Lionel Messi (cont.)
In discussing his five years in the Newell's youth program, Messi dwells on the bitter end: The club wouldn't pay for his treatment, he says, and Barcelona did. The result is that Newell's is now known, worldwide, for making one of the biggest mistakes in soccer history. But in a dispute that has only further separated Messi from his roots, both Almirón and Carlos Morales, who coached Leo from age eight to 11, say that Newell's provided the Messis with more than $8,000 -- $450 a month -- over an 18-month period that ended only when Leo left for Spain in 2000. Morales says that the Messis simply stood to gain more from Barcelona: "There was a lot of money involved."
Almirón, Newell's football school director then, corroborates the $8,000 figure and says he always made the payments in cash, to Celia. Sitting in a Rosario hotel lobby in April, he fans out nine receipts signed, he says, by Celia. But five of the fresh, unwrinkled receipts show payments of $200 or less. Only two sets of receipts are dated the same months, April and July 2000, and they total $305 and $240 -- below what Almirón says he gave the Messis, and well below what Jorge says the treatment cost.
The amounts involved, of course, are minuscule, and Almirón and Morales are no longer with Newell's. The club's new president has taken pains to reach out to the Messis, and last year Jorge responded with a $29,000 donation for the Newell's training facility. But bitterness about Leo's departure simmers on both sides -- and it's not only at Newell's that people have mixed feelings about Rosario's most famous son.
Across town at Messi's boyhood field at Abanderado Grandoli, families still fill the small grandstand on Saturdays, and fathers still clutch at the hurricane fence while staring at their boys' games. Yes, Messi is a point of pride here, says Grandoli youth soccer club president David Treves, but Messi hasn't visited since he became a star, and he hasn't contributed balls or uniforms or money to upgrade the field. (Jorge says Leo's foundation plans to help the entire neighborhood, stressing education as well as sports.)
"He never came back here, not since he left for Barcelona," says Vecchio. "I've never spoken to him again." After Brazil beat Argentina in Rosario last September, Vecchio stood outside the stadium for an hour, chatting up Jorge and Celia, waiting for Leo to emerge so he could get a word. When Messi hurried onto the team bus, Vecchio figured his chance had passed. Then Messi sat and saw him through the window. He recognized his old coach, and his eyes lit up, and he grinned and waved, looking small again behind the glass.
Pancho Ferraro is tired of hearing it -- from his brothers-in-law, from the journalists and the fans he bumps up against in bars, even from his own sister: What's wrong with Messi? Does he even care about playing for Argentina? "It's painful to get this even from my own family," Ferraro says. "I'm always defending Messi. This controversy says more about the Argentine people than about him: We can't enjoy it when we have good things. We always see the dark side, the glass half empty, and we can't just enjoy the kid who is us. He's our boy. I know how Messi loves to wear the Argentine colors; I know his commitment."
Despite his gratitude to Barcelona, in 2004 Messi turned down an invitation to play for the Spanish national team. Ferraro has seen Messi twice lead Argentine teams to world championships. As coach of Argentina's 2005 U-20 World Cup team, in fact, Ferraro almost saw his own career end before it began; he left Messi on the bench in the first half of the first game and, sin of sins, lost to the U.S. "I died," he says, "and then I came back to life."
Messi brought him back. Messi scored six goals in eight games, was named the tournament's MVP, turned 18 midway through the event but still stood up in the locker room before the semifinal against Brazil and said, "This is Brazil. We cannot make a mistake, or we'll lose. But we're going to win." He scored in the sixth minute to lead the 2-1 victory, then scored twice more to beat Nigeria 2-1 in the final. Only once in the tournament did Messi cause a problem. After Argentina qualified for the second round, Ferraro removed him from a meaningless second half against Germany, and Messi stalked off the field, refusing to look at Ferraro. Afterward, at the hotel, Messi found his coach and apologized. "I didn't mean to do that, but I always want to play," he said. "I don't feel good sitting down."
"I've never seen him do that to another coach," Ferraro says. "With Messi, you don't need to give him the captain's armband -- you need to give him the ball. It's his toy. He's a child. He relates to football like a child."
That is the underreported fact about one of the most scrutinized people in the world: his childlike joy. You could see it in Barcelona when he skidded on his ass and sat wide-eyed, legs splayed, like a kid in a mud puddle, after scoring his fourth goal against Arsenal. Maradona never had that joy; his was a bullying kind of artistry. All of Messi's furious work -- all that scampering, that teetering, that lashing with the left foot -- is just tracing on a map, the trail of a man in search of his bliss. "And when he's happy," says Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola, "everything he does works."
It's late April, and Messi is happier now. He had a two-hour meeting with Maradona in March, which may well have put coach and star on the same page at last. But mostly he's happy because he's in Barcelona with a few La Liga games left and goals to score and no one doubting him. That will change soon, though, and Messi will go home to Rosario, to La Bajada, to the land where his father is feeling the heat.
"He's Argentinian," Jorge says of his son. "He feels Argentinian. I feel he's been loved [in Europe] but not here. It's very common here to feel that if anyone succeeds overseas, you can't feel he's one of yours. So the press instills the idea that Messi is not Argentinian, that he lives like a Catalan, because he made it without playing here. Leo is really downhearted about it."
If Argentina wins the World Cup, of course, all that will disappear. Messi will have saved the Argentine hero, saved Maradona from himself, and the Diego legend will take its newest and craziest twist. But if Argentina loses? Then all those criticisms and all the cracks in Messi's relationship with the country will only grow; then his dealings with the media will be ever more frayed.
He's young. There will be other World Cups. But Maradona will be gone, probably in a cloud of fury and invective, and Messi will have no choice but to rebuild, Argentine-style: Grab some wire, duct tape, a bit of glue. Apply. Let dry. And hope -- no, insist -- to everyone that the damn thing will end up working just fine.