Lionel Messi: The True Superhero of Short Footballers

As money has flooded into soccer over the last few decades, the sport has become more professional, more athletic, and increasingly dominated by larger, stronger players whose physical attributes are as valuable as their skill. Despite this, Lionel Messi stands head and shoulders above the fray at a mere five foot seven, demonstrating that skill is still the most precious commodity in the game of football. Remarkably, Messi almost never made it to the big leagues, but he overcame the medical problems that plagued his childhood development and is now working to ensure other children receive the help they need to reach their full potential, just as he did.  

Leo celebrating with the Champions League trophy

TALLER THAN MARADONA

Lionel was born in 1987 in Rosario, Argentina’s third most populous city. His parents were factory workers; Jorge was a steel factory manager while his mother, Celia, worked in a magnet manufacturing workshop. The entire Messi family loved football - as do most Argentinians - and young Leo’s introduction to the game was a family undertaking. His father trained a local children’s side called Grandoli, and added his son to the roster when he was just four years old, but it was Leo’s maternal grandmother - also called Celia - who provided the most encouragement, taking him to training and matches. 

Lionel Messi: The True Superhero of Short Footballers

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As money has flooded into soccer over the last few decades, the sport has become more professional, more athletic, and increasingly dominated by larger, stronger players whose physical attributes are as valuable as their skill. Despite this, Lionel Messi stands head and shoulders above the fray at a mere five foot seven, demonstrating that skill is still the most precious commodity in the game of football. Remarkably, Messi almost never made it to the big leagues, but he overcame the medical problems that plagued his childhood development and is now working to ensure other children receive the help they need to reach their full potential, just as he did.  

Leo celebrating with the Champions League trophy

TALLER THAN MARADONA

Lionel was born in 1987 in Rosario, Argentina’s third most populous city. His parents were factory workers; Jorge was a steel factory manager while his mother, Celia, worked in a magnet manufacturing workshop. The entire Messi family loved football - as do most Argentinians - and young Leo’s introduction to the game was a family undertaking. His father trained a local children’s side called Grandoli, and added his son to the roster when he was just four years old, but it was Leo’s maternal grandmother - also called Celia - who provided the most encouragement, taking him to training and matches. 

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This encouragement worked wonders, and by the age of six Leo was on the books of Newell’s Old Boys, Rosario’s most famous and successful club. He had an enormous  impact, scoring hundreds of goals for a youth team who lost only one game in four years, but when he was nine years old a serious problem presented itself: Leo had stopped growing.  The club doctors diagnosed a growth hormone deficiency, which would need to be treated with expensive daily injections. When the club doctor broke the news, Leo tearfully asked “will I grow?” and received the response “You will be taller than Maradona. I don’t know if you will be better, but you will be taller”. Although Newell’s initially agreed to foot the bill for Leo’s treatment, they later backed out of their commitment, leaving Jorge to cover the costs out of his health insurance. This was unsustainable at almost $1000 per injection, and the young starlet’s career seemed to be in huge jeopardy. Scouts from other major Argentinian sides looked at Leo but decided the cost of his treatments was too high, so in 2000 Jorge decided to look further afield. The Messis had relatives in Catalonia, so they arranged to fly to Spain and seek a trial with one of Europe’s most prestigious clubs, Barcelona.

AN ALIEN IN BARCELONA

Messi impressed on his trial but the club’s policy prohibited signing players at such a young age, and they very nearly passed on the opportunity to sign arguably the world’s greatest player. Jorge was forced to issue a dramatic ultimatum - sign my boy or we go back to Argentina - which to Barcelona offering Leo a hurried contract written out on a napkin. Leo quickly began to repay this grudging endorsement through his performances in the youth sides, and when he was called up to the first team squad for the first time, aged 16, his world-famous colleagues quickly learned about their new wunderkind teammate and his incredible dribbling abilities. The French international Ludovic Giuly later described Messi’s first training session: “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 center-backs were nervous. He was an alien”.

Leo in training with Diego Maradona at the 2010 World Cup

Giuly’s experiences would soon be echoed by opposition players throughout Spain. Having grown to his final height of 5 '7, Messi was indeed slightly taller than Maradona, but also quickly convinced observers that he was better than the man widely acknowledged as the greatest player of the 20th century. Maradona had a rival for that title in the form of Pele, but the two never faced each other in competition. Messi’s rival for the position of World’s Greatest Player, Cristiano Ronaldo, would line up against him several times a season for Barcelona’s bitter rivals, Real Madrid, but while Ronaldo was a product of the changing trends of modern football - strong, athletic, and as efficient as he was spectacular - Messi seemed like a throwback to an earlier age. His ability to dribble through opponents rendered their height advantage obsolete, and their attempts to kick him off the park would just leave them looking clumsy and brutish. Another way that Messi seemed like a throwback was his refusal to dive, or even stay on the floor after being fouled, which was hugely anachronistic in a sport that was filled with gamesmanship and professionalism. Lionel wasn’t doing this to assert a moral position on cheating, he merely wanted to get back on the ball in order to continue the attack. Everybody - opposition players, spectators, and Leo himself - knew that a bruised but mobile Messi on the ball was far more dangerous than a direct free kick. 

A TRUE SUPERHERO OFF THE PITCH

Messi eventually left Barcelona in 2021, having won every available trophy at club level multiple times, and scoring 672 goals in 778 games in all competitions, a truly astonishing achievement for a player who is ostensibly a midfielder. His name lives on at the club in many ways, but one of the most important is the Leo Messi Foundation, which he founded at the start of his career. The Foundation, which is now tied in to Barcelona’s own charitable foundation, strives to help vulnerable children through medical support and education initiatives, and has been a focal point for Messi’s philanthropic donations. He has also taken an active personal role in children’s charities; he first started supporting the work of UNICEF when he was still just 17, and in 2010 he was named as one of their Goodwill Ambassadors, helping to fundraise for campaigns such as the 2010 Haitian earthquake relief effort, HIV prevention, education, and better treatment for disabled children worldwide. While debate will continue to rage about whether Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the greatest to play the game, there’s little question that Messi’s contributions to society mark him out as a True Superhero off the pitch, as well as on it.

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