Lionel Messi achieved his childhood dream when he finally lifted the World Cup for Argentina at the age of 35 years old.
After the final against France he revealed it was going to be his last World Cup match, and helped cement his legacy, alongside that of Diego Maradona, as one of the greatest footballers, not only that Argentina, but the world, has produced.
Yet, had things turned out differently, he could have been wearing the red jersey of Spain at the World Cup in Qatar.
Messi’s childhood in Argentina
Messi was born in Rosario in Central Argentina, joining the Newells club at the age of six, and scoring almost 500 goals for a team that became known as the “Machine of 87.”
However, at the age of ten, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency that threatened his entire future in the game.
His father’s medical insurance was enough only to cover for two years of treatment, whilst Newells promised to contribute to the cost, but then reneged on the arrangement.
Messi’s move to Barcelona as a kid
Searching around for alternatives, the Messi family went to Catalonia, where they had relatives, and, whilst they were there, it was arranged for him to have a trial with Barcelona.
So impressed by what he had seen the first-team coach Carles Rexach said he wanted to sign the teenager on the spot, although he had to convince the club’s directors first. However, having done so, and wanting to get an agreement in writing, Rexach famously drafted his first contract on a napkin.
Spain’s flirting and Argentina’s possessiveness
Messi qualified to play for Spain due to a great grandfather who was born in the Balguer Catalonia region, and it was Rexach who was prominent in moves to get him to play for his adopted country.
He approached the Royal Spanish Football Federation to try and secure his international future, but already his form had attracted the notice of their Argentine equivalents, whilst Messi made no secret as to where his allegiances lay.
In 2004, two under-20 friendlies were hurriedly arranged at short notice, against Paraguay and Uruguay, and Messi was called up for the first time by his country.
He scored three goals across those two games, and then found the net 11 times more in 16 games for the under-20 side, before he was promoted to first the under-23 and then the senior team.
Messi qualified to play for Italy as well
In fact, Messi, theoretically could have played for Italy as well. That is because both his parents had Italian ancestry, and he would have qualified for an Italian passport through his great grandfather.
It was he who, in 1883, had moved from Recanati in Italy to Rosario, Messi’s place of birth, part of a wave of Italian immigrants to South America in the late 19th century in search of a better life.
There is no evidence that the Italian Football Federation attempted to contact Messi to switch his international allegiance, or became aware of the possibility until it was too late.
Messi’s heroes were all Argentine
In his autobiography, entitled, appropriately, “Messi, The Patriot” the player is unequivocal on the issue. He admits that he was informally asked if he wanted to play for Spain, but that the only team he ever wanted to represent was Argentina. He confessed that he was always an avid fan of the national team, and, although he could never afford to go to the stadium to watch them in person, he always watched all their games on television.
And all Messi’s football heroes were Argentine, not just Diego Maradona, but Juan Román Riquelme, the playmaker who was in the Barcelona side when he arrived at their academy in La Masia.
Carrying the expectations of the entire nation
Not that he was always the iconic figure that he is now to the Argentine fans, some of whom struggled to identify him initially because they had never seen him play domestically. He was known only for what he did with the national team, and from what they could see of him on television playing in La Liga and the Champions League.
In time that began to change, but, as it did so, the pressure on him to deliver international silverware grew.
There were disappointments along the way, not least in the 2014 World Cup, when Argentina reached the final against Germany. But Messi was only half-fit, and the team as a whole under-performed.
He also finished on the losing side three times in finals of the Copa América.
When Argentina lost to Chile in the final of the Copa América Centenario, Messi decided that he had had enough and retired from international football, until he was coaxed back by a host of names, including Maradona and the country’s president at the time, Mauricio Macri.
And he finally got the monkey off his back of being a perpetual runner-up, when he finally lifted silverware, after Argentina beat Brazil on penalties to win the Copa América in 2021.
Now he can call himself a World Cup winner, after a tournament in which he finally excelled on the global stage, helping them recover from their opening group game shock defeat to Saudi Arabia, and getting stronger the further that they went in the tournament.
Having never scored in a knock-out game at a World Cup before he scored in all four in Qatar, and provided assists in three of those matches.
Two goals in the final itself, plus a converted spot kick in the penalty shoot-out, means that he also stepped-up when needed on the big occasion.
FIFA did their best to spoil his big moment by draping a traditional Arab costume a “bisht” over his blue and white Argentine shirt before he could hold the World Cup aloft, but in the end, that took nothing away from the celebrations, and the team have returned home to a heroes’ welcome.
Now both he and his countrymen will be glad that he refused to listen to the approaches from Spain and chose to stick to the country of his birth which clearly has a special place in his heart.
Spain, who were knocked out in the round of 16 by Morocco, could only sit back and wonder about what might have been had he been persuaded all those years ago.