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Posted: Thursday June 10, 2010 1:25PM ; Updated: Thursday June 10, 2010 5:49PM
S.L. Price
S.L. Price>INSIDE THE WORLD CUP

Lionel Messi (cont.)

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diego.maradona.1986.jpg
Diego Maradona led Argentina to its last World Cup title, in 1986.
Bob Thomas/Getty Images

Whether Maradona lacks the imagination to make a wholesale strategic shift on Messi's behalf isn't clear. "If I had to change for his good, I'd change," Maradona said in March. "But I think that with ... the players we have, all he needs to do is explode, and surely he will do that at the World Cup." The coach declined to elaborate for SI; a request for an interview through the AFA was answered by Fernando Molina, Maradona's personal flack and the boyfriend of his daughter Dalma, with an e-mailed demand for "100,000 euros limpios" -- $126,000, tax-free. (SI does not pay for interviews.)

"They have many wonderful players, but they're not a team; I don't know what's going on right now," says Francisco (Pancho) Ferraro, coach of the Argentine under-20 team that Messi led to a world title in 2005. "We just have to hope God inspires Maradona ... and we have Messi. So we have reason to believe."

Maradona has been the most important cultural figure in the country for 25 years because, in his combination of brilliance and self-destruction, he reflects part of the national character in a way that Messi never could. It's not just that Messi hasn't performed well for the national side. It's his life inside what observers call "his football bubble." It's the widespread perception that because Messi, a product of Barcelona's streamlined youth academy, La Masía, has lived for the past decade in Spain, he has almost no gut-level connection with the nation now depending on him.

"He went to Europe at 13, and he went to the perfect team," says Fernández Moores. "In Argentina we have an expression: Lo atamo' con alambre -- 'We hold it together with wire.' It refers to a temporary solution that somehow works, and it says a lot about the country and its football. Argentine players grow up with the precarious sensibility that they can adapt to any situation, but Messi doesn't pass the Argentine test of living on the edge. He didn't grow up thinking that way, and he doesn't like problems.

"When he came back to Argentina last year, the person waiting for him, controlling the press, was a barrabrava -- a hooligan, not an AFA official. That's the Argentine style. In that sense, Maradona is perfect as coach."

And that's why, if Argentina bombs out of this World Cup, Maradona will not be blamed alone. Messi bears the expatriate's burden, and speculation about his woes in the national stripes centers less on strategy than on what goes on in his heart and mind.

"It's the question everyone is asking," says Sergio Almirón, a member of the '86 World Cup team and, as former director of the football school of the Rosario club Newell's Old Boys, one of the men who let the young Messi slip away. "When Maradona got challenged, he got bigger. Maybe Messi is too young and can't cope with that pressure." Almirón pauses, decides to say what he really thinks and starts to laugh. "He has a Spanish mind," Almirón says at last. "He thinks he's Spanish!"

***

A crisp April morning in Rosario: Jorge Messi sits on the terrace of his restaurant, VIP. Word is that about $500,000 was pumped into renovations, and the slick bistro is packed most nights; everyone knows it as the Messis' place. Yet there are no posters or signed jerseys on display, no breast-beating salutes to Leo. This might seem odd, considering that Leo is the era's latest offering, in any sport, of greatness in its prime. But Jorge isn't sure Leo's success was worth all the trouble.

"If you asked me if I'd do the same thing today, I'd say no," he says. "I don't regret anything, but it was too hard to live [through] again."

The problem wasn't soccer; despite Leo's size, playing was never hard for him. Growing up in the scrappy working-class neighborhood known as La Bajada (the Descent), Leo never shied from playing with the pals of his older brothers, Matías and Rodrigo, in the dusty streets. "When they kicked him, he'd fall and just get back up; he wasn't scared," says neighbor Rubén Manicabale. "He always played barefoot, and he would pick fights with his brothers." When Leo was five, his dad coached him at the scrubby field by the Abanderado Grandoli housing project; the boy would score at will, often dribbling from goal to goal untouched. Lamps and tchotchkes in the Messi house were constantly being broken by flying balls.

Manicabale leads the way past Leo's elementary school to a nearby clutch of soccer fields. Matías Messi, 28, misses an easy score as his neighbor walks up. Matías's team loses, he gathers his gear and begins walking toward the postgame grill. "He was the same then as he is now," Matías says of Leo. "He'd be happier playing football for free than doing something else for a hundred million euros."

At seven, Leo followed Rodrigo and joined the youth program of Newell's Old Boys. In one game that is still talked about, Leo dribbled upfield as, one by one, seven opponents tried to kick him. All missed. "He was a machine," says Ernesto Vecchio, who coached Leo for three years at Newell's. "Once he was sick, and I had him on the bench. We were losing 1-0, and I said, 'Leo, win me this match,' and he jumped up and scored two. Every year he'd score more than 100 goals in 30 matches." Leo would put on dribbling exhibitions during halftime at senior games. He was so good that spectators wondered if they were watching a circus dwarf.

When Leo was 10, Jorge and his wife, Celia, noticed that he wasn't growing. A battery of tests revealed that he'd be lucky to reach five feet as an adult, and the Messis agreed to a regime of nightly growth-hormone injections in alternating thighs. Starting at 11, Leo would tote a small blue cooler with needles and doses to games, friends' houses, everywhere. He injected himself; he never complained. "It was just another part of my routine," he says. He would do that for five years.

The medicine was expensive -- $1,000 for a 45-day regime -- and after two years Jorge's employer, a steel manufacturer, stopped its coverage. Jorge made no more than $1,700 over 45 days, and with Leo now 13 and attracting attention from other clubs, Jorge asked Newell's to pay for the treatment. After giving the Messis three payments totaling $500, Jorge says, Newell's cooled on the idea. "We didn't want to beg," Jorge says, "so we started looking at other options." Jorge flirted with Buenos Aires power River Plate, but eventually Barcelona stepped in and offered to cover the full cost. That's where the story usually pivots onto positive ground: Eventually Leo not only got the medicine needed to grow to 5'7" but was also surrounded by the players and the coaches he needed to realize his potential. But the move nearly broke the Messi family.

Jorge moved Celia, their three sons and their five-year-old daughter, María Sol, to Spain in September 2000, but within a year Celia took the other kids home to Argentina, leaving Jorge and Leo in Spain. The separation was excruciating. "Leo needs his mother, and I needed to see my daughter," Jorge says. "The first three years Leo saw his mother only every four months." Boarding the plane back to Barcelona after visits to Argentina, Leo would be an emotional wreck. He spent many nights in La Masía alone, crying; the other kids would go home on weekends. "It was very tough for me," Messi says. "There were moments when I was really sad and homesick, but I never thought of leaving. I knew I wanted to stay and keep playing."

 
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