Champions League: Rosario cherishes humble Messi

By Vladimir HernandezBBC Mundo
Lionel Messi
Messi (centre) likes to keep in touch with his Argentine roots back in Rosario

"Do you remember the goal Maradona scored in the World Cup against England when he took on and beat half their team? Well, Leo used to score goals like that almost every game, even when he was only five years old."

That's how good Lionel Messi - now widely considered to be the world's best player - was as a little kid, according to David Trevez, the president of Grandoli FC, the first club where the diminutive Argentine played competitively.

Grandoli is located in Barrio Sur, in the south of Rosario, one of the biggest cities in Argentina after Buenos Aires.

Barrio Sur is somewhat off the beaten track. Grim estates tower over the neighbourhood. Amid abandoned vehicles, stray dogs stalk the rubbish-strewn streets.

The ground where Messi took his first steps to global recognition is little better.

The children only train in the evening on a poorly lit and uneven pitch, skipping over turf which is borrowed from the city council. It is a far cry from the stunning Nou Camp, which the 23-year-old striker illuminates for Spanish giants Barcelonaexternal-link week-in, week-out.

But many of the children here know, with some pride, that they are playing at a ground where Messi took his first steps towards becoming a legend.

"I'll be the next Messi," says a cheeky but assured young trainee, wearing an Argentina replica top, after doing 21 keepy-uppys.

He must be about eight years old and already shows skills with the ball that some adults must dream of. I later see him taking shots on goal, which are no less impressive.

"Our aim is to teach the kids how to play football, and we focus our training on the technical aspects," says Trevez.

At Grandoli the coaches already whisper about a "new Messi" coming through the ranks. In other times promising young talent would be labelled the "new Maradona".

All I can find out about the latest potential star is that he's called David and that a Spanish television crew recently came over to film him.

"We see many talented children here. But Leo had ability to spare. During his three years here he did incredible things for a kid his age and size, considering that the football would reach almost up to his knees," said Trevez.

"That's why many of us are not surprised with the things we see on the TV that Messi is doing, as we used to see that here on a regular basis," he adds.

Messi always played with children who were both bigger and older than him. At first, it seemed it was a matter of time before he would grow. No worries.

But, after the wait for physical development turned into concern as it failed to arrive, it became clear that the boy called "the little flea" had a problem.

By then he was already part of the youth ranks of one of the city's biggest clubs, Newell's Old Boysexternal-link.

Rosario has a slight feel of Liverpool. It is a port town with a fierce rivalry between two big clubs. Messi played for the one more similar to Liverpool than Everton.

An endocrinologistexternal-link, with close ties to Newell's because of his staunch support for the club, made the first prognosis.

Messi had a deficiency in the growth hormone and it threatened his promising career.

"We started the treatment - which was as expensive then as it could be today - but it was initially covered by the health insurance his father had at work," Dr Diego Schwarzstein told the BBC.

"All was going well until 2001, when Argentina faced a deep economic crisis which led to the suspension of many insurance policies.

"The treatment stopped and probably the club could have done something to help them out."

With Newell's not forthcoming to provide the funds, for whatever reason, Barcelona stepped into the void after coach Carles Rexach saw Messi during a trial.

Dr Diego Schwarzstein
Dr Schwarzstein first found that Messi had a growth hormone problem

Messi's first contract was done with such haste that it was signed on a napkin.

Remarkably, it is difficult to find a poster or a picture of Messi in a shop, bar or on a wall in Rosario - despite it being his hometown.

But not so in Buenos Aires, where the marketing of the young Argentine is evident in many places.

I spoke with Messi at the 2006 World Cup and it struck me (despite having heard beforehand) how shy he is. Those close to him confirm that he is an extremely introverted person.

It is maybe why the city of Rosario does not surrender to the cult of Messi wherever you go. They know him well.

"We don't need to goad about Messi being a 'Rosarino'. We cherish him anyway," says a shopkeeper.

Most locals will watch the TV coverage of the Champions League final, when Messi's Barcelona take on Manchester United at Wembley as both clubs aim for their fourth triumph in Europe's top club competition.

But those who saw him play in person, when he was a child, are unlikely to be surprised by whatever Messi produces. Even after his goal-scoring personal best this season in La Liga.

"His ability was always clear," says his former medic.

"We constantly saw him scoring goals after slaloming past defenders, crossing all the pitch from one side to the other."

In the capital Buenos Aires, some 300 kilometres away from his hometown, Messi's talent provokes awe and amazement - which is reflected in the coverage he receives in local newspapers.

This, say some in Rosario, is due to not having seen him do these same things as a small kid.

What does amaze his fellow locals in Rosario is how Messi and his family still seem to have their feet very much on the ground.

His first house was erected years ago by his father, a former builder. At the time of the BBC's visit there was nobody home. The neighbours told us that everybody was "on a trip". They had gone to London, we later found out.

Messi, his parents, and his siblings still stay at this pleasant-but-humble house when Lionel's football commitments allow him some free time.

"He really likes his aunt's milanesasexternal-link [a breaded escalope]," says Pablo, a local journalist who knows the family.

But it is Messi's charity work - through a foundation with his nameexternal-link - that is widely appreciated in Rosario.

His latest contribution was the rescue of a playground for children in a poor area. In Rosario these actions receive more praise than any of the 52 goals the young Argentine has scored this season.

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