If Bilbo Baggins had existed in real life, he may have shown a striking similarity to a young Lionel Messi. Bilbo, in J. R .R. Tolkien’s novel, is the most heroic of the hobbits, a diminutive, shy race nevertheless capable of great courage and amazing feats under the right circumstances. Bilbo’s rites of passage were also made in exile, after moving from one mythical kingdom to another in search of his destiny Messi’s legend had an inauspicious beginning.
Unlike another stocky Argentine, who was to overshadow much of his adult career, Lionel Andrés Messi’s birth on 24 June 1987, just a few minutes before six a.m., was not announced in mythical terms. For Lionel Messi, there was not a star glowing in the southern hemisphere, as legend claims there was at Maradona’s birth. Nor did Messi come out, like Diego, kicking, with his mother letting out a cry that many years later would be echoed by commentators around the world. GOOOOOOOL!
When he played he was terrifying: he would take the ball and run past any opponent he wanted. Once, when we were playing in a youth game, Clásico against Rosario Central, he scooped the ball over the same defender – a classic sombrero trick – five times during the match and maintained possession each time. You could hear the defender’s dad, out of sheer frustration, screaming, “Kill him, kill him.” He didn’t, of course. He couldn’t have done so even if he’d wanted to.’ 2
Young Lionel was not only having to develop mental fortitude on the pitch. When Messi had first started playing at Grandoli, his mother would stay behind to deal with the domestic chores, in between her hours at a magnet manufacturing workshop. With Jorge also often working long hours, it was his beloved grandmother, Celia, who had accompanied Lionel the fifteen blocks from home to the sports ground and back again. All the while offering encouragement and support to the slight chill.
He was just ten years old when Celia was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The degenerative disease drained her mentally and physically, and she died just short of Messi’s eleventh birthday. Lionel was so distraught that at her funeral he clung to her coffin, weeping uncontrollably. ‘For Leo, it was like losing a part of himself,’ wrote one of Messi’s earlier biographers, the Catalan journalist Toni Friers.
One more story from this period has come to seem significant. It has the tenyear-old Messi playing Nintendo at a friend’s house with a group of other boys. Before the game began, the friend would produce football shirts with different club colors, and each of those present was free to choose his favorite colors to wear while they played. Messi always chose those of FC Barcelona