Many have been called to inherit Diego Maradona's heavy legacy as the Argentinians (and the world) have spent the last ten years on the lookout of the "true successor" of the legendary number ten. First there was Ariel Ortega, even while Maradona was still (barely) active. Then came Javier Saviola, Diego Aimar, Juan Román Riquelme, Jorge D'Alessandro, Carlos Tevez.
Well, they have all had magnificent careers, but none has reached the status of the global superhero that Maradona enjoyed.
Lionel "Leo" Messi has come closest to that ideal, displaying traits that may make him ultimately more popular and appreciated than his controversial predecessor: he seems so tame and boyishly innocent. Unlike Maradona at his age.
The boy that has won over everybody's hearts and minds with his close control and lightning-fast runs on goal was born on June 24th of 1987 in the Argentinian city of Rosario, north-west of Buenos Aires.
Leo made his first steps into the soccer world aged five in a team from his barrio, Grandoli. Three years later he transferred to the academy of Newell's Old Boys, one of Rosario's two big clubs at the national level. He practiced at Newell's for five years but when he was about to enter River Plate's youth scheme in 1998, during a routine check-up he was diagnosed with a medical condition involving low levels of growth hormone in his body. The condition was curable, but at 900 USD costly for a modest Argentinian family.
His father Jorge, a simple worker in the metal industry, contacted his relatives in the Spanish town of Lleida, near Barcelona and they found him a job. Without thinking twice, the whole famly including Leo and his three siblings moved to Spain. Upon arrival, in September of 2000, the father took his son to Barcelona FC for a trial. During the trial the boy bedazzled the coaches, notably the director of youth operations Carles Rexach, who immediately signed him – on a paper napkin! Soon the contractual relationship was formalized in the club offices and Lionel Messi became Barcelona's member.
Naturally, the club took over the financing of the hormonal treatment of the 13-year old kid, measuring only 140 cm at the time.
In the span of three years Messi blitzed through Barcelona's youth categories and earned his debut in the first team in the autumn of 2003 at the inauguration ceremony of Porto's new Dragao Stadium. It was then that José Mourinho first saw the young Messi and would later pester him at Stamford Bridge three years on.
In the next season, in which Barcelona were crowned champions for the 17th time, Leo appeared for the first time in a League game, on October 16th 2004, when his team defeated Espanyol in the Catalan derby. On May 1st 2005 he became the youngest player ever to have scored in a League game when he netted against Albacete (recently this distinction has passed on to Bojan Krkic).
Later that year Messi led his country to a brilliant triumph at the Youth World Cup in the Netherlands, winning awards as the best player and the top scorer at the tournament. These achievements established him as a major international star at only 18, prompting Barca to extend his contract until 2014, setting the buy-out clause at 150 million Euros, equalling that of Ronaldinho.
Lionel Messi © Chris KL Lau
In September 2005 Messi obtained Spanish citizenship, which enabled him to play in Spain as an EU citizen, two days before making his debut in the Champions League against Udinese at Camp Nou. In December, the Italian magazine Tuttosport awarded him the Golden Boy award for the best young footballer, ahead of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Next February he made a decisive impact on the Champions' League tie against Chelsea, which would go Barcelona's way, but in the return game in Spain he suffered a thigh muscle injury which kept him out of action almost until the end of the season.
He sadly missed Barca's triumphant Champions' League final against Arsenal in Paris, but returned back to fitness in order to appear at his first senior World Cup in Germany. There the coach José Pékerman made a crass error by not playing Messi in the quarter finals agains the hosts, Germany, which according to most fans was the key factor in Argentina's eventual loss on penalties.
The disappointment did not affect much the then 19-year old Messi who started the following season playing his best soccer yet. He had scored plenty of important goals both in the Primera división and in Europe, including a key goal at Werder Bremen in the second round of the group phase, but on November 12th in a league game with Zaragoza he sustained a foot injury that kept him out of action for three months.
In that period, deprived of several other injured players, Barcelona lost some significant points that would ultimately cost them the title. Still, Messi returned with a vengeance playing a terrific game against Real Madrid on March 10th, scoring all three goals in the 3-3 draw. He became the first player in over 12 years to have achieved a hat-trick in "el clásico" after Real's Chilean, Iván Zamorano, did that in early 1995.
The highlight of Messi's season came in the King's Cup semifinals against Getafe in April, when he netted a goal reminiscent of Maradona's second against England in the 1986 World Cup. In fact, Messi's goal looked even better, but the great Diego scored against a full England defence rather than Getafe's.
Another striking similarity with Maradona was his hand-ball goal against Espanyol on the penultimate day of the League Championship. Although his goal was allowed to stand just as Maradona's in the same, fabled England match in Mexico, it was of no avail to Barcelona since they failed to defeat Espanyol and ended the season losing the League title by the narrowest of margins, level on points with Real Madrid. Messi, however, got his consolation by being voted the best Latinoamerican player of the Spanish League.
In the Copa América in Venezuela last July the little Argentinian again shone, scoring some breathtaking and jaw-dropping goals against Peru and Mexico, but was strangely subdued, like his teammates, in the final, which Argentina lost 0-3 to Brazil.
Full name: Lionel Messi
Nicknames: Leo, Pulga (Flea)
Birthdate: 24th June 1987
Birthplace: Santa Fé
Height and weight: 169 cm, 67 kg
Position: right sided forward
Shirt number: 19
Contract: 30th June 2014
2004/05 Barcelona 7 – 1
2005/06 Barcelona 17 – 6
2006/07 Barcelona 26 – 14
2007/08 Barcelona 10 – 7
2005-07 Argentina 24 – 7
2 Spanish League titles (2005, 2006)
2 Spanish Supercups (2005, 2006)
1 Champions League (2006)
1 World Cup U-20 (2005)
1 Finals of the South American championship (2007)