for a guy who’d been considered undersized his whole life, and told as a young kid that he was too short and too small to be much of a player. At least that is what they said until he whipped by or around or through a defense and scored again. Lionel, as all opponents would learn, even bigger and older ones, was virtually unstoppable. He was this quick, relentless pest, they all agreed.
“La Pulga,” they named him in Argentina.
Lionel had come to Spain at just thirteen years old. In spite of his size, his talent was so intriguing that Barça was willing to spend considerable resources to move him and his family to another continent so he’d play for their youth teams. It’s common for European football clubs to recruit players like Lionel at a young age, signing them to their junior team.
As part of Lionel’s arrangement with Barça, the team paid for the medicine he needed—medicine his parents couldn’t afford—to help him overcome a growth hormone disorder. Without the treatments, Lionel’s doctors in Argentina believed he wouldn’t reach five feet tall, a height that would make a professional soccer career unlikely.
Now, in 2007, facing off against Getafe, he stood five foot seven, still on the shorter side, and presumably not too much of a problem for his defenders. Little did they realize he’d figured out how to turn his height into an advantage. He was quick, with a low center of gravity that allowed him to shift his weight on a dime. While bigger players still tried to muscle him and knock him down, he could often slip out of the way and leave them foolishly grasping at air. He was like a ghost, disappearing into space, usually with the ball.
Those two charging Getafe defenders were about to learn that lesson the hard way, in front of a packed stadium, a television audience, and the now forever replays on YouTube.
He trapped the pass with his right foot and then with his left, lightly flipped the ball into the air and over the probing leg of the first defender. It wasn’t a traditional touch. The ball actually rotated in the air and then, due to all the spin Lionel put on it, magically landed in almost the same spot where it started. That was exactly where Lionel wanted it. As skill moves go, it seemed to defy physics and thus left the defender baffled.
Without hesitation, Lionel slid himself sideways to avoid a collision and then tapped the ball forward and took two steps toward the midfield line. By that point, the other nearby defender was coming in fast, so Lionel flicked it left, not forward … and pushed the ball between the legs of the unsuspecting defender. In soccer, it’s called a nutmeg. It rarely works at the professional level, where everyone is talented and well trained. It was perfectly executed here.
Now Lionel had some open grass in front of him. He dug in and began sprinting down the pitch, still in full control of the ball. The two defenders gave chase, one even had a good angle on him, but Lionel was much too fast to be caught, even though he still had to dribble, which normally slows a player down. The Camp Nou crowd began to murmur and then cheer in anticipation of what was possibly to come. The television announcer’s voice picked up a measure of excitement after the nutmeg.
“Oh, brilliant skill from Lionel Messi,” he said.
Within an instant, Lionel had left the two defenders in the dust, and as he approached the Getafe goal box, two more came up to converge on him and stop the play. Despite traveling forward at full speed, Lionel was able to tap the ball left, past one defender, shift his body left to avoid contact, then tap the ball back right to avoid the next defender while managing to cut forward and charging, with the ball, into the goal box. He’d somehow, someway split through them. Now each of the first four defenders were harmlessly behind him.
But with one more threat avoided, another emerged. Suddenly, the Getafe goalkeeper was barreling toward him, focused on knocking the ball away and slowing the elusive Lionel Messi down. Lionel had other ideas. Inches before crashing into the keeper, he put the ball on his left foot and shimmied his hips as if he were going to move left toward the front of the goal. As the goalkeeper moved that way, Lionel deftly cut back to the right. The goalkeeper flopped on the ground, helpless to stop Lionel.
The crowd was going wild! It was equal parts shock and delight. At this point, Lionel was still just an up-and-coming player with Barça, not the global icon he would become. He had been one of the youngest to ever make the senior team and the youngest at the time to score a goal for Barça.
He was capable of these kinds of amazing runs, but hadn’t yet developed the consistency in scoring that would make him the most productive and dangerous player in the world. Still, he had been considered the future of the club prior to that day. But in that moment, it seemed like the future had finally arrived and become the present.
These flashes of greatness drew comparisons to another soccer star from Argentina, a man named Diego Maradona. Like Lionel, Maradona was short (just five foot five), but had been considered a genius in his day, dribbling the ball and darting through defenders. Maradona, now retired, was hailed, along with the Brazilian Pelé, among the greatest players ever. He had even played for a few seasons with Barcelona and led Argentina to the 1986 FIFA World Cup, where he scored a famous goal that was eerily similar to what Lionel was producing now.
In that match, Maradona had run about sixty-eight yards through six English defenders to score a goal so spectacular it was deemed the “Goal of the 20th Century.” Now here was Lionel, who, like all young Argentine players, had grown up watching and worshipping Diego Maradona, reenacting almost the same play. Lionel had traveled about sixty-five yards, and after getting around the goalie, was being approached in desperation by a sixth Getafe defender.
“Brilliant from Messi,” the announcer said.
Lionel was running out of room at that point, though. The end line was fast approaching and Lionel was still moving swiftly. His angle on the net was poor and growing worse with each heartbeat. That final defender smartly slid to block what he believed would either be a low shot or a cross to the front of the net. If the defender was successful, then all of Lionel’s efforts would go for naught.
Even as a child, though, Lionel had shown an ability to remain calm in the tightest of moments. It could be the final seconds of a tie game. It could be the half second available to decide how to score before losing the opportunity. In his first year with one of his youth teams, he scored one hundred goals … in just thirty games. You don’t do that by panicking.
And so, with no time to spare and little room to make a play, Lionel Messi knew he needed to thread the needle to score. So, he got under the ball just enough to chip it over the defender, but still managed to hit it hard enough so it would fly into the far side of the net.
Goal. Goal! Gooooaaaaallllll!
“Oh, what a goal that is,” the announcer shouted. “Have you seen a better goal than that?”
As Lionel ran to the corner to rejoice, his teammates raced toward him in awe, jumping on him in celebration, amazed by what he’d just done. The Getafe players just stood there, stunned, wondering what they possibly could have done to stop that goal. Truthfully, there was probably nothing. Whatever else they might’ve tried, Lionel likely would have figured out a countermove. Meanwhile, the Barça fans screamed and waved towels and shook one another, like they were trying to wake up from a dream.
“It was the most beautiful goal I have ever seen,” said Deco, one of Lionel’s teammates.
Pretty much everyone agreed, even those who compared it to that famous one Maradona had scored way back in 1986.
“I hope Maradona can forgive me,” said one Barça coach, “but I think Messi’s goal is even better.”
But more than that, it was a major step for Lionel Messi on the road to becoming one of the greatest to ever play the sport.
LIONEL ANDRÉS MESSI was born June 24, 1987, in Rosario, Argentina. His parents, Jorge and Celia, already had two older sons, Rodrigo and Matías. The family would later add a daughter, María. Lionel’s father worked as a supervisor at a local steel plant. His mother had been employed at a coil and magnet factory before quitting to raise the kids.
Argentina is a Spanish-speaking country located in the southern part of South America. It sits along the South Atlantic Ocean. Parts of the country are so far south that ships depart there for Antarctica. The Messi family lived in the Las Heras neighborhood of Rosario, which sits along the Paraná River in the northern part of the country. It counts about 1.2 million residents. Its climate is warm and humid.
The Messis lived in a two-story, concrete home at 448 Lavalleja Street, with a tall metal security fence running along the sidewalk. They were neither poor nor rich by Rosario’s standards, although few in the city had any great wealth.
Like almost everywhere in Rosario, the homes were packed tightly together. There was almost no room for backyards or parks. For fun, kids had to play in a lightly trafficked street or maybe a small abandoned lot. Just about any strip of dirt was used. And most often, that meant playing soccer.
Many of the greatest soccer players of all time were raised in busy South American cities just like Rosario. Pelé, Neymar, and Ronaldinho all came from Brazil. Luis Suárez is from Uruguay. And then there was Maradona, the Argentine legend, who grew up in Lanús, about a three-hour drive from Rosario and just outside Argentina’s capital city of Buenos Aires.
It is said that due to the crowded conditions of street play and the fact that neighborhood games could feature twenty or thirty kids, these players were forced to develop superior foot skills and creativity. With so few fields to play on, and the few that existed mostly being dirt, there was no other way to win than to adapt. You couldn’t just outrun someone. You needed to dribble around them, trick them, fake them out. And even then, another kid would be there waiting to try to steal the ball. Once these players moved to actual regulation pitches, as soccer fields are known, they thrived in the extra room and on the plush grass where the ball rolled true.
Soccer surrounded Lionel from birth. Both his brothers played. So too did Lionel’s cousins who lived close by. His father, Jorge, was a very good player himself, but quit as he became an adult to join the military and provide for his family.
Then there was everyone else in the neighborhood, who were either playing soccer or watching soccer. A chief obsession was the Argentina national team, of course. Lionel was born just one year after its historic 1986 World Cup victory. Maradona was a hero; his image was painted in murals that adorned the sides of buildings all over the country. Lionel dreamed of being beloved like that and winning a victory for his country on soccer’s biggest stage.
At the age of four, Lionel was given a present: his own soccer ball. He became obsessed with it, constantly dribbling and juggling it around his home. Soon he wanted to join the kids and his older brothers in the street, playing soccer. At the time, he was very young, though, and both short and slight for his age. As a child, he would suffer a broken arm, wrist, and leg because he was so tiny. He was nervous to play, but his maternal grandmother, Celia, encouraged him to get out and try. He quickly got over his nerves. Despite being so tiny, he instantly showed skill, dribbling around older kids and slipping passes and shots through more experienced players.
As he got older, Lionel wanted to do little else other than play soccer. He played in the neighborhood. He played inside his house. When he would walk to the store to run an errand, he would bring his ball and dribble it.
“From then on it was the only present I ever wanted, Christmas, birthday or whatever: a ball,” Lionel told Goal.com years later.
When Lionel was four years old, his older brothers played for a small local youth club named Grandoli. Rodrigo was seven years older and Matías five years older than Lionel. Grandoli wasn’t a particularly good team. It played and practiced on a beaten-up, mostly dirt pitch. It was not too far from the Messis’ home, though. Both of his brothers were promising players, but the team still struggled and was often disorganized. It was youth soccer, something closer to the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), or rec soccer, in America, than to a more competitive environment like a travel team.
One day, Lionel tagged along to his brother’s practice with his mother and grandmother. Grandoli had teams in different age groups, and while Lionel’s brothers trained on one pitch, a game was about to begin on a different field featuring kids who were six and seven years old. That Grandoli team was down a player, and the coach, Salvador Aparicio, was trying to figure out what to do. That’s when he spied Lionel.
Copyright © 2019 by Dan Wetzel. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Jay Reed