I met Lionel Messi in the changing rooms of FC Barcelona's Camp Nou, the third largest stadium in the world. From high up in the stands Messi is a tiny, fast, unstoppable black dot. Up close he's a short and solid kid. He's shy and speaks in a lilting Argentine accent. His face is smooth and perfectly clean-shaven. Lionel Messi is the smallest living world champion footballer. "La Pulga" they call him: the Flea. He has the body and height of a child. He was a child, in fact, when he stopped growing. While his friends' legs got longer, their hands grew stronger and voices changed, Leo stayed small. Something was wrong and blood tests confirmed it. His growth hormones were blocked. Messi had a rare form of dwarfism.
It was impossible to hide his problem. All his mates down at the pitch noticed. "He just stopped," they say, as if he had simply been left behind. "I was always the smallest, wherever I went, whatever I did," Messi says. When he was eleven Lionel was barely one metre forty. His jersey from Newell's Old Boys, his team in Rosario, Argentina, hung down to his knees. His shorts were enormous. Even when he tightened his shoes all the way, they still looked like slippers. He was an incredible player, but had the body of an eight-year-old rather than an adolescent. Just when he was ready to start dreaming about his future, right when he was supposed to develop his talent, his growth – arms, legs, chest – came to a halt.
He knew that if he did not grow he'd never become the person he wanted to be. Doctors believed his problem might be temporary if treated immediately with growth hormone injections, but the cure was expensive: each injection cost $700 and he would have to have one every day. Messi needed to grow in order to play football, but he also needed to play football in order to grow. He could not even imagine a form of therapy that did not include his lifeblood and passion.
At that time no Argentinian club could take on the risks and costs of Messi's cure, even though they acknowledged his talent. Even if he grew a few centimetres, they reasoned, a footballer needs an extremely powerful physique. They assumed the Flea would be squashed by huge defenders, that he'd never be able to head the ball, that he'd never be able to handle the anaerobic stress of being a forward player in today's game. But Messi kept on playing. He knew that if he wanted to become a professional he had to dribble as if he had ten feet, run faster than a wild colt and never get tired.
Before they saw him, European scouts were also sceptical. "If he's too small he doesn't stand a chance," they said, "even if he's a strong player." After watching him play, recalls Barcelona's sporting director Carles Rexach, "It took them five minutes to understand that he was made for football. In a split second it was obvious how special he was." Rexach wanted to sign him straight away. "Anybody walking by would have paid his weight in gold to have him." So he drew up an initial contract on a paper napkin from the snack bar and he and the Flea's father signed it.
Barcelona believed in the eternal child. They decided to invest in the horrible hormone treatment that was to become part of his life. To get it, Lionel and his whole family had to move to Spain. They left Rosario with no documents, no jobs, only the contract scribbled on a napkin. They put all their hopes in his little body. Starting in 2000, for three years, the club guaranteed Messi the healthcare he needed. They believed a kid who was ready to play soccer to save his life had a rare energy that could get him to the top.
The treatment, however, was brutal. Nausea was the main problem. You vomit up your soul. Your facial hair does not grow. You feel your muscles popping out, your bones creaking and groaning. Everything gets bigger and longer in months rather than years. "I couldn't let myself experience pain," Messi says. "I couldn't let my new team see me suffer. I owed them everything." The difference between those who use their talent to become someone and those who have everything to lose is an abyss. Art becomes your life, not because it brings everything together, but because only your art can keep you alive and guarantee your future. There is no alternative to fall back on.
After three years Barcelona called up Messi to play. His family thought the club's expectations were too high. They feared the worst. They had lost everything in Argentina and they had nothing in Spain. If things did not go as hoped, Messi's health problems would once again become their responsibility. But when the Flea played, all their anxieties vanished.
Because Leo's centre is low, when defenders run into him he does not fall down. Nor does he move out of the way. He keeps on going, and keeps the ball. He bounces off the other players, dribbles, leaps, wiggles, escapes, feints. He is uncatchable. Leo is fast, and even at top speed he just holds onto the ball. When he feints, his adversaries trip over their own feet.
Messi once had to draw the story of his life for an advertisement. It's charming but also a little sad to see how he saw himself as a tiny child lost in a forest of legs and surrounded by enormous footballs that flew far, far away.
Watching Messi play there's no separation between man and ball. Everything is confused yet harmonious. Messi's games are like Arturo Benedetti Michelangelo's sonatas, Raphael's faces, Chet Baker's trumpet solos, John Nash's mathematical theories, or anything else that ceases to be material, colour, sound, and becomes something that belongs to every element, to life itself.