When Ronaldinho decided to hang his boots this year, it wasn’t a crisis of sorts that footballing democracy had experienced at departure of Maradona or Pele. For the pupil had already come out of the wings of master and soared higher than any predecessor.The heir apparent from Argentina had already taken the world by storm.
The king of all Argentine sports, soccer’s status is similar to cricket in our country, albeit more overblown.The kids from all quarters crowd the streets and play on makeshift pitches from dawn to dusk, honing their skills in pickup games hoping of one day making it big.A few do. Most don’t. But they all aspire to follow in the footsteps of El Pibe de Oro,the country’s most prolific son.So whenever a child prodigy emerges,he’s quickly labelled “the next Maradona”. Out of numerous who dared,only one has been able to ascend the throne. The king himself was the one to proclaim his heir apparent.

“I’ve seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentinian football and his name is Messi. He is beautiful to watch – my kind of player in our blue and white jersey. He’s a leader and is offering classes in beautiful football. He has something different to any other player in the world.”
Maradona after watching a Champions League match between FC Barcelona and Chelsea in 2006

Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini is an Argentine professional footballer who plays for Spanish club Barcelona.Touted the best of generation and the GOAT(Greatest of all Time),Messi has record tying 5 Ballon d’Or awards over the course of duopoly in past decade with contemporary and the other contender for GOAT title, Cristiano Ronaldo. Nicknamed La Pulga Atómica (“The Atomic Flea”) due to his short stature and ability to worm out of creases between defenders, this left-footed genius is a prolific goalscorer and creative playmaker widely considered to be best dribbler in the world.While he is adept at any offensive role,his favorite position since childhood is the playmaker behind two strikers, known as the enganche in Argentine football. Though physically unimposing,he possesses significant upper-body strength, which, combined with his low centre of gravity and resulting balance, aids him in withstanding physical challenges from opponents in course of his slalom-like, dribbling runs.His short, strong legs allow him to excel in short bursts of acceleration while his quick feet enable him to retain control of the ball when dribbling at such speeds that had him labeled as only player to run faster with ball than without it.Noted for his lack of diving in a sport rife with playacting, Messi holds the records for most official goals scored in La Liga (383), a La Liga season (50), a club football season in Europe (73), a calendar year (91), El Clásico (26), as well as those for most assists in La Liga (149) and the Copa América (11).

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Posing with the Ballon  d’Or awards .Pic Credit:Mid-Day

Since the time Maradona called out Messi as his heir ,comparison became imperative. Messi boasts a wiry, thin frame, while Maradona was built more like a fire hydrant.While Maradona was an extrovert and a braggadocio showman, Messi is a man of few words,doing his talking on the field.

Born in a family of football aficionados on 24 June 1987 in Rosario,the third child of four in a family of blue-collars ,Messi developed passion for the game since childhood, playing with brothers and his cousins, Maximiliano and Emanuel Biancucchi,who became pros.

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Messi gives tribute to his maternal grandmother Celia after each goal.Pic credit: BeSoccer

A lifelong supporter of Newell’s Old Boys, Messi joined the club aged 6 and for the next six years netted nearly 500 times for “The Machine of ’87”, the near-unbeatable youth side named for the year of their birth. Things looked dire though when he was diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency and his father’s health insurance covered only 2 years of treatment costing upwards of $1000 a month. Newell’s agreed to contribute, but later reneged on their promise.Through relatives in Catalonia,a trial with Barcelona was sought. Highly impressed by the diminutive child’s skills,the club made an exception and First team director Charly Rexach with no other paper at disposal, offered a contract on a paper napkin after being issued an ultimatum to prove commitment.And thus Messi moved to Barcelona on promise of complete treatment and has remained there since 2001.

After complete treatment of his condition aged 14, Messi became the crux of the “Baby Dream Team”, Barcelona’s greatest-ever youth side. Cadetes A won an unprecedented treble of the league and both the Spanish and Catalan cups in 2002-03 , courtesy Messi topscoring with 36 goals in 30 games. The Copa Catalunya final became a thing of club lore as the partido de la máscara, the final of the mask. Allowed to start with a plastic protector after suffering broken cheekbone but with movements hindered by mask, Messi tore it , and scored twice before being substituted. While his friends Fàbregas and Piqué left for England thereafter, he remained in Barcelona, shunning Arsenal’s offer.
In his fourth season with the Catalan side, Messi rose through club’s ranks, debuting for record 5 teams in a campaign.One of several youth players called up to strengthen depleted first team in international break, a teenage Leo caught everyone’s eyes in a training session. In French winger Ludovic Giuly’ words:

“He destroyed us all… They were kicking him all over the place to avoid being ridiculed by this kid, he just got up and kept on playing. He would dribble past four players and score a goal. Even the team’s starting centre-backs were nervous. He was an alien.”

At 16 years, four months, and 23 days old, he made his first team debut coming on in the 75th minute during a friendly against Porto.His performance impressed the technical staff and he started training daily with reserves and weekly with first team.After his first training session with the senior squad, Barca’s new star player, Ronaldinho was impressed and prophesied his “little brother” would achieve even greater heights.

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Mentor and protegé .Pic creds:Goal

Thus began the journey of Three years, four months and 21 days or 1,240 days to be exact,when the mentor and protegé destroyed oppositions day in and out with Ronnie in No 10 on left, Leo in No 19 on right alongside striker Samuel Eto’o.The first ever Messi goal came from a moment of magic between the two, first of many. From the time that coach Frank Rijkaard handed the Argentine La Liga debut against Espanyol in October 2004 until the Brazilian’s final game for the blaugranes in March 2008, the two formed a lethal camaraderie in the more than three years of sharing dressing room. Ronaldinho is quoted to have only one regret in long playing career:

“Having seen him go on to become such a great player, it would have been fantastic to have played more with him, but at that time my period at Barca was over and it was time for me to move to achieve new things and set new objectives, so the time had come for me to leave.”

On his 18th birthday, Messi signed his first contract as a senior team player.His performance during the Joan Gamper Trophy against Juventus got him an ovation from Camp Nou with loan request from opposition and Inter Milan ready to trigger his buyout clause of €150 million.It was the only time the club faced a real risk of losing Messi, but he ultimately decided to stay rejecting triple wages and the aforementioned money.

With Ronaldinho losing form, Messi became Barça’s new star player at 20, receiving the moniker “Messiah“. An overhaul after two disappointing seasons resulted in the departure of Rijkaard and Ronaldinho and Messi being given No 10 shirt upon latter’s departure.To combat his recurring muscle injuries that sidelined him for a total of 8 months between 2006-08, the club implemented new training regimens, assigning a personal physiotherapist for his call-ups to the national team. A virtually injury-free Leo scaled new peaks during next 4 years reaching his full potential. The club profited a lot when it became 1st one to achieve the sextuple, winning six top-tier trophies in 2009.At 22 years old, Messi won the Ballon d’Or and the FIFA World Player of the Year award, both times by the greatest voting margin in each trophy’s history. Messi won three consecutive FIFA Ballons d’Or in next 3 highly successful campaigns, including an unprecedented fourth. The club became so much reliant on its talisman that the term Messidependencia was coined, an adage to Barcelona’s perceived tactical and psychological dependence on their star player.

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“Messi is an alien that dedicates himself to playing with humans.”-Juventus captain Gianluigi Buffon before a match.
Pic Credit:ERIK MADIGAN HECK/ESPN

As a dual Argentine-Spanish national, Messi was eligible to play for the national team of both countries. Selectors for Spain’s Under-17 squad began pursuing him after Barcelona alerted the Royal Spanish Football Federation to the young player. Messi declined the offer though to fulfill his childhood dreams of representing La Albiceleste. And to prevent losing the child prodigy, Argentina organized 2 inconsequential friendlies for this sole purpose. La Pulga restored the faith bestowed in him helping the team win 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship,finishing the tournament with both the Golden Ball and Golden Shoe, and an Olympic gold at the 2008 Olympics. Recognizing his immense talent and achievements with the youth side, Messi got call-up for a friendly and made his senior debut aged 18 coming in the 63rd minute, only to be sent-off two minutes later for a perceived foul.He was later found weeping in the dressing room after the send-off.

The three-year period starting 2008 marked troubled times for Argentina,coinciding with the tenure of Maradona. Under his stewardship,team huffed and puffed in securing the 2010 WC qualifications, achieving it in the last qualifiers. El Diego’s strategic decisions such as playing Messi out of position, not eking out his full potential by playing him too deep;were harshly criticized. Messi, though, celebrated wearing No 10 jersey for first time after Riquelme’s retirement by opening the scoresheet in 4-0 drubbing of Venezuela on 28 March 2009.That goal was to be his solitary contribution in 8 qualifiers.No wonder they bowed out in quarterfinals of WC.

Country’s all-time leading goalscorer, Messi took the reins of a faltering squad in 2011 and led by example to three consecutive finals: the 2014 World Cup, for which he won the Golden Ball, and the 2015 and 2016 Copas América.The WC saw emergence of oft-criticisized Messi coming on his own in the national colours to end 8 year draught for WC goal with 4 in group stages to lead the side into first final since 1990.Billed as Messi versus Germany, the world’s best player against the best team, the final was an encore of the 1990 final featuring Diego Maradona.Messi tried his best but several missed opportunities including the goal ruled offside or the one he sent soaring over the net in search of equalizer cost them the match.Germany won 1-0 through Mario Götze’s golden strike in 113th minute.

As Argentina endured its longest trophy draught stretching back to 1993, the World Cup and Copa América defeats made Messi the target for Argentine ire. Him missing the net in penalty shootout of 2016 Copas América was the final nail in coffin leading to his international retirement.
A campaign began with Argentina as epicenter to persuade him to change the hastily made decision. Signs like “Don’t go, Leo” greeted the team after their return in Buenos Aires. A statue of Messi was unveiled by the mayor in the capital to help him reconsider. The president himself urged Messi not to quit.The campaign bore fruit and on August 12, Leo reversed his decision to end month and half long exile.

With Argentina’s place in the 2018 World Cup in jeopardy by virtue of 6th place in group,outside of possible 5 CONMEBOL World Cup spots,Messi provided individual flair in scoring a hat-trick in 3–1 away victory against Ecuador to bear a mediocre team on his back and avoid the shame of missing the WC wagon for the first time since 1970. Messi became only the third Argentine after Diego Maradona and Gabriel Batistuta to score in three World Cups with his strike against Nigeria this summer; he also became the first player to score in the World Cup in his teens, twenties, and his thirties.The uber- talented megastar got a drubbing of sorts in a “symbolic change of guards” with Kylian Mbappe tearing Argentina to shreds with his speed in 3-4 round of 16 loss to France, ending his dream of lifting silverware with Albiceleste.

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Argentina at FIFA WC 2018

He will be 35 years and 208 days old on Dec. 18, 2022, the day he theoretically gets his next crack at winning the World Cup.We age: our bodies degrade and with them, our ability to make them do what we want.While some can slow the process by being freaks of nature or through maniacal care they take of their bodies – a certain CR7, 33, comes to mind – or through sheer luck, but none can halt it. It would be impossible for even The Atomic Flea to dribble past Father Time.
But maybe, just maybe, he can make it slow down.Maybe he can take a mulligan and have another crack in 2022. For his own benefit, for those who love to watch him play and to shut up all those who judged a man by medals won in July, rather than by actions performed over a lifetime.

See you next time with some other series. Let us know in the comments about your choice of next feature series.

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