The request was to search for the source, the light, the inspiration for the Holy Grail. Many had before me accepted the challenge, none had emerged holding aloft the burning light, the answer to just why Lionel Messi is so fucking good.
I suspect that the answer is that there is no answer. No one definitive answer anyway.
But I suppose we have to keep searching. Our natural curiosity as human beings and as journalists with pages, screens and airwaves to fill, demands that we persevere.
I didn’t want to go to Rosario, a three-hour drive up Route Nine from Buenos Aires. I was aware that many journalists had gone before me to talk to Leo Messi’s mum, dad, siblings, coaches, teachers, neighbours, schoolfriends, aunties, uncles and the bloke from the corner kiosk who once sold him a lollipop.
But as Leo in Barcelona knocked in that ninety-first goal of 2012 and blasted Gerd Muller from the record books my bosses wanted answers in both Barcelona and Rosario.
The Messi family, not surprisingly, has had enough of answering bland, often ridiculous questions from the world’s media. So, on my list of people to talk to were two of his former coaches and the doctor who treated him for the hormone deficiency that was preventing him from growing. We also filmed the house and the humble neighbourhood where he grew up.
Revelations, there were none. But when you’re investigating a footballer for whom we have run out of superlatives, then perhaps we have to look at the details.
Ernesto Vecchio was a coach at the local club, Newell’s Old Boys, when he saw six-year-old Leo Messi for the first time.
“He’d just arrived at Newell’s, to the school,” he told me as we stood among the cars in his workshop. “He was among the kids born in 1987, playing for what became known as the Machine of 87. We saw a different player, with his young age, his tiny body – that’s why he was called The Flea. Well! Seeing him play was totally different to the other players.”
Another of the young player’s coaches in those early days of his development was Enrique Domínguez. We spoke in a park near the monument to the Argentine flag with the River Parana just a short hop away. “The most difficult thing for a kid of eleven or twelve years old to achieve is coordination,” he said. “He can think and then needs to do what he’s thinking with his feet, his body and with the ball. We noticed right from the beginning that Leo had that coordination, from the age of six or seven. The ball was an extension of his foot, his leg, his chest. He had no problems in passing it, in stopping it. His coordination was excellent.”
Leo Messi’s family spends most of its time in Barcelona but still maintains its ties with Rosario. I went to the modest family house in a humble neighbourhood to the south of the city. All the lampposts and many of the walls were painted in the blue and yellow of Rosario Central or the black and red of Newell’s Old Boys – the city’s two main teams. The shutters were down but the neighbours all confirmed that this was the Messi house which they often use on their return. I asked some local kids to kick a ball about in the street in front of the house since that’s the kind of corny thing you’ve got to do for TV.
The pitches in the area were all overgrown and riddled with muddy puddles. The centre of Rosario is beautiful with its grand houses, tree-lined avenues and views of the River Parana. But you don’t need to look far to see the poverty…the run-down houses on the outskirts of the city, the cartoneros looking in the rubbish for anything they can sell or re-cycle.
It was apparent to all who saw him that Leo Messi was a prodigious talent, attracting interest from big clubs in Argentina and beyond. But he was too small for his age, suffering from growth hormone deficiency. So Newell’s called on specialist Diego Schwarzstein for help.
He found time between patients to talk to me: “He had a medical problem. Not all the kids that are small have a problem,” he explained. “The majority of the kids that are short are just short. They are normal kids that genetics have decided that they are not going to be so tall. But in some cases, and this was one of these cases, there is some kind of problem and this was the case here – he was lacking the hormone that is necessary to grow.”
The treatment was expensive…paid for initially by the family’s health care then Barcelona football club, aware of young Messi’s talent, stepped in to help:
“I feel happy and proud when I see a kid that has solved his problem,” said Dr Schwarzstien. “Of course, I feel a little bit more happy and more proud when I see where he is now.”
Lionel Messi went to Barcelona, aged twelve, where he grew both in stature and as a footballer. The rest is history. Those who stayed behind in Rosario watch his progress with pride in the small parts they all played in helping The Flea to develop into perhaps the best footballer the world has ever seen.
“I always say that Leo never surprised me,” said Enrique Dominguez. “We knew him when he was six, seven, ten, eleven years old and he’s the same now as when he was playing in the kids’ team. It’s very rare that a player becomes a top professional like him and doesn’t change. But he hasn’t changed the way he plays or the way he treats other people. He hasn’t changed his image or the way he talks. He’s totally natural, everything Leo does is natural.”
Ernesto Vecchio feels much the same: “When I see him play I do get very emotional. I had him here in a team with the other kids and watching him play was always marvellous.”
Later, before heading back to Buenos Aires, we drank coffee at the Restaurante VIP run by one of the Messi brothers. The family runs a football school in the city. He’s a popular local lad. How could he not be?
But there’s none of the passion for little Leo that still exists for Diego Maradona. Enrique and Ernesto were privileged to see The Flea play as a small boy, on Argentine soil. But he was gone by aged twelve.
The terraces of Argentinos Juniors are still populated by elderly fans with knitted scarves who harbour fond memories of the short, stocky sixteen year old Diego who dazzled them at their modest ground with his precocious skills.
The same is no doubt true up the road at the far grander Bombonera Stadium where Diego still enjoys God-like status among the Boca Juniors fans.
Of course Lionel Messi is Argentine. However, until he lifts the World Cup while wearing the national shirt, he’ll not enter the footballing hearts of his countrymen and women in the same way that the previous Number 10, with all his arrogance and silliness, has done.
The three-hour drive back to Buenos Aires gave me plenty of time to ponder. Messi simply has a wonderful talent but I think it’s relevant that he was born in Argentina. It was Rosario but it could have been Buenos Aires or Cordoba or Mendoza since Argentina doesn’t let much of its potential footballing talent slip through the net.
It has a system of boys clubs and good coaches that feed the bigger clubs and increasingly the world’s top teams, such as Barcelona. They know their football and they know talent when they see it.
The same boy born in Peru or Guatemala or Nepal or even Britain might not have been spotted and his talent nurtured in the way Messi’s was in Rosario. He had a supportive family behind him which is always important.
They play tennis, volleyball and basketball in Argentina. Football, though, is always the dominant sport. Messi’s talent was spotted aged six and, despite his medical problems, no-one was going to let him get away. Little Leo, growing up in a football-crazy culture, also had the will and determination to succeed.
The truth, as you can see, is that there is no secret. Lionel Messi is simply very, very good. We should just sit back and enjoy and stop asking so many questions.