It is an unremarkable house on a quiet street in a working-class suburb of Rosario. Sturdily made with decorous window blinds and, unusually, a fence outside, it is unprepossessing. Perhaps that is fitting. Those perceived to have messianic qualities tend to have inauspicious birth places.
There is nothing here to alert you to the presence of its previous inhabitant or of the skills that were once honed on this street.
But walk a few hundred yards and there is a small scrub of wasteland where it might just be possible to kick a football around, though you would need the ability of the world’s greatest footballer to control the ball on this surface. The mural of street art, recently added, gives the clue to Rosario’s most-celebrated former resident.
‘From my neighbourhood’ reads the inscription over the graffiti-inspired portraits of Lionel Messi. For this is the house that Jorge Messi, his father, built with his own hands on 525 Lavalleja Street in the La Bajada barrio of Rosario and where Lionel was born and grew up.
Rosario is a pleasant city dominated by oil refining, petrochemicals, manufacturing and the river, the vast Paraná, which runs for 3,000 miles from southern Brazil to become one of the six rivers that feed into the vast Rio de la Plata, about 300 miles downstream from here. You could sail from here to Buenos Aires out to the South Atlantic and on to anywhere in the world.
Before trains, the Paraná was the main arterial route into the heartlands of Argentina. A restaurant by the riverside named ‘Sunderland Bar’ speaks of castaway sailors from faraway lands settling down here and making good. That’s pretty much how it was for Messi’s family, originally of Italian and Spanish extraction, pioneering migrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who left Europe for the New World, arriving on the new railways which allowed towns such as Rosario to thrive.
Football has been here as long as the railway. Rosario Central were formed in 1889 by largely British workers from the Central Argentinian railway company. Newell’s Old Boys came along in 1903, former students and teachers of the school established by Briton Isaac Newell, one of the first to introduce football to children in Argentina.
Entire neighbourhoods are now painted in the red and black of Newell’s or the yellow and blue of Rosario Central. The houses around Messi’s street predominantly feature the graffiti of the latter, though Messi himself was a Newell’s fan.
It seems to exemplify the passion of the city for the national game. And it is, of course, partly this. But in recent years rival drug gangs have become associated with one team or the other. And so the murals and colours can also be seen as more sinister demarcations of territory.
Last year, Messi’s older brother, Matias, crashed his motorboat into a sandbank on the Parana. When police came, they discovered a .380 calibre pistol and Matias was jailed briefly. It is also said Matias is close to and certainly was photographed with Cesar Aron Trevez, who is serving 16 years in jail for accessory to murder and drug dealing and who was a key figure in Los Monos, the principal drug gang in the city.
But these are familiar problems for major cities. Overall, Rosario is an impressive place and Messi’s neighbourhood, though far from privileged, would have provided a pleasant upbringing.
And this is the place to which he returns to regenerate. His family now own a luxury house on the outskirts. Wife, Antonella Roccuzzo, whom he met aged five, is also from the neighbourhood and when they married last summer, it was to the imposing modernist Hotel City Center, which is actually on the outskirts, en route to Buenos Aires, that Shakira, Neymar, Xavi et al came to pay homage to the world’s greatest.
These streets are where, barely more than a toddler, he began to play with the older children, showing his extraordinary ability to hold his own. Round the corner is the primary school where the kids complained to teachers that they couldn’t get the ball off him.
Nearby is the pitch where he first played at Grandoli Football Club, the local community team, filling in when Matias’s side needed someone to make up the numbers in training. Aged four, he apparently took over the game.
But it is also here that he left in 2000 at the age of 13 when, amid a nationwide economic crisis, Newell’s Old Boys declined to pay for the hormone treatment he needed to help his stunted growth. So Messi was lost to Argentina, an emigrant in Barcelona.
And the prodigy of Newell’s was quickly forgotten. Argentina were developing a home-grown generation of wonderful players just as Messi left. In 2003 they had been knocked out of the semi-finals of the Under-20 World Cup with Pablo Zabaleta, now of West Ham, in the team. With him were Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano, who would also end up at West Ham but also Manchester United and Manchester City, and Liverpool and Barcelona respectively.
In 2005, hopes were high that the under-20 team might do even better. Joining Zabaleta would be players like Lucas Biglia, Ezequiel Garay and Sergio Aguero, the majority 20 years old. So they could be forgiven for being a touch affronted when the coaches suggested that a 17-year-old playing for Barcelona might be worth his place in the squad.
‘We’d been told by the coach that he was “good” and all that,’ says Zabaleta. ‘We all knew each other but we didn’t know him as a player, as a person because he had left at 13. He was so thin, very small.’
Then came training. The way Zabaleta describes it, it was an epiphany. ‘He was amazing,’ he says. ‘We then played a friendly against Paraguay in Argentina and he came on in the second half and scored two goals. In the World Cup, he scored a few goals and we won the tournament.’
Messi had arrived for the national team at junior level and all seemed set. Already by the 2006 World Cup he was in the team, just 18 and Argentina’s youngest ever player at the tournament when he came off the bench to score against Serbia. But he would be sat powerless on the bench as the team lost to Germany on penalties in the quarter-finals.
Still, the under 20s continued to thrive. Without Messi, they would retain the under-20 trophy in 2007 with a team that included Sergio Romero and Angel di Maria. With Messi, they would win the Beijing 2008 Olympics as an under-23 team. Here was a golden generation and a much-longed for leader in the mould of Diego Maradona, the eternal overbearing icon of Argentinian football.
And so the wait for the inevitable trophy began. In South Africa 2010, Messi was young and left the field in tears when they were over-run by Germany in the quarter-finals. In 2011, Argentina hosted the Copa America, but lost to Uruguay in the quarter-finals.
In 2014 came this generation’s great opportunity, when it seemed all of Buenos Aires descended on Rio de Janeiro to watch them play Germany in the World Cup final.
At the end, Messi, devoid of energy and inspiration, was awarded a trophy as the tournament’s best player, prior to Germany receiving the main trophy.
The look on his face as he was handed the individual trophy reminded you of the line Clive James penned when Seb Coe was handed his silver medal at the 1980 Olympics. ‘It looked like he had been handed a turd.’
Since then there has been even more agony. The 2011 Copa America final in Chile resulted in a penalty shoot-out in which the hosts beat Argentina 4-1, with only Messi scoring for his team. The following year they made the Copa America final, again played Chile and again lost on penalties.
This time Messi missed his spot-kick and promptly ‘retired’ from international football.
And so it is that one of the great football nations, blessed with possibly the finest player ever, still have not won a major trophy since 1993, when they did land the Copa America. And there has been no World Cup since 1986.
Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa, Britain’s most famous and popular Argentinians until Mauricio Pochettino arrived, are enjoying lunch overlooking the Rio De La Plata in Buenos Aires. The conversation of the former Tottenham players, pioneers of foreign players in English football, has turned to a familiar Argentinian topic.
‘Messi in the last 30 yards is superb, going past people scoring every weekend,’ says Villa.
‘Maradona, all round the pitch, is maybe better.’
Winners of Argentina’s other World Cup in 1978, they played with Maradona. ‘Diego made a very, very average team win the World Cup,’ says Ardiles.
And therein lies the problem for Messi. Maradona, naturally more charismatic, was always identified as one of the people. Messi, more shy, has lived abroad since the age of 13. As the tournament ‘failures’ stacked up, clichés of an overpaid Euro-centric player who cared little for his country were sought as reasons for the seemingly inexplicable.
Roberto Sensini, who played in the 1990 World Cup final, explains. ‘People watch Barcelona at the weekends, see the things that Messi does and then expect him to do the same for Argentina,’ he says. ‘But that is difficult to achieve, it takes many years of work, training every day with his [Barca] team-mates. Here, in the South American qualifiers they grab your shirt, hit you. In Europe you play with more freedom.’
However, since Messi’s public desolation in 2014 and his ‘retirement’ for the national team, in 2016 — it lasted three months — the mood has abated. ‘We can see that he puts 100 per cent in every game for Argentina,’ says Villa.
Indeed, without him they almost failed to make it to Russia. He missed eight qualifiers, in which they amassed seven points. They were outside the required top four when they took on Ecuador in the last game in Quito. Ecuador went 1-0 up after 38 seconds before a Messi hat-trick within 62 minutes ensured their spot in Russia.
‘He has already said he would swap all his titles for the World Cup,’ says Ardiles. ‘When you have a player of such extraordinary quality, you have to build the team around him. We haven’t achieved that.
‘On the other hand, because of Messi, all of Argentina’s football problems, which are much, much deeper, have been ignored.
‘Say Messi broke his leg tomorrow. What would we do? Argentina is exporting 200 players a year. No industry can survive that.
‘All the good players are in Europe. Even the young ones. It’s happened in Brazil as well, but they have a lot more players, so they’re a little bit better than us. I had 200 games when I left. Now they leave after five or six.’
And he is sceptical that the generation around Messi was as good as some hoped. ‘We have big names, but who are special? Messi, of course. Aguero, yes.’
Di Maria? ‘No! Compare with the guys we had in ’78? I don’t say he’s a bad player. But special? It’s not a balanced team.’
Indeed, the main fears for coach Jorge Sampaoli’s squad surround the lack of cover for Mascherano and Biglia, under-20 stars all those years ago but now 34 and 32 respectively. There is the issue of Mauro Icardi’s omission, outstanding for Inter with 29 goals but reportedly not a man who integrates easily in the squad.
With Romero injured, the goalkeeper will be Chelsea’s Willy Cabellero, who has three caps.
Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, Messi’s support strikers, are distrusted. ‘You mention Aguero and Higuain in Argentina and people don’t like them,’ says Villa. For Aguero, it seems it is because he has barely played in the country, leaving for Atletico Madrid at 18. Higuain bears the brunt for missed chances in the 2014 World Cup final and Copa America finals.
Zabaleta is adamant: ‘Messi has been the greatest player that we have seen. If you ask people from the Eighties or Seventies they will say Maradona has been the best player or Pele. [Alfredo] Di Stefano. For my generation, Messi has been incredible, fantastic.
‘You cannot say he needs to win the World Cup to be at the same level as Diego. Both have been fantastic. What Messi has done is amazing and he’s one of the greatest, even if he doesn’t win the World Cup. Messi is still up there with Maradona: one of the greatest players in football history.’
It may be that he’ll have to make do with that epitaph. ‘Time passes for everyone,’ says Sensini. ‘I think he sees Russia as the last chance. This group of players came very close in the final against Germany. But this feels like it, the final opportunity for that eternal comparison with Maradona.
‘For us Argentines, and above all for himself, he deserves it. As Jorge Sampaoli said: “Football owes Messi a World Cup”.’
However, football is a capricious god and life never pans out as neatly as that.
Five-time Ballon D’Or winner Lionel Messi collects trophies for fun at club level — but when it comes to the international stage, the Argentine’s trophy cabinet is almost bare.
Messi won Olympic gold in Beijing, but has yet to pick up a single winner’s medal from three World Cup campaigns and four Copa Americas.