It was business as usual at the Camp Nou on the night of April 9, 2011. Barcelona beat Almeria 3-1 in La Liga as Lionel Messi popped in two goals. Life on the pitch was sweet and uncomplicated for the 23-year-old Barca star. A few weeks later, he would crown another trophy-laden season under Pep Guardiola by scoring in a rout of Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final at Wembley Stadium.
But on this night, while helping Barca secure the victory over Almeria, Messi's older brother Matias was part of a different scene in their hometown of Rosario in Argentina. A few minutes before 11 p.m., two men on a red motorbike drove by his house in Saladillo—a quiet neighbourhood about a dozen blocks from where the Messi family grew up on the south side of the city—and opened fire.
At least four shots hit his home, with a couple more bullets peppering a neighbour's house. Messi's mother's home, only 100 metres away in the same complex, escaped unscathed. The neighbourhood was stunned. The next-door neighbour whose house was also shot at said it was the first time an incident like this had occurred in the 50 years she had been living there, per La Capital. Another took a dim view of Matias for inviting trouble upon them, saying he was a "problematic" young man, according to a story in El Mundo.
Three years later and more than 1,200 kilometres away, Cristiano Ronaldo experienced a uniquely timed connection with his brother too. According to Guillem Balague's Cristiano Ronaldo: The Biography, Ronaldo made a pact with his older brother, Hugo, that if he kicked his drinking habit, Ronaldo would dedicate a Champions League title to him. Ronaldo made good on his promise, scoring 17 goals en route to Real Madrid's 10th Champions League triumph in 2014.
While Real Madrid's players celebrated on the pitch after defeating Atletico Madrid 4-1 in that final at Lisbon's Estadio da Luz, Ronaldo walked over to the seats where his brother was sitting and beckoned him on to the turf to receive his jersey. The pair shared an emotional embrace. It has clearly been a difficult road. Hugo has had a long battle with drug addiction and alcoholism. Matias, too, has made mistakes.
Football's two greatest stars have scaled untold heights over the past decade. Meanwhile, the tribulations endured by their brothers—who remained in their old neighbourhoods and sometimes succumbed to their dangers while Messi and Ronaldo found fortune—offer cautionary tales about how things might have gone for the footballers.
Both Matias and Hugo have struggled with their share of perilous temptations, from drug addiction to petty crime to associating with some dangerous people.
"They are almost the Maradona part of the narrative of each one," says Jimmy Burns, author of an upcoming book on the rivalry between Ronaldo and Messi. "If they hadn't existed, the stories of Messi and Ronaldo would possibly be quite different.
"In Hugo's case, in terms of being the son of an alcoholic father [who] never did anything in his life apart from being a conscript soldier; for Ronaldo, [his father's failings] became a motivation. In Matias' case ... he stayed in Rosario and decided to make a living in a corrupt, violent society. In a sense, someone had to draw the short straw."
This story is about what Matias and Hugo did with those sheaves of luck, about how their lives have played out and what could have been for their illustrious brothers.
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When the rich from Barcelona want to escape the messiness of life in the city, they decamp to places like Castelldefels. It's a sleepy seaside village 15 miles down the coastline, perched between an endless sandy seafront and the mountainous Garraf Natural Park. Its residents measure success by altitude. The wealthier the homeowner, the higher up the hillside in Castelldefels families go. Leo Messi's family lives at the top of the hill.
Messi's team-mate Luis Suarez is a neighbour. Messi's parents live in one of the next villages over, Gava Mar. When Messi's next-door neighbour's house came on the market in 2013, he snapped it up, per Rory Smith for The Times.
He likes his privacy, and the seclusion of Castelldefels enables him to live as normal a life as is possible for the most celebrated footballer in the game. He gets his hair cut in a local barbershop. He eats in the village's restaurants, like Fosbury Cafe and the Argentinian steakhouse Ushuaia. He can walk along the beach unmolested.
The contrast with his old neighbourhood in Rosario, Argentina's third-largest city, couldn't be starker. It's the kind of town where the head of police was arrested recently for trafficking drugs, per La Nacion. The original Messi family home in La Bajada is typical of many humble, working-class neighbourhoods in Argentina's cities. It's not a shantytown settlement like, say, Diego Maradona's childhood barrio Villa Fiorito in Buenos Aires, but walk a block or two in the wrong direction, and you can find yourself in trouble.
There's a feeling of menace about the place, especially at night. The day I toured it with a local driver, he warned me not to loiter outside with a camera phone for fear I would get held up. Two minutes later, we were stopped at a routine police roadblock.
But it's also the place Matias Messi calls home. His older brother, Rodrigo, like Leo, took a more comfortable path in life. He lives in Barcelona and is absorbed in the day-to-day life of their younger brother, working as a scheduler for Leo. Rodrigo also helps their father, Jorge, manage the Messi brand.
It can't always have been easy for Matias. He was born in 1982, five years and a day before Leo, whose face he has tattooed on his left upper arm. Matias had once shown promise as a footballer, particularly as a defender. He was taken on at Newell's Old Boys youth academy but was cut adrift after a season.
The Messi family originally moved to Barcelona in 2001, when the child football star was 13. Argentina's economy had just tanked. It looked like a dream move for the family, getting to start again in a prosperous, hip European city. It didn't work out as planned, though.
The rest of Leo's family couldn't settle down in the city—their little sister, Maria Sol, for instance, was bullied in her new Catalan school for being a "sudaca," a derogatory term for a South American, and Matias missed his girlfriend, Roxana Vallejos—so they returned to Rosario after a few months along with their mother. Leo, with his father as chaperone, stayed in Barcelona so he could follow his dream.
Back in Rosario, Matias had a child, Tomas, in 2005. Another one, Luana, followed a couple of years ago. He married Roxana, whom he started dating when he was 11 and whose family lived a mere 30 metres from the Messis.
On the work front, Matias jumped around. He ran a greengrocers and a kiosk in the city centre for a while. Later, he dabbled in marketing work for his brother, Leo. That didn't last, either. These days, he juggles a couple of business interests for the Messi empire—managing a gym, Casa Amarilla, and VIP, a restaurant bar with wood panelling and nondescript steaks down by Rosario's waterfront that is registered in his father's name.
Matias Messi @_MatiasMessi
Argentina,Argentina,Argentina!!🎶🎵 http://t.co/Wx9UoA3IC72015-6-16 22:56:42
Matias has also achieved some notoriety on social media for mouthing off in defence of his brother. For example, in 2013, he mocked Ronaldo's poor trophy haul in comparison with his brother's in a tweet that was picked up by press around the world, as well as his baiting of "the f--king Real Madrid fans who hate me," as reported by El Confidential. His Twitter account has been inactive since April 2016, but he has still found himself getting the wrong kind of attention.
Despite his connection to one of the most recognized figures in soccer, Matias has spent much of his time connected to a series of far more questionable choices. The public record of his delinquency stretches back to 2000, when he was allegedly involved in a robbery. That was followed by an alleged assault a year later and an accusation of threatening behaviour in 2002, per La Capital (h/t El Pais). The charges were dropped in each instance, but the issues kept piling up.
In 2008, Matias was arrested for illegally carrying a .32-calibre pistol, according to El Pais. In 2011, his house was shot up. In October 2015, he was pulled over in his Audi A5 and arrested for possessing an unregistered .22-calibre pistol. He scrapped with the police who stopped him and was consequently taken into custody.
In September 2016, a court dropped the case brought against him for illegally possessing the .22-calibre pistol. Instead, he was ordered to coach football classes for four hours per week for a year with a local club, Leones de Rosario. He was also instructed to pay a fine of 8,000 pesos (£350) and to "abstain from drugs and/or alcohol," according to 20 minutos.
Matias declined an interview with Bleacher Report, and the Messi family is deliberate in its dealings with the media. German de los Santos, a crime reporter based in Rosario, says: "The media here in Rosario is very careful with them."
Equally troubling is those with whom Matias has been seen hanging out. In October 2015, Noticias, a prestigious weekly magazine in Argentina, published a lengthy article about him and the unsavoury company he has kept.
In a photo published by Noticias that accompanied the article, Matias is posing behind some of the most dangerous men in Rosario. The photo appears to have been taken sometime between 2010 and 2012, says De los Santos, who is the author of a book entitled Los Monos, which is the name of a Rosario-based organization considered one of Argentina's most fearsome drug cartels.
Matias looks out of place in the photo—he's standing timidly, a callow youth among big, bad men. Several of those pictured have ties to the Barra Bravas, the organised criminal gangs that have an iron grip on Rosario's two Primera Division football clubs, Newell's Old Boys and Rosario Central.
Alongside Matias in the photo stands Cesar Aron Trevez (nicknamed El Ojudo), a man who was imprisoned in December 2012 and charged with murder and drug possession. According to Noticias, Trevez testified as a protected witness in a probe of Los Monos.
Fourth from the left in the photo is a man named Ramon Ezequiel Machuca, his face half-obscured by the man standing in front of him. Machuca goes by the alias Monchi Cantero after being raised as a foster child by the Cantero family. He's one of the leaders of Los Monos. He was arrested in June 2016 by Interpol on suspicion of "homicide and illicit association," reported Noticias.
He was tried in February 2017, along with Mariano "El Gordo" Salomon (another member of Los Monos who also appears alongside Matias in that infamous photo) for three homicides, alleged revenge killings for the murder of Monchi Cantero's brother, according to La Capital.
While on the run as a fugitive, Cantero gave an interview to the television station Telenoche in January 2016. He appeared on screen wearing sunglasses, a fake beard and a baseball cap that read "El Mabu" (shorthand for "the most wanted fugitive"). He was quizzed about his relationship with Matias Messi.
"I had contact with the kid because we played football at Batallon 121, where there used to be tournaments every Saturday," he said. "I know him from playing football, from eating barbeques, from going out to dance clubs. Rosario is a small city. Everybody knows each other."
Cantero also spoke about his ties to two other football exiles from Rosario—Atletico Madrid player Angel Correa and Sevilla's Ever Banega, whose brother played in the same amateur football league team as Matias. The news clip went viral in Argentina.
Carlos Varela is a lawyer for Los Monos. He oozes charm, wears smart suits and has the kind of deep, raspy voice that sounds like it has been soaked in whiskey. He knows the Messi family. Varela argues Matias is a victim of his name and the media's thirst for sensationalism. He says Matias' brushes with the law are "inconsequential" at a legal level.
Several sources have confirmed Matias doesn't have business links with Los Monos. A spokesperson from the region's Ministry of Security, which is responsible for tackling violence and crime in football, told B/R: "He comes from a simple family. I know Don Jorge [Messi's father] rescued him from this world, but he lives in the barrio, and those are his friends. It is a tough barrio."
I asked Varela what it must be like to be Matias, playing second fiddle to his kid brother. Does having a famous brother alter the way Matias must consider people friends?
"It will never be clear to you why they approach you," he says. "Are they your friends because your brother is famous, or do they really want to be your friends? All of this must happen to all these people that are super famous. I mean, the friends that come to you, you don't know why they come to you. Imagine: They have the same last name, and that is a last name that opens doors everywhere."
Cristiano Ronaldo's name opens doors too—just about anywhere in the world. His mother, Dolores Aveiro, christened him after U.S. president Ronald Reagan. His family call him Ronaldo, not Cristiano. Ronaldo's only brother, Hugo Aveiro, goes by their father's surname; he owns the museum on Madeira that stores Ronaldo's football medals, memorabilia and lifesize waxworks.
The brothers are close. They holiday together. Ronaldo is godfather to Hugo's son. Growing up, however, Ronaldo led a largely separate life from his brother (although they shared a room), according to Fernao Sousa, Ronaldo's godfather. Hugo is a decade older and lost much of his youth battling substance-abuse issues while Ronaldo was focusing on his burgeoning football career.
Hugo was born during the year their father, Jose Dinis—or Dinis, as everyone called him—spent overseas with the Portuguese army in Angola. Hugo left school early, before he was 17. He worked for a spell with an aluminum company. He ran a painting crew for a while, but it was his battles with addiction that consumed him.
According to Balague's biography of Ronaldo, Hugo started using hard drugs in the late 1990s. When he first got hooked, his mother took out a loan to pay for his admission to a rehab clinic. He succumbed again two years later. He got clean again but relapsed intermittently. Today, Hugo is sober.
Hugo lives a quiet life. He will often slip away from the museum to head back up to their old neighbourhood, Santo Antonio. He'll while away a few hours playing cards with neighbours and friends in Joel Santos' pub—a no-name establishment that locals call "Joel's bar"—at the foot of Quinta do Falcao, the street where the old Ronaldo family home used to be. The house was gutted about a decade ago. Now the space operates as a small car park.
Santos, who knows the family, is the same age as Hugo. He bought his bar 12 years ago. A former professional footballer, he played as a midfielder for the island's premier division team, Maritimo. He has a photo, which he says he's getting framed so he can hang it in the bar, of him about to tackle Ronaldo during a Sporting CP vs. Maritimo match in November 2002.
Hugo was a decent footballer himself, left-footed and a striker, Santos recalled. He played in the informal street leagues in Santo Antonio. The games were five-a-side, and they made a cup for the winning team. Boys of 15 and 16 years of age would mix it up with men.
"I didn't know Hugo back then," Santos says. "But everybody who knew him says that he was a better footballer than Ronaldo."
Carlos Pereira, a friend of Ronaldo's who has been president of Maritimo for 20 years, is sceptical.
"Nowadays, people say that Hugo was a good player, but that has nothing to do with the kind of football that Ronaldo plays," Pereira says. "Hugo was a street player. He played. He drank. He slept. When Ronaldo started to play, he played in a club with a structure, with coaches and directors. It is a different kind of football. Hugo may have been skilful, but it was as a street footballer, playing against his friends in an amateur way. Nothing like Ronaldo."
Their father looms over the two of them. He died in 2005 from an alcoholism-related liver disease, as Ronaldo spoke about in a 2015 interview with Matthew Syed for The Times. His nature, his influence and his absence explains a lot about the routes his sons' lives took.
Dinis' life was complicated. Those who are close to the family on the island—including Pereira, neighbours, Sousa, the attorney who brokered Ronaldo's move to Sporting in 1997 and members of the football club where Dinis worked as a kitman—speak fondly of him. They talk of a simple, gentle person. A friendly, cheerful man who used to dance whenever his club, Andorinha, won a match. Nobody remembers him ever raising his voice. When Nacional, the other big professional football club on the island, snapped up Ronaldo as a 10-year-old, Dinis never interfered with the coaches' work.
That portrait, though, doesn't fit with the revelation in Anthony Wonke's 2015 documentary, Ronaldo, that Dinis abused his wife. And according to Wright Thompson for ESPN The Magazine, there were troubles in the marriage going as far back as the mid-1970s, when Dinis spent 13 months in Africa with the Portuguese army.
What is certain is Dinis adored Ronaldo. According to Wonke's documentary, he never laid a finger on his son. The pair went everywhere together. Pereira says Ronaldo was like a dog on a leash, always following him. He always wanted to be with his dad.
Dinis took immense pride in the progress of Ronaldo's career. When Nacional signed him, Dinis put his personal allegiances aside as a Maritimo fan, traveling to every game Ronaldo played, sitting at the front of the Nacional bus beside the driver. He used to scour the papers for news of his son and cut out the reports.
He took less interest in Hugo's chances of making it as a professional footballer, says Joao Ornelas, who lives across the street from where Ronaldo's old home used to be. Dinis liked to watch Hugo kicking a ball, but he saw something special in Ronaldo that was missing in his older son.
Ronaldo is different to the rest of his family, Ornelas says: "He studied. He knows how to speak well, how to express himself. He speaks different languages. When he speaks, he's honest."
Funchal, the city on Madeira where Hugo has lived all his life, isn't terribly distressed, but it has its social problems like any place. It has a population of a little over 100,000. Most houses have a view of the ocean. It's rare that Madeira's police force is troubled with a murder investigation or a case of violent crime. According to the most recent national study, Madeira has the lowest prevalence of drug use in Portugal, behind Lisbon, the Algarve and the country's other regions.
Drink is seemingly everywhere, though. The island is famous for its wine. It's a place where one may come across a middle-aged couple propping each other up, having had a bit too much, in the middle of the afternoon on Ronaldo's old street.
"Dinis drank, but then so did lots of people at that time," Pereira says. Hugo fell into a similar trap—just with a different intoxicant.
"Growing up, Ronaldo's two sisters were much closer to him than his brother because his brother was becoming like his father," Pereira says. "The guys who surrounded Hugo were a different kind of people, the junkies of the neighbourhood. They were all taking drink and drugs."
Ronaldo got lucky; Hugo had bad luck, according to Ornelas. "Hugo tried drugs, and he got hooked," he adds. "Once or twice, he stole things from home to sell and buy drugs, but nowadays he's OK. He's a nice guy. He's clean.
"The difference is that Hugo always lived here in the neighbourhood. Ronaldo went to Lisbon when he was only 12. He had more comfort than he had here on this street. He had other people looking after him. He had rules that he had to follow. Everything changed in that moment."
Hugo took a different path in life. He was a product of his environment on Madeira, which he never left. He declined an interview with Bleacher Report. He rarely speaks to the press, only providing the occasional vox pop about his brother's football career.
In Wonke's 2015 documentary, Hugo opened up briefly about his battles with alcohol and drug addiction. He maintains his problems with addiction grew out of his time spent working alongside his dad in construction as much as the influence his old neighbourhood, which was blighted with drug abuse during his youth, had on him.
"Ronaldo got a different chance in life than Hugo," Pereira says. "Hugo always lived there. He stayed in that environment. Since Ronaldo was really young, people noticed he had a special talent. Along the way, people took care of him. He was nurtured. It made him feel special. It made him believe he could take a different path in life than his brother and his father."
The paths Hugo and Matias travelled veered a million miles from those of their famous footballing brothers with their gilded lifestyles and multiple homes. The stay-at-home siblings made different choices.
Matias turned his back on Barcelona; Hugo stayed put on Madeira. They passed up the chance to live in the slipstream of their star siblings on Europe's mainland. Instead, they never escaped their old neighborhoods; they remained, vulnerable to its temptations, forever in the shadow of Messi and Ronaldo's exploits.
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz