When he was a child in his hometown of Rosario, Argentina, Lionel Messi was nicknamed “La Pulga” (the flea) because of his short stature. This didn’t stop him from starting to play soccer when he was five years old. In 2004, when Kobe Bryant, the famous basketball player visited his friend Ronaldinho, considered one of the best soccer players in the world, he told Bryant, “Kobe, I want you to meet the player who is going to be the greatest soccer player who ever lived.” He didn’t know that his words would be prophetic.
In 1998, when he was eleven, Messi was diagnosed with Growth Hormone deficiency, a treatment that his parents couldn’t afford. Carles Rexach, sporting director of FC Barcelona, saw him play in Argentina and immediately offered to pay all his medical bills if he and his family would to start a new life in Barcelona. Messi traveled to Barcelona, Spain, with his father, leaving his mother in Rosario, Argentina, to take care of his brothers.
It wasn’t easy for Messi to adapt to this new environment, where he felt isolated from his teammates who made fun of him for being so short and not speaking Catalan, the language of Barcelona. “My teammates were big, rough and kind of assholes. They didn’t really pay attention to me, they would speak Catalan among themselves,” he said in the TV series Sin Cassette. “I cried a lot. I would lock myself in my room and cry my eyes out in secret. I didn’t want my dad to find out,” quoted Guillem Balagué, author of “Messi: The Biography”.
Despite these initial problems, he gradually adjusted, becoming the most successful player in his club’s history. And these childhood adversarial events not only strengthened his resolve to become a very good player but also devoted part of his earnings to improving children’s lives.
In 2007, he established the Leo Messi Foundation based in Rosario, a charity aimed at helping children in crisis situations to gain access to better health and education. It is his way of expressing gratitude for overcoming his own childhood health problems. During an interview, Messi said, “Being a bit famous now gives me the opportunity to help people who really need it, particularly children.”
Messi’s foundation supports sick Argentine children by allowing them to get paid for treatment in Spain, covering hospital, round-trip transportation from Argentina and recovery costs. He also pays for Argentinian doctors to be trained in Spain in special fields of research and donates money to pay doctors’ salaries and to rebuild a children’s hospital in Rosario.
Since 2004, he has been collaborating with UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund). In March 2010, Messi became its Goodwill Ambassador, where he continued his work in support of vulnerable children. Four months after becoming that organization’s ambassador, he carried out a mission to Haiti, where he helped raise public awareness of the plight of that country’s children, after a devastating earthquake that ravaged the country. In addition, he has participated in UNICEF’s campaigns to prevent HIV/AIDS and promote education and the social inclusion of disabled children.
As a result of the war in Syria more than a million children were out of school and millions more were at risk of dropping out. The Messi foundation collaborated with UNICEF in building fully furnished classrooms so that 1,600 children affected by the war in Syria could continue their educational activities.
The work of the foundation in Mozambique is also remarkable. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world. On health-related missions to that country, I was able to see that children in remote areas often have high rates of malnutrition and must walk several miles to attend school, where they arrive hungry. Through a program called “Programa de Desayuno Escolar” (School Breakfast Program) funded by Messi’s foundation, children are fed when they arrive at school and before they go to class. This also lowers the rate of absenteeism, which is elevated in some rural areas and is often caused by children being weak by lack of food.
The program started in three schools, but there are now 40 schools receiving aid, plus three kindergartens and three orphanages, benefiting 15,000 children. Pregnant women and some sick adults unable to eat solid food have been added to the program. As a result, more children are now coming to school from deprived areas that have been negatively affected by climate change. Thanks to Messi’s program, children not only are better fed, but they also have improved physical growth and intellectual development.
In addition to other projects, the Lionel Messi Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation funded the creation of the Pediatric Center at Sant Joan de Déu Children’s Hospital in Barcelona, which was inaugurated on June 16, 2022. The Center treats children and adolescents with cancer, while at the same time conducting research to find a more effective treatment for them through the integration of its research and medical teams.
Throughout his professional career, Messi has proven to be a remarkable person. Considered by many experts the best soccer player in history, he is not only the most recognizable face of soccer worldwide. He is a kind man whose humanitarian work improves health and brings food and hope to thousands of disadvantaged children.
Argentina is the winner of the 2022 World Cup, thanks to the magic of Leo Messi. Leading Argentina to victory and having been named the best player confirms what everybody knows: Messi is one of the greatest soccer players in the history of the game.
What explains Messi’s unique abilities? David Konzevik, a former Argentine soccer player and now an economist living in Mexico City told me, "I have never before been so moved seeing a player as I am with Messi. I have watched him doing magic with the ball for years. There is nobody like him."
Many claim that Messi’s remarkable ability as a player is the result of Pep Guardiola's coaching when he played for Barcelona. However, since he was a child in Rosario, Argentina, Messi was already a brilliant player. Ernesto Vecchio, a coach from his youth, said, "As a player, he is very similar now to how he was as a youngster. He decides in milliseconds what he is going to do with the ball at his feet."
The late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano elaborates further, “I think Messi is a unique case in the history of humanity, because he is someone capable of having a ball inside his foot. It has always been said that Maradona had the ball tied to his foot, but Messi has it inside it, something that is scientifically inexplicable. You see that 7, 11, 22 rivals chase him to take out the ball and there is no way to take it out of him. How is that possible? Because they look for it outside the foot, and the ball is inside. Now, how can a ball fit inside a foot? It is an unintelligible phenomenon, but it is the truth, he carries the ball inside his foot, not outside.”
His extraordinary qualities as a player have made him the object of medical studies that attempt to find clues regarding his exceptional talent. Dutch physician, Pieter Medendorp of Radboud University in Nijmegen, has studied how Messi’s brain works. Dr. Medendorp wanted to learn "how people make split-second decisions and know how to prioritize." It is Messi's ability to confront opponents trying to block him, and then effortlessly weave through them that particularly interests Dr. Medendorp.
The most creative explanation for Messi’s magic on the field appeared in an article (ironically titled Messi is a dog) written by the Argentine journalist Hernán Casciari. Casciari explains how, after watching several of Messi’s goals on YouTube, he realized that Messi plays as if in a trance as if he were hypnotized.
“We must look well into his eyes to understand this: he looks cross-eyed at the ball as if reading an out-of-focus subtitle; he focuses on it and does not lose sight of it even if they knife him,” wrote Casciari.
“Where had I seen that look before? In whom? I knew that gesture of supreme introspection. I pressed the Pause key in the video. I zoomed in on Messi’s eyes. And then I remembered it: those were the eyes of ‘Totín’ when he became crazy for the sponge.”
“I had a dog in childhood called ‘Totín’. Nothing moved him. He wasn’t a smart dog. Thieves came in and he just watched them carry the TV out. The buzzer rang and he didn’t hear it. However, when someone [my mother, my sister, myself] grabbed a sponge—a particular yellow sponge for washing dishes—Totín became mad. He wanted this sponge more than anything in the world; he wished with all his heart to take this yellow rectangle to the doghouse.”
“I showed it to him holding it in my right hand and he focused on it. I moved the sponge from one side to the other and he never stopped looking at it. He couldn’t stop looking at it. No matter how fast I moved the sponge, Totín’s neck moved with equal speed through the air. His eyes had the searching look of Sherlock Holmes. I discovered this afternoon, watching that video, that Messi is a dog. Or a man-dog. That’s my theory. Messi is the first dog ever who plays soccer,” concluded Casciari.
Regardless of the explanation for Messi’s magic, with the 2022 World Cup win, he has proved himself to be among the world’s best soccer players and has led him and his team to glory.