The Rosário-born Argentine Lionel Andrés Messi was only thirteen when he first boarded a plane. It was the year 2000, and he was heading to Spain with his father, Jorge, and the sports agent Fabian Soldini, who was to take care of the contracts in the event that an agreement was reached. According to the experts, Argentina had the best national team in the world at the time, alongside France.
In 1995, just as he was about to turn eight, Messi started playing the youth divisions at Newell's Old Boys, a medium-sized team with a staunch fanbase that had reached the final of the Libertadores da América in 1992, only to lose to São Paulo. The team's star during the early 1990s, when Messi was only five, was the manager Marcelo "El Loco" Bielsa, but Newell's had good players, such as full-backs Fernando Gamboa and Mauricio Pochettino, and midfielder Gerardo "Tata" Martino.
In the four years that followed Messi's arrival, Newell's class of 1987 (their year of birth) only lost one game. River Plate expressed an interest in Messi, but a diagnosis of growth hormone deficiency (which prevented proper bone development) put the Buenos Aires club off pursuing the player further.
At this stage, Messi was already beginning to thrill. He'd trap the ball with his left foot and make a beeline for goal, whether on an indoor court or full-sized pitch, it didn't matter.
More or less as Neymar would do at Santos five years later.
Fabian Soldini, a football agent (a profession that started gaining groud in the 1990s), noted Messi's talent and used his contacts to land a trial at Barcelona. The first time Messi was seen in Spain was in a video of him playing keepie-uppies with an orange -- 97 touches. With a little more density to the sphere in question -- say, a tennis ball -- the tally could be nudged up to 103. Like Neymar years later, Lionel Messi wasn't sure he wanted to stay in the famous Catalan town. On his way to the airport, he cried the entire three hundred kilometers that separate Rosário from Buenos Aires. He didn't want to be away from his mom.
In the end, Soldini convinced him to stay in Barcelona with promises and presents. "I promised him that if he scored five goals I'd give him a Puma tracksuit", recalls Soldini in the book Messi: A Biography.
The afternoon Soldini made his promise, Messi was in Barcelona for a period of adaptation at his new club. He scored five goals and received the promised tracksuit. Years later, Fabian Soldini's company would charge the players for the days they spent together in Barcelona for trials and tests.
It took Carles Rexach, a former player, coach and director at Barcelona, only seven minutes at a training session to decide Messi's future. He took the boy and his family to luch, grabbed a napkin and a pen, and wrote out a commitment contract. Newell's was a thing of the past.
Among Solidni's promises was that of covering the costs of Messi's growth hormone treatment. As the Argentine grew physically, Barcelona's belief strengthened.
In Messi's case, his father did not ask that all-important question: "Do you want to live in Barcelona, Catalonia, or in Rosário, Argentina?" The whole family wanted to move to Europe. The destiny of the boy, a footballing genius, was already clear.
But it cost him some disrupt in Argentina. Up until the Copa América in 2011, which Argentina lost at home to Uruguay in the quarterfinals, the consensus in the streets of Buenos Aires was that Messi didn't play as well for Argentina as he did for Barcelona, which was nonsense, because that Argentinean team was nowhere near as good as Barça.
Neymar would face the same prejudice. The first time he was handed the decision between Brazil and Europe, he chose Brazil. The second and third times his decision remained the same. Only eight years after receiving his first European invitation, already a 21-year-old professional approaching his full powers, did he agree to make the move -- and it wasn't to Real Madrid, the club he was supposed to go at 13, but Barcelona, their historic rivals for Spanish hegemony.
Turns out Neymar's was not another Messi story.
'The Planet Neymar' is a new series with stories about the Barça superstar's journey from the book "Planet Neymar: A Profile", by Brazilian journalist Paulo Vinícius Coelho.