In search of Rosario’s magic man

TRACING the footsteps of a living legend is dicey business. ‘He was born here’, ‘he grew up there’, ‘he first kicked a ball over there’... all claims made by Rosarinos about their most famous son, Lionel Messi.

A man claimed to have made ‘a go’ for Messi in a local restaurant last year. The restaurant has since been re-named ‘Messi was here’! I later learnt the aggressor and the restaurant owner just wanted to have a piece of their hero!

My search for Messi before he became God took me on a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the city that has produced the world’s greatest player.

Fabian Costello, of Irish descent but now living in Rosario, played for Newell’s Old Boys for 15 years. Though playing in different generations, Fabian said the man they call ‘La Pulga’ (little flea) is everywhere. “He lives here, he learnt here, he became a legend here before he ever left for Europe and he will return here when his playing days are over,” said Fabian.

Rosario is located 300 kilometres north-west of the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires and is the largest city in the Santa Fe province. Decaying and overcrowded estates, low-hanging power lines and an abundance of emaciated dogs stalk the streets. Boney horses tied to telephone poles are everywhere. The intense heat has left the parks parched and the roads and pavements cracked. Groups of Rosarinos amble about. Some seek shade, some play keepy-uppy, some hold hands, some eat helados. Here, in a city of more than one million people, life is leisurely and many spend the day gazing at the giant ships that move slowly down the Parana river from one of the city’s grain ports.

Ten minutes away, an altogether different scenario is playing out. Because this is Sunday. Match day.

As we approach the Newell’s stadium you can just about hear the hum of the ships in the distance but the tranquillity is shattered as we enter the working class neighbourhood of Parque Independencia. All around the grounds, the sandy clearings are full of youngsters, keen to get on the ball to show what they can do. Many are barefoot.

It’s hardly surprising their interest is spiked when two Old Boys legends, Fabian and a man known simply as ‘Garrido’, emerge and decide to have a look. A hushed silence descends and tackles start going in with a little more fervour.

Garrido salutes the kids and some wave back enthusiastically. But the majority chase harder so that perhaps he might see them. He does too. One lad who can’t be any more than 10 crashes a half-volley into the goal made of two jumpers from close range and the ball ends 50 metres away. The keeper protests that it was high and wide but Fabian makes a joke that he just didn’t want to retrieve the ball.

“GOOOOOOLLLLL!!” boomsGarrido. The kid is in ecstasy! He’s at the Maracana, the Bombonera, the San Siro, or maybe just a few yards away inside the Estadio Marcelo Bielsa.

Between our kerb-side view of the game we’re watching, and the stadium that dominates the skyline, the Newell’s youths are training on a 5-a-side-pitch inside the compound. But there are almost 20 of them in there, caged in playing a game of extreme tika-taka. One touch at most. It’s breathtaking to watch.

IT was here that Lionel Messi took his first steps to becoming the greatest player in the world. Though it’s a far cry from the impressive Camp Nou which the 23-year-old illuminates most weeks, it’s just as awe-inspiring.

“Messi would have played just there,” boasts Fabian. “In my day you just arrived down with your boots and played in an overcrowded game like this.

“If you were any good, you would be taken on trial. If you were no good, you were told leave, to make way for more players. It’s different now though. You must be invited from the club.” It’s hard to imagine the man they call ‘La Pulga’ in here, ducking and weaving and spinning off defenders.

“Leo always played with kids who were bigger and older than him,” said Fabian. “Doesn’t he do it every week? He’s well used to it but it was here where it started for him. Learning how to make use of little space,” continues Fabian.

Newell’s have moulded many legends and stand proudly as one of the best teams in Argentina; six championship titles is testimony to that while the club’s youth team have an unrivalled record with the most AFA tournament wins. Alumni include Gabriel Batistuta, Roberto Sensini, Americo Gallego and Jorge Valdano.

By the time he was 10, concerns were raised when Leo stopped growing. The club were worried that holding onto a player who was destined to be one of the other ‘also-rans’ was a waste of money. His parents Jorge and Celia Maria had a moral dilemma. Pull the plug on his pursuit of a professional career or persist with it.

It soon became apparent their son had a growth hormone defect. It was also clear that the combined wage of a factory worker and a part-time cleaner would struggle to cover the cost of his more than €500 a month medical bills.

Messi’s career took a dramatic turn when his father, who had relations in the Catalonia region of Spain, managed to secure a trial which Barcelona’s sporting director Carles Rexach attended.

“After that trial they met in a coffee shop,” explained Fabian. “There were three present. Carles, Jorge and Leo. Carles was so impressed with Leo that he offered him a contract written on a paper napkin as there was no other paper available and they said they’d pay for his medical bills too, which is probably what swung the deal. The club here couldn’t afford it because there was a major economic crisis at the end of the 1990s and, besides, it was a better opportunity he was getting by moving away. It was a win-win for the Messis.”

What sets the Messi family apart from others, says Fabian, is their “humility.”

“Lionel’s first house was built by his father and his parents, brothers [two] and sister still live there. He comes home as often as he can and the place just goes crazy for him. But he doesn’t seem to mind it at all. He’ll stay out signing autographs and kicking a football and playing with the kids ‘til all hours.

“He also does a lot of charity work through his foundation (www.fundacionleomessi.com) but also for his old school. He donated the equivalent of two years of the school’s budget when he came here two years ago and that generosity means he won’t ever be forgotten. He hasn’t forgotten his roots.”

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up

Select your favourite newsletters and get the best of Irish Examiner delivered to your inbox