Wednesday 21 November 2018

Rosario. The Old Coach and the Kid

Jrôme Cazadieu, Alexandre Juillard and Frdric Traïni

In a photo session, Lionel Messi is a little like he is in a game of football. As soon as you start snapping, "Leo," Argentina's tricky midfield maestro, unexpectedly bounds over to the table and sits down to start the interview.

Slightly vexed, the photographer puts away his equipment while a few metres away in the press room overlooking the Nou Camp pitch, Messi, his face a picture of concentration, talks quickly, in short, staccato bursts. It's as if he's imitating his all-action playing style. As a result, the interview is over in a mere 25 minutes.

Typically, his answers are very much to the point.

That's Lionel Messi's style. He is obsessed by every aspect of football from the changing rooms to the pitch, but seems to show little interest in what goes on around it. And he is unwilling to talk expansively about his life.

His life? The story of a young genius who was diagnosed with dwarfism at the age of 10, but who became a giant of the soccer scene a decade later thanks to effective medical treatment and an iron will. From Grandoli, a suburb in the Argentinian city of Rosario, to the labyrinth that is the Nou Camp, in Barcelona, we followed the personal and professional journey of one of the favourites - along with Cristiano Ronaldo - for France Football's Ballon d'Or which will be announced tomorrow.

Rosario. The Old Coach and the Kid

We are in the south side of the capital of the province of Santa Fe, a three-hour car ride from Buenos Aires. The pitch in the local barrio looks exactly the same as it did when Messi first graced it with his presence. A bumpy surface adorned with a few forlorn-looking clumps of grass with an unassuming concrete stand along one side.

It was while standing in front of this stand in 1991 that Salvador Aparicio saw the young prodigy for the first time. "I noticed a little lad kicking a ball against the wall," Aparicio says. Now 79 years old, he is the living memory of Grandoli.

Looking for a player to make up the numbers for a friendly game between two teams of five-year-olds, Aparicio thought that he had found the answer in the young Messi. As luck would have it, Aparicio knew Messi's family well. They lived only a few blocks away from the club. Aparicio had already coached Lionel's two older brothers, Rodrigo and Matias. He asked Celia Messi, Leo's mother, if her son would like to join.

The coach takes up the story: "She said: 'No, no, he's no good at football, and, anyway, he's too small.' Lionel's grandmother was there, and she said to her daughter, 'Go on, let him play, it can't do any harm.' In the end, Lionel's mum gave in. To make her happy, I said, 'I'll put him out on the right wing, near the stand, close to you, so that if he hurts himself and starts crying, he'll be close to you'."

Although he has forgotten the details, Messi still remembers the incident. "Without my grandmother, I wouldn't have been able to start playing so young," he said, laconically. "She was 100pc behind her grandson."

The match kicked off. The second time he got the ball, Messi started going passed the opposing team's players as if they weren't there. "I was gobsmacked," says Aparicio. "It was if he had been playing football all his life."

The legend of Lionel Messi was born. El Enano ("The Dwarf") -- his nickname at the time -- was snapped up by Newell's Old Boys, one of Rosario's two professional clubs. Aged 6, Messi was joining the club who had provided more players for the Argentina national team than any other.

However, in spite of its glorious achievements, Newell's Old Boys' facilities were relatively modest: two mini-pitches and only four full-sized ones, all of which had seen better days.

Rosario. A Young Lad at the 'Old Boys'

Carlos Morales, who coached Messi for four years, still remembers the virtuoso skills of his protege and the successes of his age-group team, known as Máquina 87 ("Machine 87"). "Leo didn't talk much but he was very disciplined and a good listener. It was pretty hard to imagine back then that he would achieve what he has.

"We knew that he was immensely talented but we were worried that the fact that he was so small would prevent him turning pro." Aged 10, El Pulga ("The Flea") was 1.25 metres tall, 10cm less than average. The Newell's establishment didn't immediately consider his size a handicap.

When the first team played at home, Messi was invited to come on at the half-time break and demonstrate his skills to the crowd. It was like a ritual. Leo came into Coloso Stadium playing keepy-uppy, then made his way up the stairs leading to the pitch with the ball still at his feet. Then, still playing keepy-uppy, he would proceed to the centre circle and continue until the professional players came back out. The fans thought that they were being entertained by a circus dwarf. Surely a boy of 10 couldn't be that good.

But when Christmas 1996 came around, the life of the Messi family was turned upside down. The directors of Newell's Old Boys suggested that Lionel and his family meet for a consultation with Doctor Diego Schwarstein, a leading endocrinologist. On January 31, 1997, Lionel and his father, Jorge, went to see the specialist in his office in Rosario. They agreed that Leo should undergo a year-long battery of tests to ascertain how best to treat his condition.

"He was suffering from a growth hormone deficit. Partial, not total. We were therefore able to devise a treatment involving injections of a biosynthetic growth hormone that would palliate the situation," the doctor recalled. Messi began the treatment in January 1998. El Pulga injected the hormone every day.

"He often came round to my house," says Lucas Scaglia, a member of the Máquina 87 team and a close friend of Lionel. "Whenever he was staying the night, he took his box of tricks with him. He put it in the fridge as soon as he arrived. At some point during the evening he would go to the kitchen, inject a dose, and come back as if it was totally normal. To be honest, I don't think he ever found it traumatic in any way."

"It was like cleaning my teeth," Messi says. "In the beginning, when people saw me doing my injections, they asked what was going on. But they eventually got used to it. It wasn't really a chore and I knew it was important for my future. And I was responsible. Especially about anything having to do with football."

The only problem was that the treatment was very expensive. "Between $1,000 and 1,500 a month," said Dr Schwarzstein. For two years, Argentinian Social Services, Jorge Messi's insurance company, and Acindar, one of the country's biggest steel companies, where Jorge worked as a supervisor in the barbed wire department, covered the costs between them.

But, only a few months later after the treatment had started, Argentina's economy, which was already in difficulty, collapsed. According to Jorge Messi, the economic crisis and the lack of financial aid from Newell's Old Boys were the main reasons behind Lionel's Spanish exile.

"Thanks to my insurance company and to Acindar, I was able to meet the costs of Lionel's treatment. But with the economic collapse and with four children to feed with a single salary, things were getting difficult.

"The directors at Newell's had told us at the beginning of the treatment that they were going to help us out, but they did practically nothing. Mr Almiron (president of the club at the time) sent us 200 pesos. Six months later he sent another 200. (The dollar was pegged to the US dollar). So, really, we had no choice but to leave."

Sergio Almiron, who is currently Newell's Old Boys sporting director, contests this version of events. To prove that the club never forgot Leo, he opens a safe and takes out the receipts demonstrating that payments were indeed made to the Messi family. "We couldn't cover all the costs of the treatment as they request we should," said Almiron, happy at last to be able to talk about the issue to a journalist. "So we sent them what we could on a monthly basis. The amounts varied."

Carlos Morales, Leo's former coach, is also unhappy with the Messis. He remembers the way they left for Barcelona in December 2000. "The young lad disappeared for about three weeks. His parents said he had pneumonia. In fact, Jorge and Leo had gone to Spain to try their luck at Barcelona. We only found out afterwards. We never saw him again.

"Today, I'm angry with them because they've never acknowledged what our club did for them in any way."

The only other member of the family in Argentina we were able to talk to was Leo's uncle, Claudio Bianccuchi. His version of events is closer to that of his brother-in-law, Jorge. "The only reason Newell's, a club we all support, are complaining now is that they lost out on a world-class player."

Barcelona. The Improbable Contract

The massive stone building is dwarfed by the Nou Camp which stands opposite. Sitting at their desks, kids in the football, basketball and ice hockey academies listen to the teacher in silence. It's here, next door to the IT room, that Lionel Messi followed courses -- between 2001 and 2004 -- adapted to his existence as a young footballer.

"The best years of my life," said the young Argentinian prodigy. "I was in the same year as Cesc Fabregas. Our entire life revolved around football. When we weren't training we played video games together in his room."

Lionel knows the Nou Camp neighbourhood like the back of his hand. His fate was decided the moment he set foot in Catalonia. Josep Maria Minguella, who was Barca's leading agent when Johann Cruyff was managing the club back in the 1980s and 1990s, tells the story. "I didn't usually recommend such young players to Barca," explains the sturdy, thickset Minguella.

"But both my business partners in Argentina were going on and on about this phenomenal player. After they eventually convinced me, it was my turn to hassle the people at Barca into giving him a trial." Jorge and Lionel were invited to the Rallye Hotel, where the club had booked them a spacious room.

"We tried to evaluate his potential as quickly as possible," explains Carlos Rexach, the then sporting director at Barcelona. "In the beginning, he didn't get the ball much. So we waited for two weeks until the end of his trial period to give him a game.

"I turned up to watch and after only three minutes, the time it takes me to walk around the pitch, I could see that he was a small but spectacular player, who was quicker than anyone else. I said to myself: 'We're having him.' There was no way we were going to miss out on such an outstanding talent."

Barca kept Lionel and his father on tenterhooks for further two weeks. "We had to make sure that he was up to the challenge psychologically," Rexach said. "That he wasn't going to become an alcoholic when his family went back to Argentina."

The club put Leo through a series of physical tests designed to evaluate his growth problems. The results were reassuring. All things being equal, Messi would eventually grow to an eminently normal 1.70 metres.

One evening in October 2000, Jorge and Lionel Messi and their representative, Horacio Gagioli, got together at the bar at the Real Sociedad de Tenis Pompeya club in Montjuich, a few blocks from Barca's head office.

Jorge had an ultimatum to deliver. If the club failed to sign his son immediately, then the family, Leo included, would take the next plane out of the country. Rexach was quick to respond.

"I took a paper napkin which was lying on the table and gave the family my word, as technical director of Barcelona FC."

Eight years have passed since this eccentric episode. Now, giant posters of Lionel

-- Carlos Rexach, the then sporting director at Barca

Messi are to be seen all around the city.

He is 1.69 metres tall, lives in Castelldefels, a seaside town near Barcelona, and earns an estimated €10m per season, more than any other player in the squad. Looked after by Ronaldinho in his first pro season (2004), Messi became one of last year's "Fantastic Four." Now, he leads the team, with the full support of Barca manager, Pep Guardiola.

At Barça, the kid took some tests. The Verdict: He would grow to 1.70 metres tall. He was free to sign ...

"Me, the captain of Barca? I'm going to try not to change and to go on doing my best for the club and for my team-mates," Messi said, prudently. Last September, Samuel Eto'o took a penalty in a Champions' League game against Sporting Portugal in spite of the fact that Guardiola had assigned penalty-taking duties to Messi. Lionel reacted diplomatically, agreeing that he should share the task with the Cameroon striker.

The duel between the African star and the Argentinian prodigy -- two of the biggest egos at Barcelona -- filled the pages of the Catalan press for days. Even Diego Maradona had something to say about the issue: "Sometimes, Messi plays for himself. He feels so superior that he forgets his team-mates. It's Messi FC."

Is Leo an individualist? "That's the way I play" he replied. "I make things happen, I take defenders on and beat them," he said, seemingly irritated by the accusation. "I can still improve the teamwork aspect of the game. But I'm not going to change my style.

Maradona, newly installed as manager of Argentina, went to Barcelona last week to draw a line under the incident and assure the player of his support.

"As I've often said, there's only one Maradona," Messi commented. "Every footballer has his own style, his own way of playing. I've always got on well with Diego. The advice he's given me has helped me improve my game."

Peace has broken out between the god of Argentinian football and futebol's new messiah. But for how long? (© L'equipe)

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