To win recognition as one of the best to ever play the game is always an extremely hard goal, not only in soccer but in any sport. It’s even more challenging when other players have already won that reputation—let alone if someone from your own country did so.
Well, Lionel Messi defied the odds and did all of that. In a country where everyone thought that no one would ever come close to Diego Maradona, a relatively unknown teenager raised in Barcelona eventually proved them wrong. Argentina produced another legend after Maradona, and that’s Leo Messi. Here, let’s get to know more about him.
Lionel Messi normally needs no introduction, but for those who need context, he’s a professional footballer widely regarded as the best of all time, or at least one of them. He was born in Argentina but spent most of his life in Europe, where he played for Spain giants FC Barcelona since he was a kid. In 2021, Messi left for Paris Saint-Germain, which is just his second club in his fantastic career. Messi is also a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador since 2010.
Born and raised in Rosario, Lionel Messi comes from a working-class family that has been by his side throughout his entire life. His father Jorge worked as section manager in a steel factory, while her mother Celia worked in a magnetic oil workshop and occasionally cleaned houses for a living. Leo also has two elder brothers, Rodrigo and Matías, and a younger sister, María Sol.
Leo’s career, however, changed their lives. Jorge has acted as his agent since Messi joined the Barcelona youth academy, while his brothers eventually started to handle his businesses and professional brands. Still, his family—especially Jorge and Celia—has always kept a low profile despite the Argentine footballer’s rise to stardom.
Lionel moved to Spain when he was only 13, but he built his life with someone he knew from his childhood in Rosario: Antonella Roccuzzo, longtime partner and eventual wife. Having known each other since they were five, they got together as teenagers when Messi was already in Barcelona.
The couple has three kids: Thiago, Mateo, and Ciro. The first was born in November 2012, the second in September 2015, while the third in March 2018. Antonella became popular on social media, where he shares pictures of her family as well as her healthy lifestyle to millions of followers.
Soccer was part of Lionel Messi’s life since he was a kid. He started playing the sport with his older brother and their friends in his native Rosario. Despite being smaller and younger than the rest, he was good enough to play with bigger boys.
It didn’t take long for him to start playing ‘formally’, being coached by his father at local club Grandoli when he was just five. A few years later, Messi hit his first big break when he joined the academy of Rosario giants Newell’s Old Boys, a top-tier football club.
Messi has always been shorter than his peers, so at some point in his childhood it became normal to see the rest being taller than him. But as he grew up, that became increasingly noticeable and it started to call the family’s attention. When he was just 11, Messi was diagnosed by doctors with a growth hormone deficiency (GHD). This condition that barred his growth could be treated but it wasn’t cheap.
Messi had to receive growth-hormone injections every night, but the medical bills quickly became too expensive for the family. His talent, however, continued to make noise and it eventually caught the eye of domestic powerhouse River Plate.
Unfortunately, River was unwilling to cover his medical treatment, which is why nothing materialized. However, a greater opportunity was in store for Messi.
A trial at FC Barcelona was just the beginning of something bigger for Leo, who made such an impression on coach Carles Rexach that the Spanish giants secured his signature as soon as they could. In fact, Barca were so desperate to acquire Messi that his first contract was signed on a paper napkin. On top of that, the Catalans took care of his expensive medical treatment.
At only 13, Messi joined Barcelona youth academy, called La Masia. His father Jorge supported Leo from the very beginning, moving with him to Spain while the rest of the family stayed in Rosario. Though adjusting to a new country was something new for him, Messi didn’t struggle to perform at his new club and went on to climb up the ranks until making his first team debut in 2005.
Messi was promoted to the senior squad as a teenager and made his first team debut at only 17 years old, becoming the then youngest player to don the FC Barcelona uniform.
Messi played his first official match for the club on October 16, 2004, coming on for Deco in the 82nd minute of a LaLiga fixture against Espanyol. That season, Messi also became the youngest goal scorer in the history of the Spanish top-flight.
Messi’s progress at the Catalan outfit caught the eye of the Spanish national team, which tried to convince him to represent its youth teams. Messi, who had been given Spanish citizenship, declined the offer as he remained attached to his Argentine roots.
Having helped La Albiceleste win the U-20 World Cup, Messi made his senior international debut for Argentina in a friendly match on August 17, 2005—but nothing went according to plan. Only 43 seconds after coming on in the second half against Hungary, the 18-year-old Messi saw the red card for elbowing a rival in his neck while running towards the goal.
However, Messi managed to leave that behind and went on to be part of the Argentina roster for the 2006 World Cup, where he became the youngest Argentine player to play and score in FIFA’s flagship competition. His first goal in a World Cup came in a 5-0 victory against Serbia and Montenegro in the group stage. Argentina was eliminated by Germany in the quarterfinals, and people still question Jose Pekerman’s decision not to field Messi that day.
But from then on, Messi became a regular starter in the national team. Following a painful defeat in the 2007 Copa America final, the rising Barcelona star led his country to an Olympic gold medal in Beijing 2008. After the Summer Olympics, Messi’s club career reached new heights.
Though Messi was part of the Barcelona roster that won the double in the 2005-06 season and established himself as starter in the next two years, his breakout season came in the 2008-09 campaign. With Ronaldinho gone, Messi emerged as the new superstar of Barcelona.
That year, Messi took his game to the next level by helping Barcelona secure the first “treble” in club history. That means winning the best three tournaments at stake: UEFA Champions League, LaLiga, and Copa del Rey. The treble-winning team led by Pep Guardiola is widely considered as the best team of all time, and Leo played a pivotal role in its success.
With nine goals in 12 Champions League games (including the game-winner in the final against Manchester United), 23 goals in 31 league matches and six in eight Copa del Rey affairs, Messi made a strong case to win the first Ballon d’Or in his career.
On top of that, Barca ended up securing the first sextuple in soccer history: Champions League, LaLiga, Copa del Rey, FIFA Club World Cup, UEFA Super Cup, and Spanish Super Cup. However, the best was yet to come.
2012 was a historic, record-breaking year for Messi. After becoming the first player to score five goals in a single Champions League game, Messi surpassed Cesar Rodriguez (232 goals) as Barcelona’s all-time leading scorer scoring a hat trick against Granada.
On top of that, he also broke Gerd Muller’s 39-year record of 85 goals in a calendar year (1972), recording 91 goals in 2012. Far from being jealous, Muller said: "My record stood for 40 years—85 goals in 60 games—and now the best player in the world has broken it, and I'm delighted for him. He is an incredible player, gigantic."
Needless to say, that wonderful year earned Messi his fourth consecutive Ballon d’Or award, becoming the first player in history to win the prize on four occasions.
While Messi enjoyed worldwide recognition for his fantastic performances at FC Barcelona, he didn’t get the same kind of love in his home country. Though many Argentine fans admired Leo, his lack of success with the national team while he thrived in Spain made him a subject of criticism by the local media. In addition, he was also constantly compared with Diego Maradona.
To be fair, no other team could match what Barcelona did under Pep Guardiola. Regardless, Messi was made a scapegoat for Argentina’s failures in those years. He had blossomed as a Ballon d’Or player at Barcelona, but he couldn’t carry his level to the international stage.
The 2010 World Cup in South Africa was the first big blow in Messi’s international career. Not only was Argentina destroyed by Germany in the quarterfinals, but Messi ended the tournament without scoring a single goal. The team didn’t arrive to that competition in a good spot, but the expectations around Messi were still much higher.
Things only got worse in the 2011 Copa America. Despite being the host country, Argentina left a lot to be desired by losing in the quarterfinals against Uruguay. That tournament was particularly harsh for Messi, who was whistled by the home crowd as he finished the tournament goalless.
His image started to improve on the road to Brazil 2014, getting on the scoresheet from the very first game and putting the team on his back en route to the World Cup final. However, Argentina’s heartbreaking loss to Germany meant that Messi had yet to silence his haters, even though he won the Golden Ball award—given to the player of the tournament.
Despite the progress made in that World Cup, Messi had once again taken many steps back in his relationship with Argentinian fans and media. International glory continued to elude Messi in the 2015 Copa America, when his side lost to Chile in the final. But Messi hit rock bottom the following year.
Having shone throughout the Copa America Centenario—held in the US in 2016 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the competition—it looked like Messi’s first piece of silverware with the Argentina national team was inevitable. But once again, Argentina finished runner-up as Chile stood on its way. This time it was even more traumatic for Messi, who missed his spot-kick in the penalty shootout.
A devastated Messi was seen crying after the loss, as his and Argentina’s wait for an international success extended. Having reached his lowest point since playing for his country, Messi said postgame he would quit the national team. The haters were still there, and their comments were even louder after that final, but many Argentinians were in shock as they saw their idol at an all-time low.
Fortunately, Messi changed his mind a few months later. That doesn’t mean that things became easier, though.
Argentina struggled on their way to the 2018 World Cup. The soccer federation went through significant changes in its hierarchy, while the team had three different coaches throughout the qualifiers. In the end, Argentina clinched a spot in Russia thanks to a hat trick from Messi in the final round.
Argentina didn’t arrive in Russia in high spirits, and it proved costly. Messi missed a penalty in a 1-1 draw against Iceland, which was followed by an ugly loss to Croatia. The Barcelona star helped his side beat Nigeria to avoid a group stage exit, but Argentina then lost to eventual champions France.
This time, the blame didn’t fall on Messi, as Jorge Sampaoli did a terrible job as head coach. Still, it was yet another sour World Cup for the best player on Earth. In all those years, Messi had better luck at Barcelona—but soon he would experience bad times there as well.
2013 was complicated for Messi. The soccer machine spent months on the sidelines with hamstring injuries but found a way to come back stronger, becoming the all-time top scorer in both La Liga and Champions League in 2014.
The 2014-15 was the last great season for Messi and Barcelona, as the club repeated the treble that year with a powerful offensive trio of striker Luis Suarez, Messi and Neymar. Additionally, the Argentine footballer regained the FIFA Ballon d’Or after losing to Cristiano Ronaldo in 2013 and 2014.
Barcelona went through a tough period from 2018 to 2020, suffering humiliating Champions League eliminations in consecutive years. Roma, Liverpool, and Bayern have all handed Barca painful defeats, preventing them from making the final.
On top of that, the club started to experience financial problems with Josep Maria Bartomeu’s board. All those woes combined almost drove Messi away from Barcelona. The Argentine footballer looked ready to leave in 2020 as a free agent, but it turned out that his contract didn’t allow it.
Messi had no option but to stay for the 2020-21 season, his toughest year at the club. Once again, Leo was one of the few bright spots of the team but it was still a lackluster campaign as Barca was demolished by PSG in the Champions League and finished third in LaLiga.
Messi had entered the final year of his contract, but his mood had changed as Bartomeu left. Joan Laporta won the elections and, even with all the financial problems that struck the club, the outlook was much better. Therefore, though Messi became a free agent at the end of the season, he looked ready to re-sign.
However, in a shocking turn of events, the club told Messi he couldn’t be registered in LaLiga due to salary cap rules. And just like that, Messi left. Ironically, while he went through the hardest days at Barcelona, Messi finally found happiness with Argentina.
It took a long time, but Messi changed the narrative with the Argentine national team. A mature Leo had emerged as the face of the team’s reconstruction under Lionel Scaloni after the 2018 World Cup. The team finished third in the 2019 Copa America, and from then on, there was no turning back.
Argentina strengthened itself in South America, getting off to a positive start to the Qualifiers. A new generation of players had come and Messi started to feel more comfortable with them. Eventually, Argentina started to string good results together and it proved a point in the 2021 Copa America.
Messi’s wait for an elusive international title came to an end in epic fashion, with Argentina beating rivals and host country Brazil in the final at the Maracana. La Albiceleste ended a 28-year drought, and Messi achieved his first major success with the senior national team.
Since then, Messi has received nothing but love from the Argentine community. Besides, he continued to lead the team en route to a Qatar 2022 berth and a memorable Finalissima trophy.
At Qatar 2022, the inevitable finally happened: Lionel Messi got his hands on the coveted FIFA World Cup trophy. In one of the best performances ever seen in tournament history, the 35-year-old broke all kinds of records to emulate Maradona and take Argentina back to the promised land. For many, the GOAT debate should no longer exist: with this title, Messi is widely regarded as the best soccer player ever.
While enjoying the best moment in his international career, Messi had to make a big decision: Barcelona was no longer his club, and he had many offers on the table. In the end, Lionel signed a two-year deal with Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2021.
Though the expectations in the French capital were through the roof, Messi struggled in his first season at the Parc des Princes. The team won the Ligue 1, but its early Champions League defeat to Real Madrid—in addition to Messi’s poor goalscoring record—made Messi target of criticism by PSG fans and French media. Messi got off to a much better start next season, replacing whistles for standing ovations.
Named World Player of the Year several times, Messi is widely considered as one of, if not the best soccer player of his generation. Many compare him with Cristiano Ronaldo, but for others they are not even in the same tier. Some believe Messi deserves to be compared to the likes of Pele or Maradona, but his true fans think he’s even better than any other player in history.
Renowned personalities in world soccer only have good things to say about Messi. For instance, Josep Guardiola: "Nobody can sit at Messi's table. He scores 60 or 70 goals per season, always in the big games; he plays every three days and never gets injured. He has his body under total control. He's the best player I've ever seen." However, Messi’s honors speak for themselves.
Though his many awards already speak for themselves, Messi’s stats continue to prove why he made a strong case to be considered the best football player of all time.
* Source: MessiStats
The comparisons will always be there, whether it is fair or not. Either way, Lionel Messi has certainly given reasons to be regarded as one of the greatest soccer players the game has ever seen.
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