Lionel Messi is a well-known name even to those with no interest in sports. Even though he is shorter than most of his teammates, he rises above his opponents with adept skill and a legendary ability to score goals for his team.
Since his childhood, Lionel Messi, who was nicknamed “Leo”, dreamed of becoming a professional footballer. But his ambition seemed blown out of proportion when considering his physical limitations and financial restrictions. No one could have predicted that after 17 years and 114 days of non-stop faith and dedication, the Argentinian footballer would be playing for his national team and FC Barcelona.
Training since childhood
Lionel Andrés Messi was born on June 24, 1987, in the warm city of Rosario, Argentina. He was the third child in a tight-knit, hard-working family who fervently loved football.
Naturally, young Leo developed a passion for football himself. His two older brothers and cousins would constantly go out to play, and as soon as he was able, Leo tagged along. But the rest of the boys were much older than Leo, and were hesitant to let him join in.
His grandmother, who always went with him, insisted they allow him to play too. After watching Leo take his first football steps, she later convinced Leo’s mother to buy his first pair of cleats.
At four years old, Leo joined the Grandoli local club, where he was coached by his father. His grandmother watched him almost every day as he dutifully trained to develop his skills. When he was eight, Leo joined the talented Newell Old Boys, another Rosario-based club that he had always looked up to.
Football soon became as important as the air he breathed. Messi practiced day in and day out, skipping outings with his friends to train at home before a game. The sport made him inexplicably happy and motivated and he began to dream of becoming a professional footballer.
Diagnosed with an inability to grow
When he was 10, his beloved grandmother passed away. The family was devastated, and her absence affected Messi beyond description. He didn’t touch a football for weeks, but his father nudged him to carry on for the club. He returned, aiming to make his grandmother proud.
Over the following year, Leo played incessantly. But as he grew older, his height remained the same. His concerned parents eventually took their 11-year-old son to a doctor, who broke the news that the boy suffered from a growth hormone deficiency. This meant he was physically unable to grow unless he received special treatment, which would span three years and cost $1,500 per month.
Unable to cover such a costly treatment, Messi’s father was left with no choice but to request financial support from the Newell’s Old Boys club. The coach couldn’t deny the child’s exceptional talent, and accepted to pay for the treatment. They handed over a small sum to his embarrassed father, but that was all he ever received from them.
As his father continued to search for a way to cover the treatment, Leo was scouted by the Buenos Aires club River Plate, home of Pablo Aimar. Leo absolutely idolized the dubbed “football genius” and was ecstatic at the offer. However, the club was unwilling to cover Leo’s expenses since Argentina was currently undergoing an economic collapse. He was undeniably crushed, but it wasn’t long before another offer came in, this time from Spain.
Accepting the offer of a lifetime
Stories of a 13-year-old boy who had similar talents to legendary Argentinian footballer Diego Maradona had reached the ears of FC Barcelona‘s technical director, Carles Rexach. Intrigued, he sent an offer to the Messi family, proposing a trial where he could see the boy’s famed skills for himself. If he passed, the club would cover his medical bills, but on the condition that Messi moved to Spain.
While Leo didn’t want to leave his life in Rosario behind, his dream of becoming a professional football player was too important. So, in September 2000, Leo and his family uprooted their lives and flew across the Atlantic to Barcelona.
The family stayed in a hotel while Leo presented himself to the prestigious FC Barcelona Youth team. He was given his uniform and went to the changing room, where he didn’t speak a word to his new teammates. They all looked at him in disbelief of how small he was, but after he spent two minutes on the pitch, they were in disbelief of how good he was.
Coach Carles was so impressed that he offered Leo a contract on the only thing he had at hand — a paper napkin. Leo signed it, opening the door to the life he had always dreamed of.
Rising through the ranks
At 13, Lionel Messi was scoring his way through the system in record time. While still very quiet and noticeably shorter than everyone else on the field, Leo stood out for his deft ability with the ball and unbeatable goal-scoring. He was even named Player of the Tournament.
Behind the scenes of his success on the field was an arduous routine. Every day he practiced and every night he injected growth hormones into his legs. This was Leo’s life until he was 14 years old.
In barely a year and a half, he had already reached a level in the academy where he could join his first team. His treatment was finally over, and his body began to grow normally again, ultimately reaching 5′ 7″.
In 2003, at 16 years old, Messi made his professional debut representing Barcelona in a match versus Porto. His performance surprised his opponents and impressed the technical staff. Even after being kicked down repeatedly, he got up, dribbled past four players, and scored a goal.
His moves were unprecedented, partly due to not being based on strategy, but driven by instinct. Leo’s talent won him a spot with Barcelona’s senior squad, and he trained daily with Ronaldinho. The Brazilian player called the shy teen his “little brother,” and openly recognized that Messi would surpass even him.
Breaking personal and global records
At 17, Messi made his league debut as the youngest player to represent Barcelona in an official competition. His coach watched in awe as the teenager breezed past his opponents, controlling the ball with an almost surreal precision. Barcelona went on to win the UEFA Champions League for the first time in six years.
Leo now viewed his short stature as an advantage on the pitch, enabling a swiftness which soon earned him the nickname “The Atomic Flea” in Spanish media. Although he had to train harder than ever to be strong enough to fend off his older and taller opponents.
At 18, he signed his first contract as a senior team player for FC Barcelona. Shortly after, he made his first international appearance playing for Argentina in a match against Hungary. However, two minutes in, a player grabbed onto his shirt and Leo was sent off for using his arm to shake the player off. He sulked about the foul all the way to the dressing room, where his team later found him in tears.
As the seasons went on, the talented football player kept improving and breaking his own records. At 19, he had already established himself as a world-class football player. His talent as a top scorer led him to win dozens of triumphs for both FC Barcelona and his national team. At 22, Messi won the prestigious FIFA World Player of the Year award.
Although he was constantly plagued by serious injuries, by the time he was 24, Lionel Messi had broken the all-time world record for most goals scored in a calendar year. After every goal, he would point two fingers towards the sky, dedicating the triumph to his grandmother.
Resignation, return, and philanthropy
At 27 years old, Messi proudly played for his home country at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He continued to amaze the sports world with his spectacular footwork, creative assists, and eye-opening goals.
However, he was unable to pull Argentina through the final, losing 1-0 to Germany. Even though he earned a Golden Ball, the highest FIFA award for best player, he was utterly disappointed. Leo desperately wanted to bring the cup back to Argentina, as Maradona had done in 1986.
In June 2016, he played for Argentina at the Copa America Centenario 2016. After rigorous training and intense matches, the team made it to the final. The reputed Lionel Messi had his moment of truth as he stepped up to take the defining penalty against Chile. But he missed and Argentina was sent home to disappointed fans.
Crushed by the loss for him and his country, Leo announced his resignation from professional football. His decision was met with a widespread campaign titled “Don’t go, Leo!” The Mayor of Buenos Aires even unveiled a statue of Lionel Messi in an effort to change his mind. Eventually, Messi decided he wasn’t ready to hang up his shirt just yet and returned to his beloved sport.
Although he has yet to fulfill his goal of bringing home a world cup, Lionel Messi achieved his childhood dream with inspiring strength and dedication.
Dubbed as “Maradona’s successor” by the legend himself, Leo continues to make his team and country proud in more ways than one. Off the pitch, he is an advocate for children’s rights, funding medical care for the less fortunate and funding youth clubs, including his old football club, Newell’s Old Boys.
The boy who was once too small to play with his cousins is now the winner of five Golden Balls, three European Golden Shoes, and is one of the top goal scorers in the world. But the modest Leo finds more joy in simply knowing that his grandmother would be proud.
You have to fight to reach your dream. You have to sacrifice and work hard for it.
– Lionel Messi