The Little Boy from Rosario

Lionel Messi just won the 2022 World Cup — a feat that completes his near-perfect career.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Julia Shen

Ten La Liga titles, four UCL trophies, seven Ballon d’Ors, six European Golden Boots, two FIFA World Cup Golden Balls, an Olympic gold medal, and a Copa América trophy. In the history of soccer, many have tried and failed to reach the same level of greatness as the little boy from Rosario: Lionel Messi.

At the age of 11, Messi was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency, meaning he would have to pay for special treatment to help him grow. As the son of a poor family of six in Argentina, he was only able to acquire funds to pay for his treatment by playing soccer at Newell’s Old Boys Academy. As time went on, the funds became insufficient and time was ticking until Messi had to give up his love for the sport of soccer. Luckily for the young prospect, word of his paramount skill had gotten out to FC Barcelona, one of the biggest clubs in Europe. With the club’s willingness to offer the future star a contract, Messi and his family left Rosario behind and moved to “Ciudad Condal.” After seeing a few preliminary drills at the FC Barcelona Youth Academy, club executives could not believe how skilled the little boy was, so much so that the technical director at the time, Carles Rexach, offered the 13-year-old Messi a contract on the only piece of paper he had: a napkin. “I decided to sign him on a paper napkin that a waiter gave me because I couldn’t let him get away,” Rexach said. With this, Messi opened the door to the life he had been hoping for since his childhood on the streets of Rosario.

Starting his professional career with the senior club at the age of 17, Messi showed early signs of greatness, playing alongside legends like Ronaldinho and Carles Puyol to bring the team their first Champions League in six years. After a dominant debut season for Messi and Barcelona, Ronaldinho won the Ballon d’Or and had great praise for the club’s youngest star. “This award says I’m the best player in the world, but I’m not even the best player at Barcelona,” Ronaldinho said. From that point on, Messi accumulated accomplishments like no one had before, such as winning the league 10 times, being voted the best player in the world with seven Ballon d’Ors, conquering all of Europe with four Champions League trophies, and racking up goals and assists at an unbelievable pace. Most notably, during Messi’s 2012 season, which many say was his prime, he totaled the most goals in a calendar year (91), as well as the most goals plus assists (113). To put that into perspective, Messi scored more goals in 2012 than entire prominent clubs did, some of which included Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester United, and Chelsea. With the help of teammates Neymar and Luis Suárez, the trio dubbed “MSN” reigned supreme over European soccer for the next few years, winning seven trophies together, including the 2015 Champions League cup.

Of course, with another one of the all-time greats, Cristiano Ronaldo, playing for rival club Real Madrid, comparisons between the two were inevitable. As both players racked up dominant runs in La Liga and the Champions League, fans across the soccer world debated who was the better of the two. Their legendary duels at Camp Nou in Barcelona or at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid signified their simultaneous greatness, but most agree that Messi had the upper hand in these battles. In games, such as their 2010 matchup, where Barcelona shut out Madrid for a 5-0 victory, and their 2014 thriller, where Messi scored a hattrick to secure a narrow victory for his team, “The Flea” simply dominated. But nothing came close to 2017 when Messi’s iconic jersey celebration was formed by taking it off and lifting it in front of Real Madrid’s fans at the Bernabeu. He and his iconic celebration stole the show after his team defeated Real Madrid in a 3-2 victory.

Though he was successful against Ronaldo for years in La Liga, many argued that Messi could not call himself the GOAT because of his comparative lack of international success with Argentina. With legends like Pelé and Diego Maradona to catch up to in terms of international glory, Messi still had a long way to go before fans could come to an agreement on which of this generation’s stars was greater. Maradona and Messi shared so much in common, from left-footedness to slight stature to jersey number, that it often felt like Messi could never escape his predecessor’s shadow. This pressure looked almost insurmountable as Messi suffered a string of international defeats in the early 2010s. In fact, after a penalty loss to Uruguay by one misplaced kick in the 2011 Copa América, Messi was booed out of the stadium by his own Argentinian home crowd. Argentinians felt Messi was almost more Catalan than Argentine, having moved to Barcelona at such a young age. On top of that, while he dominated club soccer, his reputation for not being able to win with his national team grew. In 2014, Argentina made it all the way to the World Cup final, facing off against Germany, but suffered a heartbreaking loss in extra time. After another defeat in 2016 Copa América, a disheartened Messi announced his retirement from international football, seemingly marking the end to an international career of coming up just short. “I'm taking this decision for me and for the many people who want this. I’ve tried so hard, but I’m leaving without managing it,” Messi said.

As we all know, though, Messi didn’t stay retired for long—and what a comeback it was. In the past few years, Messi and Argentina itself have been on one of the finest international runs of the century. In the summer of 2021, Argentina finally triumphed in the Copa América final over longtime rival Brazil. Messi led the tournament in almost every statistical category, leading him to secure his seventh Ballon d’Or in the fall along with the Copa América. That final was overflowing with tension—when the final whistle sounded, it was as though a dam had finally broken. The relief on Messi’s face was evident, and even a non-soccer fan could grasp the significance of the moment. This Copa América, as great as it was, was only the beginning of a historic international run.

The 2022 World Cup was seen as the end of a golden generation of football—“the last dance” for greats like Ronaldo, Luka Modrić, Suárez, Robert Lewandowski, and, of course, Messi. As the knockout stages progressed and the pool of remaining teams gradually thinned, these stories became more and more prevalent. Messi and his young protégé Julián Álvarez defeated 2018 runner-ups Croatia, while Ronaldo’s Portugal was ousted by Morocco as he watched from the bench for the entirety of the first half. The pressure continued to grow as the final matchup emerged—it would be France, defending champions and Kylian Mbappé’s unstoppable squad, that would kick off against Messi’s Argentina, the team that had everything to prove. Narratives swirled around social media; some said Messi had to win not only for himself or for Argentina, but for his entire generation. It came as no surprise that a record number of people tuned in to watch the final on Sunday, December 18. And on that Sunday morning, half the world saw the greatest World Cup game of all time. After two thrilling halves, which saw Messi and longtime international teammate Ángel Di María each score a goal only to be countered by two of Mbappé’s own, fans could never have expected the extra time that shocked the world. After a goal each from Messi and Mbappé, spectators witnessed a penalty shootout that ended with Argentina’s Gonzalo Montiel scoring the winning kick. This would cap off the storybook career of Lionel Messi, cementing his name as the GOAT. “Lionel Messi, a man who has more than any other decorated our beautiful game… to receive from that game now, its most beautiful decoration. Messi’s meant-to-be moment. His fulfillment. His completion. It is done,” commentator Peter Drury narrated.

Messi’s World Cup victory, after all the years of anguish and loss, was an almost surreal moment. The celebrations lasted for hours, the parade in Argentina was declared a national holiday and lasted a week, and the entire world was on its feet cheering. Tons of people had turned on their TVs not simply to watch the World Cup final, but to watch Lionel Messi attempt to complete the greatest career in soccer history. He had won the first World Cup since the death of the beloved Diego Maradona, whose shadow he was finally stepping out of and whose level he was now unequivocally beyond. The most captivating football game in recent memory had also been the coronation of the greatest soccer player of all time: Lionel Messi. Ten La Liga titles, four UCL titles, seven Ballon d’Ors, six European Golden Boots, two FIFA World Cup Golden Balls, an Olympic gold medal, a Copa América trophy, and the 2022 FIFA World Cup.