All athletes swear a great indebtedness to the sport that has made them global icons. Lionel Messi, The Beautiful Game’s favorite son, owes it his life. And so, he plays it as if it were still on the line. He wouldn’t have a historic amount of personal achievements, tournament success, international accomplishments, and also be his club team’s all-time top scorer if he didn’t.
Only 26 years old, Messi is already a generational talent, regarded by many as one of soccer’s best ever, with the potential to pass up the player long regarded as its master: Diego Maradona. The two have eerily similar builds and playing styles that converged in celestial fashion when in April of 2007, Messi spontaneously recreated Maradona’s most famous goal as if he were some hippie-haired algorithm. Their shared diminutive stature only added to the carbon-copied magnificence.
But for Messi, his size was once a matter of great concern. At a young age, he was diagnosed with a hormone deficiency that would severely stunt his growth if left uncared for. Having been born in Rosario, Argentina―the heart of soccer country―under the competitive shadow of two older soccer-playing brothers, Messi had already established himself as a phenom-in-the-making upon news of the ailment. At age 8, he was a recruit for his hometown club team’s youth system. His parents hoped that his skills on the pitch could help pay for pricey growth-hormone injections. But Argentina’s richest teams refused to take on the cost.
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Then, at the age of 13, FC Barcelona extended a lifesaver to the Argentine player. After a tryout at its youth academy, the organization not only offered to extend a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to the teen by signing him up, but it also offered to foot his medical bills.
With that, Messi and his family packed up their belongings and moved across the Atlantic to Spain.
In a flash—as blurry as his on-field mechanics—Messi rose through Barcelona’s ranks. At 16, he made his first professional appearance for the first-team. Less than a year later, he became the youngest player ever (a record that was later broken) to score a goal in the Spanish League. At the age of 20, the futbol community already considered Messi, nicknamed “The Flea,” one of the best in the world. Since then he’s amassed an absolutely dizzying amount of awards.
He holds the title for the Guinness World Record for most goals scored in a calendar year; owns a historic four FIFA Ballon d’Or awards; has achieved a Barcelona record of 318 goals; has won the most European Golden Shoes (3); and could fill an office with the amount of tournament trophies he’s helped nab. The only distinction that has eluded him, and that is the game’s highest honor and perhaps the only speck on his illustrious career, is winning the World Cup. Something Maradona was able to do.
His sky-high ascendancy has brought him many riches and much fame, but Messi remains a soft-spoken and humble icon. As the boyish face for global brands like Pepsi and Adidas, he’s decided to use some of his celebrity for good. In 2007, he founded the Leo Messi Foundation to help disadvantaged youths with educational and medical needs. He has also donated vast amounts to the renovation of children’s hospitals in his native Argentina.
Although soccer saved him in many respects, Messi understands that not all are blessed with his prodigious talents. He now uses the sport that gave him a new lease on life to better the future of those less fortunate. What a Beautiful Game, indeed.