Young Leo Messi joined his hometown club, Newell's Old Boys—or "Nuls," as people in Argentina call it—when he was just six years old. He'd been waiting almost all his life for the day. The club was his birthright. His uncles and aunts had given him a red-and-black Newell's jersey for his first birthday. Both his older brothers had played youth-team football for the club. He even had gone to the club's stadium in Rosario to see Diego Maradona's Nuls debut in October 1993.
In his first game for Newell's, a 6-0 victory, Messi scored four goals, according to the Association of Rosario Football. He was setting a tone. He became the totem for arguably Argentina's most famous under-age team, "La Maquina del '87," or "The Machine of '87," named after the year a crop of the club's players were born. They were invincible. In what's called "baby football" in Argentina—a seven-a-side game children play until they're 11—La Maquina del '87 went unbeaten for three years.
When the club graduated to the 11-a-side format at age 11, with more space to play with on the bigger pitches, it was more of the same. They swept all before them. They won every tournament they entered, plundering fields across Argentina and competitions as far away as Peru, on the other side of the continent. In 2000, Newell's won their championship by at least 20 points, according to Franco Falleroni, one of the team's strikers. "In five or six seasons, we only lost about three times," says another teammate, Gonzalo Mazzia.
Sometimes Newell's own goalkeeper was so bored during the beatings his outfield teammates were administering, he would sit on his backside in the box. They bullied teams so badly—racking up 10, 12 and 15 goals a game—that some opponents put a 6-0 limit on the scoreline. The game would have to stop once six goals had gone in. It was the only way to stem the bleeding.
Messi was insatiable. I ask Adrian Coria—who coached Messi in 10th grade, the final year he played for Newell's before leaving to join Barcelona at age 13—if it is true that Messi scored more than 500 goals for Newell's during those years as a kid.
Coria puffs out his lips. "At least."
Messi was grumpy when he didn't score in a game, like a gambler being wrenched from the rails. "He used to go crazy when he couldn't score a goal," remembers Falleroni. "He was a very ambitious guy. Even if he won—if the team won 7-0—but he didn't score a goal, he got angry. Or if he didn't get passed the ball, he got angry. You could see it in his face. That's his temperament, his personality. He always wanted the ball."
Falleroni lives in Chabas. It's the town he grew up in, which is a two-hour bus ride from Rosario. As a star child footballer, it was a difficult beat—chugging in and out to Rosario for training and matches with Newell's, week in, week out. Messi and Falleroni became fast friends. Messi used to come out and stay with him. They'd fool around on the PlayStation. On the quiet dirt roads of Chabas, Falleroni's father taught the 11-year-old Messihow to drive, too. "My dad had a Peugeot 306," Falleroni says. "We had to give Leo a large pillow to sit on because he couldn't reach the steering wheel."
There weren't many cars careering around the streets of Messi's barrio in the south zone of Rosario when he was growing up. It's a hardscrabble neighbourhood, although it's not a shantytown like, say, Villa Fiorito, where Maradona sprung from in Buenos Aires. Maradona grew up in the 1960s in a shack with no running water or electricity; he used to scavenge for pesos as a kid by selling scrap and the foil wrapping from cigarette papers, among other enterprises.
Messi wanted for nothing. He got a good schooling.
Many in Argentina will tell you that Messi will forever live in the shadow of Maradona unless he delivers a World Cup. Some Argentines prefer the roguery of Maradona, too. He has what is known locally as "viveza," an ability to get by on his wits.
"The 'viveza' have a certain cunning that is learned in the streets," says Ramiro Martin, author of Messi: Un Genio en la Escuela del Futbol. "Being 'vivo' in Argentina means being cunning, even knowing how to cheat to achieve your goals. It is called 'viveza criolla,' something that I, as an Argentinian, am not proud of, but it is historical."
The houses along the streets of Messi's childhood neighbourhood are low-slung, one and two storeys high, with some tarpaulin roofing in places and walls that are thirsting for paint. There's lots of idling—people sitting outside their front doors on plastic chairs, the odd beggar hanging around the traffic lights hustling for some change and scores of dogs ambling about and barking.
On the street corners, utility poles and spare walls are daubed roughly in the colours of either Newell's or its great city rival, Rosario Central, as part of the land wars that divide Rosario. There are murals of Messi to remind people of their most famous son, but they have to be sought out—one on the wall at the back of his old primary school and another that materialised before the 2014 World Cup finals close to Grandoli Football Club, where Messi played a couple of seasons of formal football before joining Newell's.
Messi's family house, which was built by Messi's father and grandfather with their own hands, is still standing. It was never sold. His mother and sister only moved out in 2010, per Sebastian Fest and Alexandre Julliard's book Misterio Messi: Los Secretos del Mejor Jugador del Mundo. His grandparents' house is around the corner and halfway up the street from his parents' old home.
A woman in her 30s answers the door when I knock but won't speak. The next-door neighbour, Lucia, is full of chat, though, when prodded about the young Messi. "He was a quiet child. Muy tranquilo," she says. "My only problem with him was that he used to interrupt my siesta—all the time kicking a football against my wall."
After a couple of seasons playing with Newell's, the club facilitated a meeting for Messi with an endocrinologist, Dr. Diego Schwarzstein, to address a growth hormone issue. His teammates used to call him "pulga," the flea. He didn't like the nickname, says Sergio Maradona, one of his former teammates.
The doctor got a call that they were sending him "the best player that we have." Messi was nine years old when he first visited Schwarzstein's clinic. It was January 31, 1997, the day of the doctor's birthday.
Messi was one of about every 20,000 in the population who suffer from growth hormone deficiency. He was only a little over 4'0" tall when he joined Newell's and 15-20 centimetres below his target height. His problem was treatable. His body was otherwise normal.
One of Messi's old coaches at Newell's, Quique Dominguez, is quoted in a Messi biography by Guillem Balague as saying that Messi "hardly had a ribcage, it was caved in, looking at his chest was scary." Schwarzstein clarifies, however, that Messi's physique was fine other than the height issue. The dimensions of his body were in "harmony," says Schwarzstein.
Every day, Messi self-administered a growth hormone with a small syringe. It was a painless procedure, less intrusive than a mosquito bite. "I have seen him, here in my parents' place, how he injected himself in his legs. It was a very thin needle, this long," says Falleroni, pointing at the length of his fingernail. "He would come to the house with his medicine, put the pack in the freezer, take it out, inject it by himself into his thigh."
Schwarzstein and Messi built up a close relationship during more than four years of treatment, which was concluded in Barcelona by a different medical team. They connected through football more than anything else; Schwarzstein is an avid football fan and a member of Newell's football club. Messi left him his old Newell's jersey, which he signed, when he moved to Barcelona in early 2001.
Regarding Messi's personality, Schwarzstein makes a distinction. "He was a very nice child. He wasn't shy—when you broke the ice, when you started talking with him, usually football was the initial topic he talked a lot about—but he was introverted. One thing is that you prefer to keep some things for yourself. Another thing is if you have anxiety to express yourself, the feeling: 'I'm afraid, I won't say the right thing.' Another thing is to be introverted—if you prefer to keep things for yourself.
"Leo is not shy. He's introverted. He's reserved."
Messi's old teammates at Newell's all testify that he is an open and outgoing guy once he's amongst his circle of friends. Sergio Maradona played at Newell's in the "Generation of '88" team in the same position as Messi—in the hole behind the two strikers, as a No. 10, or the "enganche," as it's referred to in Argentine football argot. "In this era, everybody talked about the two of us. It was Messi or me—Maradona in '88 or Messi in '87," he says. They both also saw Schwarzstein for growth issues.
Maradona got to know Messi well over those years, and in 1999 he travelled to Buenos Aires with La Maquina del '87 for a tournament. "He was humble," he says. "The idea that he was shy, timid—this is a lie. When he is with his mates, he's great fun. He's guarded with the press or people who don't know him. With his family or his friends, he's very amusing. I remember him as a funny guy, entertaining, extroverted but also a very respectful person, modest, unassuming. He never had problems with anyone."
Messi and Maradona played in that tournament together in the last week of July 1999. They travelled the four hours to Buenos Aires by bus and were billeted with families by the host club, Defensores de Villa Ramallo. Newell's blitzed each team that came before them, winning their pool games, 10-0, 3-0, 7-0 and both the semifinal and final by 5-0 scorelines, with Messi and Maradona both scoring in the semifinal and final. Messi finished the competition with 15 goals to his credit.
Maradona is one of the "sliding door" characters in Messi's tale. What could have been? They both had great talent. Maradona did less with his. Life has been a caper for him. "My problem was discipline," he says. The Spanish club Villarreal came for him when he was 11 years old, but his father nixed the move. He was too young.
Once he was old enough to become a professional, he started bouncing around the leagues in South America as a mercenary, fathering children along the way. He has four kids—one in Mexico, two in Bolivia and one in Argentina. "In that I am like Maradona," he says, laughing.
Maradona had to leave Mexico in a hurry. He ended up playing with a semiprofessional team owned by drug trafficker, as part of a 12-team Mexican league. The team owners used to bet on their teams. When Maradona's team travelled to Ciudad Juarez to play matches, they never stayed overnight. "You could hear shooting every night," he says. He got his team owner's daughter pregnant; she had a girl, who is seven years old. "I had to come back to Argentina because they wanted to kill me," Maradona says. One of his old coaches and his family were murdered, says Maradona, because his team lost a final.
Gustavo "Billy" Rodas was the star of Newell's "Generation of '86" team. He made his first-team debut at 16 years of age. He's another player who is held up as an example of a guy who coulda been a contender, but whose career never took off, owing to social problems.
Sergio Almiron, who was a World Cup winner with Argentina in 1986, worked as a technical director of Newell's youth academy at the time Messi and Rodas played "baby" football. He points to the crucial role Messi's parents played in his development.
"Leo was given all that was necessary for a boy to grow. Billy didn't have that. He never made it. At 14 to 15 years old, because his parents were very poor, he was given a hotel room at the Riviera for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks. Later, he was given an apartment to live in, with his mother, so she could contain him. But she couldn't control him. For him, it was more important to play with his neighbourhood friends. He had a lot of problems. He left the club. I brought him back again. He disappeared again. He would start training again. Then he'd be gone again.
"Both parents were there for Messi. They supported him. They wanted what was best for their son. They sacrificed everything for him, and the result is the Messi we have today. Billy Rodas didn't have that restraint that Leo had. Here in Argentina, you have good friends and bad friends, drugs, alcohol. Often, it is your family that can keep you on the straight and narrow."
In July, Maradona will pack his bags again. He's due to play for a team in Bolivia next season. He won't miss the close attention of Argentine defenders. They are the worst of their breed in the South American leagues, he says.
"There is a lot of conflict with football in Argentina. It's very aggressive. It's hard. There's a lot of fouling. Football in Mexico, for example, is more fluid, more tactical, faster. Defenders in Argentina will do anything to upset you. They'll spit on you. They'll stick a finger up your arse. They'll prick you with a needle. Can you believe it? They are terrible.
"This is football in Argentina."
Maradona says Messi never shied away from tough defenders: "Even though the ball was bigger than him, he was never afraid. He never cried. He played better when they kicked him. He was always brave. He wanted to play with the ball, to dribble, to go forward."
Messi always got the worst shoeing during games against Central. They were Newell's toughest rivals. During one derby match, he did five "sombreros" on his marker—cheekily flicking the ball over his head five times. Watching on from the terraces, the defender's father was apoplectic. "Kill him! Kill him!" he screamed.
Falleroni remembers a guy in his town who kept hassling him. He was sick of all the talk about this phenomenon that was supposed to be like Diego Maradona. "He used to say, 'Who is this Messi? You talk so much about him. Bring him here!' So we organised a small match to play. In one manoeuvre, Messi nutmegged him twice. Can you imagine? In the same play—two nutmegs! The boy stopped talking then."
Coria says one of the things that distinguished Messi was his explosiveness.
"My football idol is Maradona. He played the same as Leo. Leo was very explosive. He could burst from zero to 100 very quickly. It's like starting an engine. Diego had this, but sideways, not with that ability to get a guy off his back with just one move. Leo had a lot of power. He worked very hard on improving this power, working on his physique. Generally players either have very good technique and ball control, but they aren't fast. Leo was fast and he had brilliant skill, both things together. This made him different."
The Maquina del '87 players picked the team's captain. Usually it was Messi, sometimes Lucas Scaglia, whose first cousin is Antonella Roccuzzo, the mother of Messi's two sons. Roccuzzo and Messi will marry in Rosario on June 30, a week after Messi's 30th birthday. They have known each other since they were five years old.
"Leo has always liked Antonella, since forever," Falleroni says, "although she didn't pay him much attention when they were little. We knew he was in love with Antonella. I remember one day, we went to Lucas' house in Funes. We went there for a weekend. Antonella was there too. Every time Messi saw her, he blushed!"
When Messi wasn't thinking about Antonella, he was mulling over football. It obsessed him. He was always meticulous in preparing for training and games. Even when he was five years old and playing with Grandoli, he had his routine. He used to clean his boots before a match with a brush and cloth, and bandage his ankles—an Argentine practice to safeguard against piranha defenders—before kick-off, as per Balague's Messi.
"He thought like a professional. He had this conviction, this passion," says Bruno Milanesio, who played as a defender on his Newell's team. "He is crazy about football. He has been since he was very young. He thought all the time about the ball, how to dribble other players, how to solve a situation. Every day, he trained to be better. He always wanted more, more, more. He put football before everything."
It wasn't a done deal that Messi would make it, however. "When he played, as a child, he showed a lot of potential," Almiron says. "He might score seven goals in a match sometimes, but no one could ever imagine that he was going to become the best player in the world. He was still so young. There are football players from seven to 14 years old who you think might be a great football player. But at 17, 18, they don't kick on football-wise. It was impossible to know that Messi at eight or 10 or 12 years old was going to be the Messi he is today. You can't tell at that age."
Messi's father, Jorge, who has played a pivotal role in his development, chaperoning him through his teenage years in Barcelona and into adulthood as his manager, had a quiet confidence his son would make it, but he never trumpeted it.
"All the fathers believe they have a Diego Maradona, but it doesn't always work out," says Ruben Horacio Gaggioli, the agent involved in bringing Messi to Barcelona. "In the case of Jorge Messi, he never said his son was going to be the best player in the world or a great player. He was sure he had a very special son with some issues—he was very small. There were doubts about his physique, but football-wise, he never had doubts about his son. He was always sure the project would be OK."
Messi was only one of a handful of Argentine players that Europe's clubs were circling at the time he was burning it up with Newell's. There was more noise being made in Rosario, for example, about Leandro Depetris, who was a year younger. AC Milan bought him in the summer of 2000, when he was 12 years old.
"Depetris at 11 was more famous than Messi," Falleroni says. "Nobody knew Messi. Only we knew about Messi. Even the president, Eduardo Jose Lopez, of Newell's didn't know about Messi at the time.
"I remember Depetris played in a tournament in Cordoba [Argentina] against Newell's in the final. He played against Messi. Depetris' team won. After the game, all the microphones, all the journalists surrounded Depetris. Nobody went near Messi. Coria couldn't believe it. For us, Messi was a far better player than Depetris, much, much better, but nobody knew about Messi."
Barcelona knew. In February 2000, a videotape landed on the lap of Jose Maria Minguella, Barcelona's most famous agent, which began a two-year saga that ultimately led to Messi becoming a Barca player. As part of the trial process in Catalonia, Messi flew with his father to Barcelona for a two-week trial in September 2000. Nobody at Newell's knew he had gone. The rumour going around was that he had hepatitis.
"A month passed without seeing Messi," Falleroni says. "We were training and there was no sign of Messi. You can imagine us—the entire panel asking, 'What's up with Messi?' Because we had a close relationship with his family, my dad would phone his house. His mother, Celia, would answer. My dad asked her, 'What's up with Leo? He is not coming to practice.' She said he couldn't come because he was ill. Another week would pass. They kept saying he hadn't recovered. All lies! He disappeared.
"After a month, he came back, looking a little bit more developed, you know? It was strange. We were asking him, 'Leo, are you OK?' And he said, 'Yes, I'm better.' Sometime afterwards, we were training, and his mother came and said, 'Let's go, Leo. We have to go.' 'No,' he said, 'I want to stay a little longer with the guys, with my friends.' But his mother grabbed him by the arm and took him away. He never showed up again.
"A week later, we found out that he was in Barcelona. They did everything behind our backs. He was obliged not to say anything. Barcelona told him, 'Don't tell anyone.' "
For Milanesio, it wasn't a surprise that a 13-year-old boy managed to keep such a huge secret—almost every boy's dream—from his closest friends. "Already by that age, Messi was thinking like a professional," he says. Messi was also, of course, mindful, guarded by nature.
The big surprise, says Maradona, was not that Messi ended up playing at a superclub like Barcelona, but that he made the grade so fast.
He made his debut at 16 years of age against Porto in November 2003, and he hasn't stopped surprising football fans since.
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz