All football (soccer) enthusiasts, sports analysts, and other football players have at some point debated about one particular thing. Is Lionel Messi the greatest player ever? He’s won every major soccer award – multiple times. He holds multiple scoring records. He’s so consistently amazing on the field that sportscasters have trouble coming up with the words to talk about him during games. He’s regularly compared to another great native Argentine footballer known as Diego Maradona. With all eyes on the World Cup, all of those football enthusiasts, sports analysts, and fellow football players, are again debating whether Lionel Messi really is the best player ever. He is certainly one of the most beloved and surprisingly humble players in the world right now. So who exactly is this man who is essentially a living legend? Turns out, Lionel Messi is a man full of very interesting contradictions.
Lionel Messi was born in June 24, 1987 in Rosario, Santa Fe, Argentina. Rosario is a rather small town and his parents are regular working class people. During Messi’s early years, his father worked in a steel factory and his mother cleaned houses. He got his first football when he was three, and began playing football at the local club when he was 5, coached by his father. It was almost instantly apparent, that he had something special. When he was eight, he shifted to Newell’s Old Boys, another local youth team. For the next four years, Newell’s Old Boys would so dominate the youth circuit that they became known as “The Machine of ’87‘”. The team lost only one match in four years.
Messi was a standout player on an already standout team, and multiple high-profile youth programs were interested in him. However, soccer players are generally tall, rangy athletes, and Messi wasn’t growing like those around him. When he was eleven, he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency. The medical condition, which can cause bone density problems, depression, diminished body mass, and even memory loss, is treatable, but can be very expensive. A doctor prescribed Messi a growth hormone treatment that would cost $1500 for a 45 cycle. When Messi was 13, his father’s company stopped covering the bills. The family then asked the Newell’s Old Boys club to cover the payments. The club contributed a few $500 payments, then stopped.
No one really wanted to take on the responsibility of a potentially sick player who was going to require ongoing medical care. Messi’s relatives in Spain stepped in, and convinced Carles Rexach, the sporting director of FC Barcelona, to give the young player a trial with Barcelona’s youth team. It took watching only one game for Rexach to know Messi had something special. Eager to sign him, he actually wrote the young player’s first contract on a napkin, as it was the only piece of paper he had nearby right then. After some convincing by Rexach, the team’s management agreed to pay for Messi’s medical treatments if he moved to Spain and began training with them. The tiny player from a tiny town in Argentina, was on his way.
He grew up in Barcelona’s amazing youth system. His fellow players were initially duped by his small size and shyness, but quickly realized that he was a force to be reckoned with the moment he stepped on the pitch. Barcelona fans began to take notice of him, as well, as he moved up through the youth league teams at a record rate. After playing on the junior Infantil B & C teams for three years, it was clear to everyone that he was a straight up child prodigy. Barcelona was suffering financial problems, however, and upper management wanted to let him go. Not only were they paying for his medical treatments, they were also paying for his family to live in Barcelona. His coaches begged to keep him. Ultimately, they did, and he repaid them by zooming his way through five different teams between 2003 and 2004. His level of play in Juvenil B got him promoted to Juvenil A. He was then promoted to FC Barcelona’s C team, then quickly bounced to Barcelona B, playing for both the B and C teams for part of 2004. He was promoted to the A team late in 2004, and became the youngest club player to play in La Liga. When he scored his first goal, during his second pro game, he became the youngest La Liga player to ever score in a professional match. He was 17 years, 10 months, and seven days old. (That record has since been broken by his teammate, Bojan Krkic, who scored his goal off of a Messi assist.)
Since then, he has been nearly unstoppable. His level of play has earned him a rabid fan base around the world. There are huge Messi fan clubs from Brooklyn, New York to Fukuoka, Japan. No matter the country, football enthusiasts are simply fascinated by the man many refer to as a “genius”. He is the first player to have won the coveted Ballon d’Or four times, consecutively. He’s won the European Gold Shoe three times. As a member of FC Barcelona, he’s set multiple records, including becoming the first and only player to top-score in four consecutive Champions League matches. He became the first player to score five goals in one Champions League match during a game in 2012. He currently holds the European record for goals scored in a single season and the La Liga record for goals scored in a single season. He is the only player in football history, who has ever scored a goal against every team in professional football in consecutive games. That’s just a sample of his records and accolades. Fans actually bow to him when he’s on the field, worshipping him like a present day God.
There’s no denying that he is truly one of the greatest players ever. However, the contradictions come in to play with the man that is Messi. His relationship with his home country of Argentina, is, shall we say, less adoring. In fact, the one place he doesn’t receive full-blown adulation, is Argentina. Argentine football fans are not so pleased with the fact that he has spent most of his career in Spain. It’s viewed as mildly traitorous. When he began playing for the Argentine National Team in 2004, it didn’t go so well. His level of play was noticeably different with his home country’s team, and the Argentine press and public were very clear about the fact that this was not acceptable. Having played in Spain for so many years, with a team made up of young men that he’d grown up with in the youth system there, he found adjusting to his Argentine teammates to be difficult. He rallied, however, and helped them to the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup prize. He was the Cup’s top scorer, in fact, with 6 goals. He became the youngest Argentine player to score in the FIFA World Cup a year later. All seemed to be forgiven by 2008, when he led the Argentine team to a Gold at the Olympics. He is now the Captain of the National Team.
He makes $41 million per year in base salary alone. Endorsements bring in an additional $23 million for an annual income of $64 million dollars. His total net worth, as of this writing, is $180 million dollars. And that number is climbing, FAST. Sponsors actually beg Lionel to work with them. He has deals with everyone from Adidas to Gillette to Turkish Airlines, and is currently ranked second, behind Portuguese footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, as the top football earner in the world. Ronaldo, his chief rival for the mantle of “best player”, is model handsome, tall, and is known for pointing out that he is at the top of the food chain.
Messi, on the other hand, seems almost physically uncomfortable with the accolades, attention, and money. He rarely grants interviews. He owns multiple luxury properties, but no one except close friends and family know what they look like inside. He won’t let anyone photograph the interiors. When his first child, Thiago, was born, the announcement appeared as one line on FC Barcelona’s website, “Leo Messi is a father.” He thanked God for the gift of his son on his Facebook page (where he has 62.7 million followers), and that was it. No publications were allowed to have photos. He still talks to his friends from “The Machine of ’87′” back in Rosario on a regular basis. He still owns his family’s first home, though they no longer live there. When he trains in Argentina for International games, he will drive the three hours from Buenos Aires to Rosario to have dinner with his family, sleep there, then drive back for practice the next day. He oversees the Leo Messi Foundation, which supports education and healthcare for children. Through the foundation, Argentine children with a severe illnesses can receive treatment in Spain. The Foundation covers their transportation, hospital, and recuperation fees.
Messi is, for all intents and purposes, a regular guy. He just happens to be a regular guy who is completely unstoppable when you put a ball near his feet. In fact, he runs faster with a football, than without it. He’s only 27 years old. He will most likely continue to set records and make plays that no one has ever seen before. He just keeps getting better. So is he the greatest player ever? It will probably be a long time before anyone can truly say. Is he the greatest player right now? Almost certainly – and he’s definitely the most exciting. While football enthusiasts, analysts, and players around the world argue about whether he’s the best, they all still stop to watch him blow pass every defender on his way to another goal. If Messi’s ability to shut everyone up, even his detractors, isn’t a major sign of greatness, it’s hard to know what is.