Jere Longman visited Lionel Messi in Barcelona and delivers an in-depth feature on the 23-year-old Argentine star that recounts his arrival in Spain at age 13 to his current heroics, which have helped Barca to another La Liga title and a place in next Saturday's Champions League final against Manchester United.
“We thought he was mute,” said Gerard Pique, the Barcelona center back who played with Messi in the club’s youth academy. “He was in the locker room, on the bench, just sitting. He said nothing to us for the first month. We traveled to Switzerland to play a tournament, and he started to talk and have fun. We thought it was another person. He was really good, but he was really small and thin. His legs were like fingers. One coach said, ‘Don’t try to tackle him strong, because maybe you will break him.’ And we said, ‘OK, but don’t worry because we cannot catch him.'"
Messi stood 4-foot-7 when he arrived at Barcelona, which agreed to pick up the costs of treatment for a growth-hormone deficiency. As the story goes, his contract was written on a napkin. He now stands 5-7. If his lack of size made him shy and self-conscious as a boy, his low center of gravity made him spectacularly elusive as a soccer player.
Messi told Longman he plays with the same eagerness that he did in Argentina when he improvised soccer balls from stones and women’s tights and cans of cola. “I have fun like a child in the street,” he said. “When the day comes when I’m not enjoying it, I will leave football.”