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When Lio 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, Lio 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 Lio 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 Lio 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 Lio in Spain. The separation was excruciating. "Lio needs his mother, and I needed to see my daughter," Jorge says. "The first three years Lio saw his mother only every four months." Boarding the plane back to Barcelona after visits to Argentina, Lio 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."
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 Lio 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 Lio 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 Lio'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 Lio'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 Lio 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."