He's been hailed as The Messiah for leading Barcelona to victory over Manchester United in the Champions League final. But Lionel Messi, who dazzled Wembley on Saturday, was once banned from playing because he was too small.
One his first day at school in Rosario, Argentina, the lad, who would twice become Fifa World Player of the Year, had to watch from the sidelines. Messi later revealed: “In my childhood I had difficult times because of hormonal problems.”
In 1995 the young eight-year-old attracted the attention of Buenos Aires club River Plate.
But they pulled out of a deal to sign the boy, nicknamed The Flea by older brother Rodrigo, because it could not pay for his £500-a-month medical bills.
The future looked even bleaker when club medics told Messi’s stunned family he would grow no taller than 4ft 7in.
Dad Jorge and wife Celia, a part-time cleaner, could not afford to pay for their son’s treatment, on top of the cost of bringing up their other three children as Argentina’s economy crumbled.
But luck was on their side. Incredibly, a family relative in Catalonia, Spain, managed to get a trial for the then 13-year-old with Barcelona.
“It was there that I learned to walk just to be able to chase a dream. And yet, I was told I would never be a footballer" Messi wrote in his biography page
The club’s sporting director Carlos Rexach crossed continents to watch him - and was impressed.
“I snapped him up there and then,” he recalls. “In fact, as a symbolic gesture, I got him to sign on the back of a serviette.”
Messi joined Barcelona’s under-14 squad in 2000, after the club agreed to foot his medical expenses. He moved to Spain with his proud dad, and in his first match, he scored five times. Now 5ft 7in, Messi has won five La Liga titles, three Champions League titles and even an Olympic gold medal with Argentina. But the dynamic dribbler remains shy and quietly-spoken.
He enjoys simple tastes - a danish pastry or two and coffee for breakfast - and insists: “I like the quiet life. I’m just a normal guy. I drive a car the club provides.” He is guarded about his personal life.
“I snapped him up there and then,” he recalls. “In fact, as a symbolic gesture, I got him to sign on the back of a serviette.” Carlos Rexach
He has been linked in the past to Argentinian glamour model Luciana Salazar, 30, and is currently said to be dating childhood sweetheart Antonella Roccuzzo.
Asked what his favourite book was during an interview, he said: “I don’t read books. The special thing for me is scoring goals - I love to celebrate with my friends and team-mates.”
Fortunately, he gets to do that quite a lot. He netted a staggering 53 goals this season alone. His masterful skills on the pitch have helped him become one of football’s wealthiest players.
US business magazine Forbes estimate Messi, 23, is worth £20million. He enjoys multi-million pound sponsorship deals with Adidas, PepsiCo, Konami, Audemars Piguet, Chery, AirEuropa and Dolce & Gabbana.
He is also a UNICEF ambassador, and his own charity The Leo Messi Foundation helps provide healthcare and education to vulnerable kids. The work is a nod to his own childhood struggle - and a desire to give something back.
“I like my charity work with my foundation helping children around the world,” he says.
In Saturday’s game, Messi scored the decisive second goal nine minutes into the second half and then set up Spanish team-mate David Villa, 29, for the killer third goal after 69 minutes. Yesterday, millions of fans who watched the final on TV reminisced on the internet about his mouthwatering contribution the night before.
His official Facebook page is followed by 14,814,276 fans.
He says on his biography page: “No matter the titles, trophies and honours, I will always be the boy who grew up in Rosario, Santa Fé, Argentina.
“It was there that I learned to walk just to be able to chase a dream. And yet, I was told I would never be a footballer.
“But being smaller forced me to be faster. Disbelievers, critics and naysayers made me more determined than ever. With the support of my family I moved to Spain with the chance to play for Barça.
“It was an opportunity to be the player that I always dreamed I could be.”
On Twitter, fans exchanged banter about the sheer brilliance of the 10-stone star.
One posted: “God has blessed Lionel Messi with the pace of a jaguar, the accuracy of an archer and the hair of Paul Merton.”
Another fan joked: “Man City have this morning offered Barcelona £765million, the Moon and the Gallagher brothers for Lionel Messi. Undervalued.”
(Written by Andrew Gregory for Daily Mirror)