Simply the best?
Lionel Messi has emerged as a global superstar, enhancing his reputation still further with his five-goal Champions League haul. Peter Fraser charts the young Argentine's career.
Last Updated: 15/03/12 11:48am
Gardel. It is a name often used in the city of Rosario, which sits on the banks of the Parana River in Argentina's Santa Fe province. The reference is South American slang that translates simply to legend.
Carlos Gardel was a much-acclaimed tango singer in the 1930s and he has since become synonymous with expertise, unparalleled skill and fame to such an extent that his surname has become a marker.
In this case, the adulation refers to arguably the standout Rosarino in history, Lionel Andres Messi.
From his home to Barcelona; from street football to Ballon d'Or; from Leo to Gardel. How did a humble, young Argentine become the greatest on the planet?
A star is born
Messi was born on 24th June 1987 as the third child of the Messi-Cuccittini family, meaning he is now 23 years old. His mother, Celia, and father, Jorge, brought their third son into an Argentina that was on the brink of civil war and economic crisis. Times were hard, but that did not stop the Messi parents, who later had another child, a daughter, providing full affection for their offspring and forming an incredibly strong and loving family bond which remains to this day.
The early years
In the impoverished South America, Messi did not have the facilities to play football which may be accustomed in Europe. Foot-tennis on the streets of Rosario therefore emerged as a passion and he would often be found playing from daybreak, honing the left-footed, tight control and impeccable balance that are now trademarks. Messi was a small child, who was later to be diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency (GHD), but that nurtured a competitive instinct and helped to develop his phenomenal low centre of gravity, agility, bravery and explosive speed, which earned the nickname of 'Flea'. His maternal grandmother, also named Celia, was the insistent force behind his childhood football and she persistently nagged junior clubs to allow her grandson to train.
Managers were deterred by Messi's low height, but eventually Celia's requests were answered and he was allowed to practise with Grandoli on the tattered outskirts of Rosario. Messi's first match came in 1992 when he played for the 1986 age-group, one year his senior, because a player did not turn up. It is hard to imagine today that the world's best player got his break as a child thanks to fortune. The five-year-old dazzled at Grandoli, where his father occupied a coaching role, and after two years Rosario's most famous club and the side Messi supports, Newell's Old Boys, were paying interest.
Messi became a child marvel in Newell's youth ranks under the coaching of Adrian Coria and by the age of 13 word of his talent had spread around the globe. It was during this time that the youngster was diagnosed with GHD, however, European heavyweights Barcelona were undeterred and offered a trial and on 16th September 2000 he travelled across the Atlantic to Spain. Unsurprisingly, the scouts were impressed in Catalonia, although Messi's chronic shyness and almost mute personality were also noted. Barcelona offered an initial agreement, which was famously signed by his father on a napkin in the restaurant of the Pompey Real Tennis Society in the Montjuic district of the city, prior to an official contract.
The Messi family moved to Spain on 15th February 2001. Despite the Italian roots of the family, the first months in Europe were marred by social and administrative problems, and Lionel's injuries. Messi was at a crossroads and was offered the chance to go home to Argentina. But his determined personality shone through and eventually it was only mother Celia and three of her children who returned to South America, while a single-minded Lionel and father Jorge remained in Barcelona. An official transfer from Newell's was completed on 17th February 2002, with rumours that his new club were prepared to pay for the regular, and medically controversial, injections required to treat GHD.
In the beginning
After impressing among Barcelona's youth ranks, alongside the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique, Messi made his first-team debut as a 16-year-old on 16th November 2003 in a friendly against Porto in the inauguration of Estadio do Dragao. He then made his Primera Liga debut on 16th October 2004 at Espanyol before scoring his first goal for his club on 1st May 2005 against Albacete at Camp Nou, two months prior to his 18th birthday. In between that, Messi was displaying calling-card willpower and was beginning to force his way into the first team on a more regular basis.
He played in the UEFA Champions League and made seven league appearances in the 2004/05 season to give a measure of his emergence. But the start of Messi's 2005/06 campaign was stalled by issues surrounding his naturalisation in Spain and he was ineligible to play in the Primera Liga for the first five matches before securing the required clearance in September 2005. Life had been a constant battle for Messi and that perhaps explains his focused mindset.
It was now that worldwide superstar status was beginning to beckon. In the June and July of 2005, Argentina had lifted the Under 20 World Cup and, despite the "I am undoubtedly better than Messi" claims of Hugo Rodallega after the now-Wigan striker topped the goalscoring charts in qualifying, our man illuminated the tournament and scored two penalties in the final. Messi, still a teenager, was beginning to show a maturity beyond his years and there were also early signs of his dedication to his team-mates and sober attitude in the face of the adulation, which was labelled Messi-mania. After the off-field problems at the start of the 2005/06 season, the teenager was finding his confidence on the field.
He truly made his mark on an English audience in the Champions League last-16 tie against Chelsea. Messi was infamously involved in the red card of Asier del Horno in the first leg, however, he also dictated the match at Stamford Bridge. Barcelona went on to win the competition, but their emerging icon was watching from the stands as Arsenal were defeated in the final in Paris, having suffered a hamstring tear in the return meeting with Chelsea.The campaign ended with the 2006 World Cup in Germany, but for Messi, who had previously been sent off two minutes after coming off the bench in his Argentina senior-team debut in a friendly against Hungary on 17th August 2005, it was to be a developing trend of disappointment with his country. He featured in the early stages of the finals, however, he was left as an unused substitute when Argentina were eliminated by Germany on penalties in the quarter-finals.
Messi v Maradona
Comparisons with Diego Maradona were inevitable. For the world, Maradona is a point of reference and many players, including Pablo Aimar and Juan Roman Riquelme, have failed to live up to the tag of becoming the next Maradona. But Messi appeared to show all the qualities to provide Argentines with a new emblem. A soloist, stature, speed, skill, a South American heart with a European head; all the factors seemed to be in place. A mesmeric hat-trick salvaged a draw with El Clasico foes Real Madrid in March 2007 and the speculation only increased when Messi scored arguably the greatest goal of his professional career on 18th April against Getafe. After collecting the ball from Xavi inside his own half in the semi-finals of the Copa del Rey at Camp Nou, the 19-year-old jinked past four opponents and the goalkeeper to slot a sensational, and rare, right-footed goal.
The similarities to Maradona's moment of brilliance against England at the 1986 World Cup could not be ignored and Spanish newspapers labelled Messi's strike as 'The Foot of God'. A handball goal against Espanyol on 9th June only added to the echoes of 1986. The season ended with the 2007 Copa America, but, despite a wonder-goal chip against Mexico in the semi-finals, it was again to be international frustration as Brazil hammered fierce rivals Argentina 3-0 in the final.
A year to remember
Messi continued to reinforce his reputation in 2007/08, although he was disrupted for six weeks by a thigh injury sustained against Celtic. But the 2008/09 season was when he stood on a pedestal. An unusual high with Argentina was sampled at the beginning of the campaign when the nation won gold at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and an unbelievable haul of trophies was to follow at club level.
The promotion to Barcelona manager of Pep Guardiola as successor to Frank Rijkaard and the departure of Ronaldinho saw Messi inherit his club's famed No.10 shirt. He took the opportunity with both hands. Inspired by their Argentine wizard, Barcelona became the first Spanish club to win the Treble, lifting the Primera Liga title, Copa del Rey and defeating Manchester United, with Messi on the scoresheet, in the Champions League final in Rome.
The Spanish Super Cup and European Super Cup were to follow and in December 2009 Guardiola's team collected an unprecedented sixth trophy of the year by overcoming Estudiantes de La Plata in the final of the Club World Cup. Messi's phenomenal contribution did not go unnoticed. Having narrowly missed out the previous season, he beat Cristiano Ronaldo to the 2009 Ballon d'Or with ease and the World Player of the Year title also came his way. The incredibly humble Messi insisted that the trophies won by Barcelona took precedence over his personal accolades, only adding to the affection with which he was held in fans' minds.
What the future holds...
Another league title followed in 2009/10, while the Spanish Super Cup was also retained. But the Champions League semi-finals brought disappointment against Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan and the World Cup was another moment to rue for Messi, as he, along with the likes of Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo, failed to live up to his star billing in South Africa.
It has been accused in South America that Argentina's emerald does not care about playing for his country after leaving at such a young age. It is a suggestion he fiercely refutes. The comparisons with Maradona, his manager at the World Cup, will continue, but it is not until Messi has lifted a trophy on the international stage that all of his critics will be silenced.
But at club level he continues to carry all before him, winning the Champions League at Wembley in 2011 and picking up the man-of-the-match award in the 3-1 win over Manchester United.