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Lionel Messi Biography

Lionel Messi Biography

What goes around comes around. Centuries ago, the Spanish conquered South America with just a handful of men. Today, a South American—Lionel Messi—has conquered Spain singlehandedly. In the space of 1,000 days, the diminutive Argentine went from an unknown reserve-team player to one of the best in the business. Daring, efficient, powerful and creative, Lionel has shown that a little man can still be a giant in the world of pro soccer. This is his story…


GROWING UP

Lionel Andrés Messi was born on June 24, 1987, in Rosario, Argentina. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His father, Jorge, was a manager at a metals company. His mother, Celia, brought in extra money as a cleaner. Lionel was the third of the couple’s three boys—his older brothers are named Matias and Rodrigo. Lionel also has a sister, Maria Sol.

Soccer had become a national obsession in Argentina by the time Lionel came along. One year before his birth, Diego Maradona had led the country to victory in the World Cup.

Soccer also happened to be the family sport. All three boys played, and Jorge coached a local youth team. Lionel joined his dad’s club at the age of five. He was extremely small for his age but extremely talented as well. On his first day of school, he was told he couldn’t kick the ball with the other children because he was too fragile. He proceeded to put on a dribbling exhibition for his teacher. From then on, he was the first player picked when the kids chose sides for a soccer game.

Lionel showed enough at the youth-soccer level to earn a development spot with the top local club, Newell’s Old Boys. He joined the team at the age of eight. Newell’s Old Boys had a history dating back to the early 1900s. They had won the Argentine championship four times since the 1970s and the Copa Libertadores twice. Among its great players were international stars Jorge Valdano and Gabriel Batistuta. Maradona also played for the club in his twilight years.

Lionel had more than a little Maradona in him. He was fast and fearless, with a low center of gravity and a knack for maneuvering around tacklers while running at full speed. He could shoot with either foot—but was particularly adept with the left—and was an excellent passer. And despite his size, no one could take the ball away from him.

The problem, of course, was his size. While teammates the same age grew an inch or two each year, Lionel’s progress was painfully slow.

After Lionel turned 11, the Messis were informed by doctors that their talented son had a hormone deficiency. Growth hormone therapy would cost between $500 and $1,000 a month. Jorge’s insurance covered the daily injections for a year or so, but with Argentina’s economy crumbling, that money soon ran out. The family considered moving to Australia, where the public health program would have covered the therapy.

In the meantime, the medical bills were was more than the Messis could afford. It was also more than River Plate, one of Argentina’s legendary pro teams, could afford. The clubhad showed intense interest in Lionel but backed off after his diagnosis. No one could take on this added burden, including his home team, Newell’s Old Boys.

One team that could afford the treatment was FC Barcelona, the Spanish League supersquad. Barca’s director, Carles Rexach, had heard about the boy’s talent through the Messi’s relatives in Catalonia and was undaunted by the price tag of growth hormone therapy. Jorge and Lionel traveled to Spain, and Rexach granted the boy a tryout.


ON THE RISE

Lionel pulled on a Barca jersey and scored five goals in a scrimmage. Rexach saw enough to make the Messi’s an offer: Move to Spain and the club would see to it that their son had the best medical treatment and soccer training. Johan Cruyff, who watched the tryout, said later that FC Barcelnoa officials decided that Lionel would not leave that day without a contract.

This was a deal the Messis could not pass up. Jorge had been guiding his son’s career very carefully, and Barcelona’s offer answered all of his prayers. In 2000, the family moved across the Atlantic. and Lionel began growth hormone therapy that would eventually boost his height to 5-6. The family was set up with an apartment, Jorge got a job, and the children started attending a local school.

Lionel joined Barcelona’s U-14 squad and became the best player on the team. As he learned the nuances of the game, he moved rapidly through the organization, joining the C team and then the B team before earning a spot with the club's A team. Lionel made his debut for FC Barcelona in a non-league game against FC Porto in November of 2003. He was six months pat his 16th birthday.

The following spring, he made his international debut for Argentina, playing in an Under-20 match against Paraguay.

Lionel played in his first Spanish League game with Barcelona in mid-October of 2004. He started the season as a reserve-squad player but saw more and more time as injuries felled key teammates on the big club. His first goal came the following spring in a game against Albacete Balompié.

Later that spring, Argentina won the FIFA Under-20 World Cup. Lionel was the star of the tournament, receiving the Golden Boot and Golden Ball awards as the top scorer and top player. He was sensational in the final, a 2–1 victory over Nigeria, scoring both goals on penalty shots.

That performance earned Lionel a call-up to the Argentine national team. He played his first game against Hungary that August. National coach José Pekerman sent him into the contest, and he immediately began running circles around the defense. The Hungarians started tugging at his jersey to slow him down, and Lionel showed his youth by throwing an elbow in retaliation right in front of the referee. He was sent off less than a minute into his international career!

He did better in his first World Cup match, playing a solid game against Paraguay in a qualifier won by Argentina 1–0. Before the game, he called it his "re-debut,” joking that his first appearance was “rather short.”

Early in the 2005–06 season, Barcelona extended Lionel’s contract to 2014. He obtained Spanish citizenship 10 days later. This was crucial, as Lionel still hadn’t appeared in a Spanish First Division match. The club had reached is quota of non-EU players and needed Lionel to have native status so as not to cut a key overseas star.

Lionel’s first test came in a September UEFA Champions League tilt with Italy’s Udinese. The Barcelona fans gave him a standing ovation when he entered the game as a sub, and he rewarded them by working several magical combinations with the team’s star, Ronaldinho. During the year, he made several jaw-dropping plays, saving his best for Barcelona’s toughest European opponents, including Juventus and Chelsea.

Lionel went on to score six goals in 17 Spanish League games. He added another goal in six Champions League matches. His season ended early after he tore a thigh muscle in a game against Chelsea. He watched from the sidelines as a stacked Barcelona squad soldiered on and won both the Spanish and European championships.

Meanwhile, Argentina faced a big decision. Would Lionel be healthy in time for World Cup 2006? He was added to the team in May. Lionel participated in a warm-up against Argentina’s U-20 team and a friendly against Angola, but he was on the bench in the opening match of the World Cup against Ivory Coast.

Lionel saw his first action in the next match, against Serbia. Argentina already had a big lead when he entered the game with 15 minutes left. Lionel immediately set up Hernan Crespo on a goal and the scored another to make the final score 6–0. In the span of a few minutes, he became the youngest player to appear in a World Cup for Argentina and the youngest Argentine to score a World Cup goal.

Lionel earned a start in Argentina’s next game, a 0–0 tie with the Netherlands. He was back on the bench against Mexico, but Pekerman inserted him in the 84th minute with score knotted 1–1. The strategy appeared to work to perfection when Lionel blew past the defense and scored the apparent game-winner, but the play was ruled off-side. Fortunately, a goal in extra time kept Argentina’s championship hopes alive.

Pekerman drew sharp criticism when he kept Lionel out of the starting lineup again in Argentina’s next match, a quarter-final tilt with Germany. The game went to penalty kicks, and the germans won 4–2. After the game Lionel was furious. He refused to talk to reporters.

The injury bug bit Lionel again in 2006–07, as he missed three months with a broken foot. He returned to the field in February, and from that point on coach Frank Rijkaard increased his playing time until he was at full strength in March.


MAKING HIS MARK

His first full game came in the big match—dubbed “El Clasico”—with Real Madrid. In a contest that featured non-stop action, Madrid scored three times, but Lionel answered each goal with one of his own, recording a hat trick in a wild 3–3 tie that saw his club play a man down. At 18, he was the youngest Barcelona player ever to score in this ancient grudge match.

Lionel kept getting better and better. He finished the season with 14 goals; 11 came in his final 13 games. In a Copa del Rey match against Getafe, Lionel did a spot-on imitation of Maradona’s great World Cup goal against England in 1986. He started just inside his defensive half, beat two Getafe defenders at midfield with quick dribbling, sped straight down the field with the ball, made two more defenders miss tackles at the top of the penalty box, maneuvered past the goalkeeper and lifted the ball from an angle into the goal.

Spanish newspapers called him “Messidona” after that. Ironically, in a game against Espanyol, Lionel reproduced Maradona’s other famous goal against the Brits, when he leaped for a header and the ball ticked off his hand and went in the net.

In June, Lionel competed for Argentina in Copa America. He was the youngest player in the tournament, but it certainly didn’t show. On the contrary, in a 4–1 pasting of the United States, he played like the cagiest of veterans, creating good shots for himself and passing off when he drew multiple defenders. One of those passes found the foot of Crespo, who finished with a nifty goal.

The Colombians had no better luck with Lionel in the next game. At one point, they pulled him down and drew a penalty, which Crespo converted for a goal. Later, he was pulled down again. This time, Juan Roman Riquelme nailed the kick. Argentina won 4–2. Guaranteed a spot in the quarter-finals. Argentina rested Lionel in the next game, but he saw action as a sub in the final minutes, setting up Javier Mascherano for a score.

Lionel scored against Peru in the quarters to help his club advance. In the semi-finals, he chipped a ball over Mexican keeper Oswaldo Sanchez to ensure that Argentina moved on to the final. The team’s amazing run ended with a defeat at the hands of Brazil.

Lionel got 2007–08 off to a great start. In back-to-back-to-back games against Olympique Lyonnaise, FC Sevilla and Real Zaragoza, he netted five goals. By mid-season, many were calling him the best forward in pro soccer; a poll in a Spanish newspaper had 77 percent of fans voting him the top player in the world.

A thigh tear in March sent Lionel to the bench for more than a month, the third time in four seasons he had been felled by this type of injury. Still, he finished with 10 goals and 12 assists in 28 league games and another six scores in nine Champions League matches.

As the Olympics neared, Barcelona was hesitant to allow Lionel to play for Argentina. It would mean he would miss a Champions League qualifier. He and coach Josep Guardiola worked it out, however, before a controversy erupted. Lionel was off to Beijing. In the final, Lionel gave Ángel Di María a beautiful setup for the game’s only goal versus Nigeria. And just like that, Lionel added a gold medal to his trophy case.

His greatest thrill in Beijing came at a lunch table at the Olympic Village. U.S. hoops superstar Kobe Bryant sat down with him, and they chatted in Spanish. Lionel knew who Kobe was, but wasn’t sure if Bryant—a huge soccer fan—knew who he was. As Bryant walked away, he turned and said, “Messi—you’re the best!”

The 2008–09 season saw the departure from Barcelona of Ronaldinho. Lionel, who had worn jersey #19, received a great honor when he was offered the superstar’s #10 jersey. He lived up to his new number by coming in as a sub and scoring two late goals in a September Champions League game against Shakhtar Donetsk, transforming a 1–0 deficit into a 2–1 victory.

Lionel did the same thing later in the season against Racing de Santander for another dramatic 2–1 win. He also played great in victories over Ivory Coast, the Netherlands and Brazil.

The goals kept coming. That spring, Lionel scored his 20th league goal against Getafe and then his 30th overall in a game against Malaga CF. In Barcelona’s second meeting with Real Madrid, Lionel banged home a pair of goals in a 6–2 wipeout. After each score, he ran toward the camera and lifted his shirt to reveal a Síndrome X Fràgil t-shirt, in support of a children’s charity he works with. Fragile X is a condition similar to autism.

Barcelona went on to win the Copa del Rey, the annual competition between Spanish football clubs. He was the headliner in the 4–1 final won over Athletic Bilbao with a goal and an assist. It ended an 11-year drought for Barcelona. Barca also won La Liga in 2009.

Lionel was at his best in 2009 UEFA Champions League competition, leading Barcelona into the final against Manchester United with eight goals. He netted his ninth against ManU, sealing a 2–0 victory after Samuel Eto'o opened the scoring for Barcelona. Lionel scored on one of his patented perfectly placed headers—a rare weapon for a man his size.

Lionel’s spectacular spring also included a World Cup qualifier against Venezuela. It was Maradona’s first game as national team coach, and Lionel’s first for Argentina wearing the #10 jersey. With every eyeball in the country watching this symbolic occasion, he drilled the game’s first goal and played wonderfully in a dominant 4–0 victory.

Later in the year, Barcelona met the Ukrainian club Shakhtar Donetsk in the 2009 UEFA Super Cup Final. Lionel played a magnificent game in the 1–0 victory. Afterward, Guardiola proclaimed him the greatest player in the world. This was confirmed by events in December, including Lionel being named the winner of the Ballon d’Or award. He also scored the winning goal in extra time for Barca in the FIFA Club World Cup final. The victory over Argentine club Estudiantes marked the sixth championship for Barcelona during 2009. The team rewarded Lionel with a contract extension through 2016.

Lionel was one of five finalists for the FIFA World Player of the Year award. The others were Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi, Kaka and Andres Iniesta. When he took home the hardward, he became the first Argentine to win the award.

As the 2009–10 season unfolded, Lionel went on a historic scoring spree for Barcelona. During one week, he netted eight goals. In March, he became the first player in club history to score back-to-back hat tricks in league games. In April, he had his first four-goal game, fueling a victory over Arsenal in a Champions League quarterfinal match. In that contest, he surpassed Rivaldo as the top career scorer in Champions League competition. He finished the year with 34 goals in La Liga play, matching the club record set in 1997 by Brazilian star Ronaldo. He was named the Spanish League’s top player for the second season in a row.

World Cup 2010 began with much fanfare and high expectations for Argentina. With no clear favorite in the tournament, many believed the Messi–Maradona combination might produce magic. Argentina won its opening match against Nigeria, 1–0. Lionel created some good scoring chances, but none of his shots found the net. In the team’s next match, against South Korea, he was everywhere. With all eyes on the Argentina’s star, Gonzalo Higuain was left open for three booming goals in a 4–1 victory. With the win, the Argentinians assured themselves a trip to the knockout round. They completed a perfect record in group play with a 2–0 win over Greece.

Argentina continued to roll in the round of 16, defeating Mexico 3–1. Lionel set up the first goal by Carlos Tevez with a wonderful pass. Unfortunately, Argentina’s run ended against the Germans in the quarters in a 4–0 defeat.

The news wasn’t all bad for Lionel. He and his girlfriend, Antonella Roccuzzo, announced that they planned to marry late in the year.

With his remarkable performance during 2009 and 2010, Lionel has established his reputation as one of soccer’s premiere players of all time. His intense desire to win, coupled with his incredible ability to take over a game, has made him the game’s biggest star—even if he stands only 5-6.


LIONEL MESSI THE PLAYER

Lionel is strong, fast and creative. He is comfortable at any of the forward positions and is not intimidated by bigger players. There is almost nothing he cannot do on a soccer field, and his powerful shot makes him especially good on set plays, such as penalty kicks and corners.

Lionel breezes past defenders almost effortlessly, feinting one way until a tackler commits and then taking the ball in the opposite direction. When he gets up a head of steam, opponents find themselves having to guess which way he will go—he gives away little with his body language.

Perhaps the scariest thing about Lionel is how cool-headed he is for a young player. The son of a coach always views the field a little differently, but he sees things his own coaches often do not. That is why he is so good in the late stages of a game, either as a starter or a sub. With 70 or 80 minutes to analyze an enemy defense, he knows precisely how and when to strike at an opponent’s soft spot.

Ultimately, Lionel’s greatest genius is a result of his size. Because he does not have the physique to make space for himself, he does so in other ways. He is always aware of the players around him and will give up the ball knowing he’ll get it back in better position. No one in pro soccer is as good at creating space and opportunity where none seems to exist.