Messi’s hometown offers emotional trip to his childhood

Debora Rey

ROSARIO, ARGENTINA (AP) – Football wasn’t always Lionel Messi’s favourite activity.

When he was a child in the modest neighbourhood of La Bajada in his Argentine hometown of Rosario, he spent his time cycling with friends, building forts out of branches and stones, playing hide and seek – and occasionally stealing lemons from a neighbour to make juice.

Those stories and others are the focus of a new tour being offered by Rosario to celebrate their 32-year-old hometown hero, an international sports superstar who just won an unprecedented sixth Golden Ball as world soccer’s player of the year.

The tour put together by Rosario’s city hall is free of charge and available in an app translated into several languages, guiding fans through 10 stops.

Few houses are higher than two stories in La Bajada, a middle-class neighbourhood in the city that is 300 kilometres northwest of Buenos Aires.

A boys pops a wheelie as he rides his bicycle past a mural featuring Lionel Messi in La Bajada, Rosario, Argentina. PHOTOS: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: Girls stand outside Lionel Messi’s childhood home; and a football jersey worn by Lionel Messi when he trained with Newell’s Old Boys youth team in the La Bajada neighbourhood, Argentina

Halfway down Israel street stands a gray house, closed off by shut curtains and protected by railings.

There is no sign outside indicating it was Messi’s home, and no one lives there now, though it still belongs to his family.

The neighbours aren’t so shy about the Messi connection, however. Colourful paintings dedicated to the football star stand in front of houses and there are sidewalks coloured in the blue and white of Argentina’s national team with Messi’s jersey number, 10, painted in black.

Messi’s neighbours and friends are often willing to share stories with visitors.

“Leo was normal and ordinary like other people here,” Diego Vallejos, one of Messi’s childhood friends, told The Associated Press on a sandy football field of the El Campito club as three youngsters played football.

“We fell, we scratched ourselves riding bikes. We went to the street with water bombs and threw them at buses,” said Vallejos, who is one year older than Messi.

Also are on the tour are the school Messi attended and the Abanderado Grandoli club, where he learned his first football moves.

The city long had a somewhat distant relationship with Messi, and officials said the tour seeks to change that. Rosario’s city hall said Messi’s family did not take part in the creation of the tour.

“What we want to emphasise is that Leo is a product of his city, and that there is a life and many stories behind the superstar,” said Santiago Valenti with Rosario’s tourism agency.

Messi was born on June 24, 1987, in the Hospital Italiano Garibaldi in Rosario. He lived in the city until 2000, when he moved to Barcelona.

A recently opened sports museum, a few blocks from Messi’s old house, offers an interactive tour of the lives of local stars in racing, boxing, basketball and football.

Messi’s section of the museum is introduced by a painting that mixes monuments from Rosario and Barcelona, and the sentence: “All that I did, I did for football”. Two giant screens display goals and testimonials from his teammates.

“The idea is not to pay a tribute to his sporting success,” said museum coordinator Juan Echeverría. “It is to value the path he walked, everything that an athlete has to go through to get to the tip of the iceberg that we see when he is on the podium.”

The museum has contacted Messi’s family and the player’s father said he would donate more memorabilia. One of items on display is a small red shirt with a white collar. Below it is Messi’s official register as a Newell’s Old Boys academy player and a picture of him smiling.

Downtown is the Malvinas compound where Newell’s has its football academy.

It was there the young Messi was filmed out-dribbling much bigger opponents.

“This is where it all started,” said Lisandro Conte, an employee at the academy. Messi did not play for Newell’s. “At that time there were players who looked more promising, and the bet was placed on them,” Conte said.

Still, Messi has said he wants to finish his career at Newell’s, playing for his hometown club in his own country after a professional career in Barcelona’s storied Spanish league team.

Fans visiting Rosario might even be able to catch a match between teams like the recent clash between Newell’s and arch-rival Rosario Central. Among the 14 youngsters chasing the ball might be Rosario’s next star.