OTL: Lionel Messi, Here & Gone

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HERE & GONE

The strange relationship between
LIONEL MESSI and his hometown in Argentina

  • by WRIGHT THOMPSON
ROSARIO, Argentina — In the imagination of guidebook writers, who see places as they should be but rarely as they are, there is a passionate love affair between the city of Rosario and its famous progeny, global soccer star Leo Messi.
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Lionel Messi's hometown of Rosario, Argentina.
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Messi is known for his amazing ball control.
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ESPN
The VIP, a bar owned by Messi's family.
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Lionel Messi's hometown of Rosario, Argentina.

I know this because it said so, right there on page 179 of the "Lonely Planet," which I thumbed through during the three hours of countryside between Buenos Aires and Messi's hometown. An Irish ex-pat named Paul, my translator and friend, drove. He'd agreed to help me act on my obsession with Messi, who is one of the world's most famous athletes, and most unknowable, the combination of which sucked me in. I'd been reading everything I could find, watching internet videos of him scoring one ridiculous goal after another for Barcelona. Other players seem to chase the ball, while Messi moves in concert with it, full speed to full stop. Then, when the game ends, the fire inexplicably goes out: vanishing eye contact, single-syllable answers -- a flatline. The more I read, and the more I watched, the less I understood. Maybe in Rosario, where he was born, that might change.

Pulling into town, Paul and I searched for some sort of acknowledgement, casually at first. You know what I mean. Billy Cannon's Heisman Trophy is on display in a Baton Rouge rib joint, and there's a bar-turned-shrine in Brett Favre's hometown. Signs all over the world let those who happen to rumble past know that this piece of dirt once produced greatness: a football hero, a rock star, an astronaut. Our first day in Rosario, we didn't see a thing that indicated Messi grew up here. The next morning, eating gas station empanadas, we noticed a sports bar across the street, just a few blocks from Messi's old neighborhood. On the windows, there were big photographs of Muhammad Ali, Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal. No Messi.

In the coming days, the pattern would repeat itself around town. You'd never know he was from Rosario. Not even at the first pitch where Messi ever played, which we found as the sun set on an urban moonscape of Soviet-style apartment blocks and howling dogs. On the wall outside, in bright colors and abstract lines, someone had spray-painted a graffiti mural. The headband and face looked familiar. Holy hell, I laughed. That's Keith Richards. Then I saw enormous lips next to Keith, as another out-of-context face came into focus: Mick! On the spot where Messi first played, the Rolling Stones capture the imagination more than him. Baffled, and certain I'd missed something obvious, I described what we'd found -- or, rather, hadn't -- to a local youth coach who knows Messi and his family. I felt better. He saw Rosario the same way we did, and he imagined how he'd react if his hometown spurned him. "You don't feel it's the city of Messi," David Treves said. "If you are the best player on the planet, and you don't even get the most miserable bit of love from your own people, most would say, 'Go to hell. I will stay in Barcelona and just keep filling my wallet.'"

Finally, we carried the guidebook into the local tourist office.

"We are interested in Leo Messi," we told the young man behind the counter. "Is there anything in town we can visit?"

One of his co-workers chuckled.

The guy said no.

Before we left, he remembered one thing. Messi's family owns a bar called VIP — the local pronunciation rhymes with zip -- and it was just down the road on the waterfront, with the blue umbrellas, in the shade of a willow tree. The low-slung building arches with slick glass and vaulted ceilings, trendy in a suburban and soulless way. There wasn't a single mention of Messi inside. It was Sunday afternoon. Across the ocean, Messi and his Barcelona teammates were kicking off. The game was being broadcast all over the world, but not in Messi's own bar. I looked up at an enormous high-def television, which at the moment was tuned to a cooking show called "Clasico Shawarma."

The Game's Dynamic Duel

Messi and Ronaldo prepare to face off Sunday at Camp Nou -- just as Ballon D'Or voting begins.

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Messi (front row, second from left) at age 5 and his father (top row, right), with the children's football team of club Grandoli.
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Dr. Diego Schwarsztein, below, assured Messi he would be taller than Maradona.
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Messi has won for Barcelona. But for Argentina?
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Friend Cintia Arellano says Messi can be "solitary."

Drawing Blood from a Stone

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Messi (front row, second from left) at age 5 and his father (top row, right), with the children's football team of club Grandoli.

Beyond the lack of visible acknowledgement, we soon found something more bitter than mere ambivalence. Late one night, walking back from dinner on Pellegrini Avenue, the town's vibrant restaurant row, Paul and I ducked into a dark, dimly lit pool hall. Everyone looked up for a moment, checking us out. The walls were bare, cigarette-stained, chipped plaster. Smoke hung in the air. A battered espresso machine hissed. No music played. Old men circled the billiards tables, while others sat in small groups, holding cards, fingering dominos. Two thick-ankled women talked with the bartender. One of them wagged her finger at a guy shooting pool. Later, he'd tell us he worked in America for the mob, once moving 16 kilos of cocaine up the eastern seaboard in a car. In some detail, he described what it's like to have your fingernails ripped out with pliers. Paul, ignoring my signals to shut his damn mouth, asked if he's ever killed anyone, and he said no. Then he winked. We ordered a few liters of beer, shot a game of pool and brought up Messi to the old man serving our drinks.

"He hasn't won anything for Argentina," he said.

Just as we saw little of him in Rosario, many of its citizens see little of him in themselves. Messi is as unknown to the people of his hometown as he is to me, sitting in my office watching his famous goal against Getafe over and over on youtube. They don't understand how he plays, or how he acts, and they don't see a clean cause and effect, no X+Y=Z, that would explain either. Diego Maradona, they get. He grew up violently poor, in a slum named Villa Fiorito. His entire life was a fight to escape the facts of his own birth, and when he succeeds, and even when he fails, his countrymen recognize his struggle. They understand the wellspring of his talent and his demons. Everything Maradona has ever done can be explained by the rough streets of Fiorito.

Messi, now 25, plays like no one they've ever seen. His talent can't be easily explained by biography: a middle-class kid from a stable and ordinary family. Until he became a superstar for Barcelona, seemingly overnight, most people in his hometown had never heard his name. His greatest accomplishments in Rosario came for a youth team. They lost one game in the four years they played together. In the small world of people who follow local children's sports, they became known as The Machine of '87, after the year they were all born.

There was a problem, though, an ocean separating potential and realization. When Messi was 9, he stopped growing. Doctors discovered a hormone deficiency and put him on a regimen of daily injections, which he gave himself, carrying around a little cooler when he went to play with friends.

"Will I grow?" a teary Messi asked.

"You will be taller than Maradona," his doctor, Diego Schwarsztein, told him. "I don't know if you will be better, but you will be taller."

His soccer club, the local professional powerhouse Newell's Old Boys, agreed to help pay for the drugs, but, as costs mounted, it eventually stopped. Frustrated, his father found someone who would pay: Barca. So when Leo was 13, after The Machine of '87 won its final championship, he and his dad, Jorge, moved to Spain. Before Messi left he stopped into his doctor's office to say goodbye. Schwarsztein wished him luck and Messi handed him his Newell's jersey, tiny, with the number nine on the back. He autographed it, then rode with his father to the Buenos Aires airport, trading his old comfortable life for an unknown new one.

His mother ultimately stayed behind with his siblings, dividing the family, and Messi, always shy, struggled. When he cried, which was often, he hid. He didn't want his father to see. His whole family revolved around his future; Barca even agreed to employ Jorge while Leo trained at the club's famous youth academy. He went to class, reluctantly, but really he was a professional athlete by the age of 13. Four years passed. During this time of loneliness, when he was a child supporting his family, he changed from Lionel into ... Messi. He grew. Schwarsztein was right. Maradona is 5-foot-5. Messi is 5-foot-7. The next time people in Rosario heard his name, he was a star. "It is difficult to be a hero in your own city," explained Marcelo Ramirez, a family friend and radio host who showed us text messages from Messi. "He didn't grow up here. It's like he lost contact with the people. He is more an international figure than a Rosarino."

The Argentine national team coaches found out about him through a videotape, and the first time they sent him an invitation to join the squad, they addressed it to "Leonel Mecci." In the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, playing outside the familiar Barcelona system, he struggled, at least in the expectant eyes of his countrymen. His coaches and teammates didn't understand the aloof Messi, who once went to a team-building barbecue and never said a word, not even to ask for meat. The people from Argentina thought he was Spanish, and in the cafes and pool halls, they wondered why he always won championships for Barcelona but never for his own country. They raged when he didn't sing the national anthem before games. In Barcelona, Messi inspired the same reaction. People noticed he didn't speak Catalan and protected his Rosarino accent. He bought meat from an Argentine butcher and ate in Argentine restaurants. "Barcelona is not his place in the world," influential Spanish soccer editor Aitor Lagunas wrote in an e-mail. "It's a kind of a laboral emigrant with an undisguised homesick feeling."

In many ways, he is a man without a country.

"He is fully Argentine in Barcelona but not completely one in Buenos Aires, since he came to Spain as a child," continued Lagunas, whose magazine Panenka devoted an entire issue to exploring Messi and Rosario, "and the contrast between his amazing games with Barça and the not-so-good with his national team also helps this strange vision of the Argentine people. Unlike Maradona, who shows an ultra-typical Argentine personality, Argentine people find it difficult to recognize themselves in this little, shy, introverted, silent boy."

Messi never reveals anything. When Sports Illustrated sent star profiler S.L. Price to interview him, Price got 15 minutes of bland, semi-annoyed answers. An Italian journalist named Luca Caioli wrote an entire biography of Messi that contained basically one revelation: friends and family admitting that Messi is unknowable even to the people closest to him. "When he's not doing so well," close friend Cintia Arellano told the writer, "Leo is a little bit solitary. He retreats. He withdraws into himself. He was like that even with me sometimes. It was like drawing blood from a stone trying to find out what was going on inside."

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Ernesto Vecchio, who coached Messi in the junior divisions of Newell┤s Old Boys, at Malvinas Argentinas Sports Complex. Below, School No. 66 General Las Heras, where Messi attended elementary school.
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Messi is often mobbed wherever he goes.

Witnesses

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Ernesto Vecchio, who coached Messi in the junior divisions of Newell┤s Old Boys, at Malvinas Argentinas Sports Complex. Below, School No. 66 General Las Heras, where Messi attended elementary school.

Messi's old youth coach slipped an off-brand cigarette from a pack and pinched the filter. He smiled, wistfully, a look layered with happiness, wonder and regret.

"Messi is guarded in a crystal box," Ernesto Vecchio said.

He lead us through the Newell's Old Boys football school, past picnic tables of parents watching children in baggy shirts. Newell's is the most historic professional club in Rosario, and like most soccer teams it has a vibrant youth system. Messi trained on this pitch, on days like this one. The skies were tall and blue, a late winter chill in the air. Off to the side, kids kicked a ball, dodging the row of leafless trees between the bleachers and a fence of sawed-off highway guardrails.

"They all want to be like Messi," Vecchio sighed.

For years, he resented his former player. Something happened here at this school, a bit of magic, and Vecchio played a role. Many people did. There should be some acknowledgment. Instead, they're known as the short-sighted fools who let a legend walk away. The former Newell's team official in charge of Messi's growth hormone payments still carries around receipts, which seem like forgeries, trying to prove that he didn't make the dumbest decision in the history of professional sports. Burn scars remain. Vecchio couldn't even see his former player. Two years ago, talking to a reporter from a London tabloid, he offered the lament of all jilted launching pads: Messi forgot his roots.

"It's over 10 years since we spoke," he said then. "It's a shame kids forget some things when they find success. In 2006 I heard he was in Rosario and I went to his house to catch up with old times. They told me he wasn't there, but it was a lie. He must have been afraid I would ask him for something. Money changes people a bit."

We sat down at a table in the school's café.

"When was the last time you spoke to him?" I asked, fishing for the expected answer. He didn't give it.

"One year ago," he said.

Once again, he had heard Messi was in town, holding court at VIP. By now, Vecchio surely knew the truth. He hadn't been a shaper of Messi's talent, merely a witness to it. Vecchio went to the bar and found a local policeman guarding the door. "When I arrived," he said, "there was a world of people of all ages, trying to get close to him, trying to get photographs taken, looking for autographs. I told the guard who I was and that I wanted to speak with him."

Vecchio waited for an answer in a crowd of sycophants.

Messi said yes. The guard escorted him to a table with Jorge and Leo, who smiled and stood to give his old coach a hug. Messi did not mention the old newspaper quotes. Vecchio kissed his cheek and said how much pride he felt every time he watched a Barcelona game. He thought his former player was happy to see him, but he didn't know for sure. Messi said little. Jorge dominated the table. Vecchio felt the clock ticking as he spoke, surrounded by a jockeying crowd. Little distinguished Messi in Barcelona from Messi in Rosario. He lived in a bubble of fame. It had been this way for years; he'd gone from being alone to always surrounded, which are sort of the same thing. Vecchio asked Jorge if they imagined it would ever get like this. Jorge said no. Vecchio's five minutes ended, and he worked back through the chaos, replaced by another supplicant.

Sitting with us in the café, Vecchio said he hadn't asked for anything. But three months after those five minutes, Jorge Messi hired him to work for the family's foundation. Vecchio's job is to discover the next Leo Messi.

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Messi keeps in touch with family and friends in Rosario, but his inner circle is small.
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Even while playing video games, Messi plays as himself -- and for Barcelona.
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Messi leaves Club de la Milanesa.

A glimpse behind the wall

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Messi keeps in touch with family and friends in Rosario, but his inner circle is small.

With each person we met, Messi's inner circle came more into focus.

"It is small and very closed," explained the radio host Ramirez when Paul and I quizzed him one afternoon about the particulars. There is a group of people in Rosario with whom Messi speaks, by phone or text, almost every day. There is another, larger group who hear from him less often, on holidays or special occasions. He spends his time with his aunts and uncles, with his cousins, with his brothers, and with a small group of friends. His mother will excommunicate anyone seen to be taking advantage. Messi is fine with friends bringing other people to hang out with him, as long as they don't ask for anything. He hasn't made a new friend in a long time. Most of his confidants were teammates on The Machine of '87. He texts them before they play big games in Argentina.

The goalie from that youth team, Juan Cruz Leguizamon, one of Messi's oldest friends, met us one evening. He chose a local café called El Cairo, a faded, literary place, an airy room with tall glass windows and a high ceiling. It's one of those time machine bars you find in South America. A Brazilian band played, a 10 piece, and we shouted at each other over the noise. Finally, they took a break and we could talk. Leguizamon is athletic, a goalkeeper now for Central Cordoba, a small local club. He's got blue eyes and delicate eyelashes. I asked him what part of Messi's life he wouldn't want. He laughed. "As I just said to him, the only thing I wouldn't want is his face."

When Messi is home, we're told, he likes to play soccer, both in backyards and on video games.

"Is Messi always Messi?" I asked.

"He is always Barcelona," Leguizamon said, smiling, "and he makes himself the captain."

Messi's friends are a little in awe of him. Years ago, he was better than them, but the difference now is exponential. Leguizamon saw a photograph of Messi screwing around at Barca practice, playing keeper. His form was perfect, naturally, like he'd been playing the position forever. Leguizamon even called and asked if the picture was real. "Yeah, he's Messi," he said. "We are conscious of the fact that we have the best player in the world in front of us, but there is a certain confidence in the feeling we are all equal. We speak about the lives of everyone. We mess around. There are jokes."

"Like what?" I asked.

"Many things," he said, grinning. "His ears for instance."

Messi, he of the goofy ears, knows what is going on in their lives, and the conversation picks up easily, no matter how time passes between trips. Usually, Messi and his friends hang out at each other's houses. When they want to go out — he likes a restaurant on Pellegrini called Club de la Milanesa, and a few nightclubs — Messi calls ahead to alert the place. Hearing the stories, it's clear his friends love going out with Messi in part because he attracts so many beautiful women. Sometimes they travel with guards. Leguizamon laughs thinking about the funny moments — the things that happen when your boyhood friend becomes rich and famous. "He asked the security guys to accompany him as he had to go the bathroom," he says, describing a night out at a bar. "He asked me to go with him. So all the security guys were protecting him, and I was behind, and then another group of security guys protected me, and well, for me, it was silly. They were protecting me — and I'm nobody."

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Maradona's childhood home in Villa Fiorito.
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Views of the home and neighborhood where Messi first lived.
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There is something innocent about Messi with a ball.

Closing in

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Maradona's childhood home in Villa Fiorito.

We circled the city, moving from address to address, knocking on doors, looking for members of the family. We searched for hints at whatever might be going on inside Messi. Nobody who is great at something is normal. They are all pushed, or pulled, by things that rarely break the surface. Often those things are memories of who they used to be, and where.

On a recent trip to Buenos Aires, to give an example, I wanted to visit Maradona's boyhood house. That sounds simple but it took days of logistical planning, trying to find someone who could guarantee safe passage into Fiorito, which is home to some of the world's largest cocaine kitchens. Basically, he grew up in New Jack City. Finally, I agreed to pay a local charity $60 to walk me there. The hotel arranged a car to the woman's house. Rolling through the outer slums, the black Mercedes-Benz felt like a space ship. "It's like going on vacation to Syria," the driver said.

We parked and walked through the streets. A workers protest echoed through a tinny bullhorn a few blocks away. Finally, we stopped in front of a blue brick hovel, the front yard filled with semi-organized trash. A huge bin of cardboard boxes, a barrel of broken Heineken bottles. The fence sagged. Maradona's distant relatives lived here, squatters really, making a living by digging through Dumpsters. A neighbor told me to leave. She knew Diego as a boy, was friends with his grandmother. "No viene," she spit. He never comes here.

What about Messi? What's his connection to the neighborhood, and the house, where he grew up?

His dad spends a lot of his time in Barcelona, but they have a family compound outside of town. He moved his mother out of their old, simple home, buying her a place in the fanciest building in Rosario, a tower of mirrored glass and buffed metal called Aqualina. It looks like a skinny cruise ship standing on its stern. Messi's mom lives on the entire 26th floor, we're told, with four bedrooms, two terraces and a small apartment for servants. She just left, the doorman said.

The drive from his new life to his old one took us down along the riverfront, past the port. We turned right off the highway toward the south of town. On Sunday, men built a shanty on the sidewalk off the exit. On Monday, children's clothes hung from a washline outside. Grain elevators peeked above rooflines, out of place, like oil pumpjacks in the middle of West Texas parking lots.

His aunt and uncle still live in the same house. There was a sleek black Audi sports car parked inside the gate. The garage area looked familiar, then I remembered. I saw a video of Messi playing soccer here with his young nieces and nephews, dodging and feigning, moving the tiny ball with his feet, the kids unable to take it away. The look on his face is the same as when he plays in front of millions of fans. There's something innocent about him with a ball. His friends laugh about how Messi seems somehow less than himself without one. Leguizamon told us a story. The last time Messi came to visit, they hung out in a backyard, and they watched him, uneasy, antsy. Finally, without even realizing he was doing it, he pulled a lemon from a tree and juggled it mindlessly with his feet, whole again.

The Internet is full of tribute videos with some version of the title "Messi doesn't dive," a trait rare in a sport where players roll around on the ground like gunshot victims when an opponent so much as breathes on them. Theories abound about why Messi won't fall, about his character or his respect for the game, but I think it's much simpler. If he dives, he loses the ball. The boy forced to grow up fast is only happy at play. He laughs when he scores. He pouts when he loses. He gets moody. When he was young and got kicked out of practice, the coach saw him with his face pressed against a fence, the longing palpable even from a distance. When he got ejected from a match as a pro, he wept. A common adjective emerged: childlike. He acts remarkably like a 13-year-old boy.

We pressed the buzzer. The street was middle class. A man answered, probably Messi's uncle, and said his aunt would be back in a few hours. We left a note. I stood outside a bit more before heading back to the car. This is the house where, on Christmas Eve a few years ago, a fan from Sweden stopped by and was greeted by Messi himself, who invited him inside. They talked in the hallway for a half hour. Messi sometimes seems oblivious, like he doesn't realize he's famous. There are videos, taken on shaky cell phone cameras, of him waiting for his own luggage at baggage claim, or walking toward the taxi line, followed by fans. He makes millions of dollars a year and waits for luggage and usually flies commercial, and you get the sense that it isn't because he is trying to stay humble, but, rather, because he doesn't know any better. He seems to sleepwalk until a ball is at his feet. Then he comes alive.

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The Messi family home on Estado de Israel in Rosario.

Lionel is not here'

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The Messi family home on Estado de Israel in Rosario.

We learned the Messi family never sold the old house.

It's on Estado de Israel street, hidden in a maze of one ways. After turning at the blue Laundromat painted with the white bubbles, we followed the numbers, counting to 525. The first time, before we figured out how to drive here, we parked and walked. The street seemed to dead-end into a house and we followed a narrow alley off to the left which led back onto the street. The Messi's yard backs onto the home of Cintia Arellano, who was quoted about blood from a stone. She still lives there. A block away, Argentine funk, called cumbia, bumped out of an open window, heavy with bass thuds and loud horns. It's Messi's favorite music. An iPod and earbuds can take him home.

The house looked basically like the other houses on the block, just a little bigger, with a few modifications, including a tall fence, a security camera. It was white, in need of a paint job. The awnings over the small terraces on the second floor were made of sheet metal. Wood shutters covered the windows, which were mirrored. We stood at the gate and listened. It sounded like someone was home. Paul rang the bell. A woman answered.

"Lionel is not here," she said. "He is in Spain."

The woman said she was a cleaning lady, and that nobody lives in the house anymore. The Messis have all moved up in the world, but they like the house to remain clean, as if they might all return to this street and resume the life abandoned when Leo left to become a star. The music echoed off the concrete houses. The cleaning lady wouldn't tell us why a family maintains an empty house. As I stood there listening to the music, an idea began to take shape.

Maradona grew up poor and has spent his whole life running from the blue brick hovel, never looking back, never able to escape. Maradona has done his best to forget Fiorito, but Messi has done the opposite. He, or maybe his family, clings to the past, as if preserving the modest house at 525 Estado de Israel will preserve something more important and harder to define.

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Why is Messi such an unknowable person?
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Catholic pilgrims kneel around a statue of the Virgin Mary at a pilgrimage site near the southern Bosnian town of Medjugorje. Messi once visited this place.

A pilgrimage

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Why is Messi such an unknowable person?

Messi isn't known as a deep thinker, or even really as a thinker at all, so it's fair to wonder if he's capable of existential longing. Many recycling bins of column inches have been devoted to the debate about his bland public persona. Is he incredibly well managed? After all, many thought Tiger Woods was unknowable, too. Is Messi -- how should I put this? -- stupid? An idiot savant? What if he's not guarded so much as empty? All those debates are just different ways of asking if he lives a second, interior life. Are there things inside Leo Messi -- fears, desires, hopes -- that he doesn't share?

There is a European newspaper story I read that strikes me as relevant. A few months ago, he took a private jet to Dubrovnik, Croatia, where a car took him across the Bosnian border into the town of Medjugorje. There's a shrine there, drawing pilgrims from around the world, because in 1981, six local youths claim to have seen the Virgin Mary, and some of them claim to still communicate with her. Messi was the guest of one of the visionaries, as they are known.

Ivan, his host, has received nine secrets from the Virgin that he has never shared. He says he sees Mary every day. She has rosy cheeks, blue eyes and an oval face. She wears a gray dress. Most people come to have their mind, body or spirit healed. The visionary wouldn't reveal the reason for Messi's pilgrimage, so we're left to wonder. What is broken inside Messi that he wanted to fix? What can't he buy with his millions or his fame? Of course, it's possible he just thought it might be a cool scene to check out. Maybe the visionary made up the whole thing. Maybe the paper did, or papers, plural, since the news appeared in multiple places, in multiple languages. Maybe we believe it because we want there to be unseen layers of Messi. We want there to be an explanation for his miracles even if we never hear the explanation ourselves. Just knowing it exists would be enough. That's certainly why I was in Rosario, driving around, knocking on doors.

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Messi, right, with his brothers Matias and Rodrigo.
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The rivals: Messi, left, and Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo, who plays for Real Madrid.

You can't go home again... right?

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Messi, right, with his brothers Matias and Rodrigo.

Late one afternoon, we saw three young men hanging outside Messi's old house. A sleek black Audi sports car with limo-tinted windows sat parked on the sidewalk. Paul and I walked over to them.

"How fast does it go?" I asked, nodding at the car.

"Two hundred and something," Matias Messi said.

Matias, the middle brother, looked like a professional footballer: track suit, rakish beard, spiky, gelled hair, big diamonds hanging off each ear. He resembled Cristiano Ronaldo more than Leo. It's his job to manage VIP. Next to him was Rodrigo Messi, the oldest, who usually lives in Spain. He wore a hoodie pulled up over his head. The third guy was their cousin, whose mom we left messages for. The whole scene was bizarre. Even though they have other places to be, they have returned to hang out at their old home. Not in the home, just on the street outside. An hour or so ago, Barcelona had finished a game in Spain.

"Two goals from Messi," Matias said.

That's what he called him. Not Leo, or "my brother." Messi. Matias did most of the talking, while Rodrigo and the cousin picked on each other like children.

"What are you looking at?"

"No, I am just looking at you, you idiot, I'll break your head."

"No, you idiot, I'm going to hit you, seriously."

The only time the others really engaged was when Paul mentioned Ronaldo, the flamboyant striker for Real Madrid and Messi's main rival.

"That's a bad word around here," Rodrigo said. "Ronaldo here is a bad word.

"Excuse me," Paul said.

"Watch out with that," Rodrigo said.

"I understand," Paul said.

"That's right," Matias said, laughing. "I don't know another that's so vain like that."

They described the house as the emotional center of a scattered family, and when the brothers looked up at the peeling paint, Matias muttered a Spanish expression that translates as, roughly, "this piece of s---." In the years since Leo moved to Spain, Matias said, the tangible pieces of home have become more important to Messi than to the family members who never left. This house, and especially his aunt's house, which Matias describes as a "refuge" for his brother, the big Sunday meals with the family, even the teammates he's known since childhood -- Leo longs for these things when he's away. He's trying to fill a hole, this boy who was born in Argentina and came of age in Spain. He never liked robots or toy cars, just kicking a ball. He traded his childhood for the game he now plays with a childish joy. Growing up in Rosario might not have shaped him, but leaving it certainly did.

"What would happen if you sold the house and didn't tell Leo?" I asked.

"No," Matias said, emphatically. "Because, you know, we were all brought up here. We grew up here. For this more than anything else, we still have it."

The Old House
AP Photo/Matias Sarlo
Aerial view of Rosario Central stadium in Rosario. Messi has worked at keeping connected to his hometown.
The Old House
Josep Lago/AFP/GettyImages
Messi and his girlfriend, Antonella Roccuzzo, are expecting a child -- a son he has said will be named Thiago.
The Old House
dpa/Actionplus and ESPN
Newell's Old Boys in Rosario.
The Old House
Enrico Fantoni/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux
Children play in the Grandoli football club, the first club where young Messi started to play at the age of 4.

A Construction Project

Rosario Tall
AP Photo/Matias Sarlo
Aerial view of Rosario Central stadium in Rosario. Messi has worked at keeping connected to his hometown.

Messi keeps returning to Rosario, pulled by obligation, to be sure, but likely by something else, too. He works at maintaining connections to his hometown. It starts with the way he talks. I grew up in Mississippi but, as I moved around, I left the guts of my southern accent in the Midwest. Paul's Irish lilt has been blunted by time and distance. But Leo never lost the very specific Rosarino accent, and he's lived in Spain almost as long as he lived in Argentina. That's a choice.

After an injury, when he needed a month of rehab, he came here to do it. And though tabloids once connected him to one supermodel after another — he's not so childlike that he doesn't know how to do that — he has settled down with a girl he knew growing up. Her family knows his family, and vice versa, and she is now pregnant with his first child, due in October. Newell's has already made plans to present the child with a special club membership card.

His long public feud with his old club, and the club's with him, is ending. He funded a new gym and the construction of a dorm inside the stadium to house youth players. Two days before it opened, I walked through the bowels beneath the grandstands, surrounded by the buzz of saws and echo of hammers, creating the same sort of academy where he trained in Spain. Maybe, if it's done right, some future boy with talent won't have to move across the ocean alone. Five months ago, the club added two small framed photos of Messi in the café beneath the stadium, one of him as an adult with his arm around Maradona, the other in his Machine of '87 uniform, his eyes focused on the ball, which is actually bigger than his head. A month later, in the lobby of its office, Newell's added a picture of Messi, next to one of Maradona. This season, for the first time, a group of fans brought a Messi banner to home games. We arrived in the midst of a change, and I wondered what someone repeating my journey in five years might find.

Even in the Barcelona locker room, his mind is often in Rosario. After a recent game — the one we watched at VIP — Messi's former doctor, Diego Schwarsztein, texted him. He sent the message soon after the whistle. Ten minutes later, Messi replied. All these things, and the many more I could cite, are the actions of a man searching for something. Whatever his motivation, Messi is actively building a relationship between himself and the city that was, for so long, his hometown in name only. It goes beyond simply returning. He is creating roots.

He's kept the same friends. He's kept his old house, which Ramirez confirmed is in the family because of Messi. "Lionel does not want to sell it," he said. "As some kind of memory, he wants to keep it."

He keeps coming back, even when it's inconvenient. A while back, Ramirez told us, Messi and the Argentine national team were training at the team's facility near the Buenos Aires airport. Practice finished one night at six, and Messi got straight into a car and rode three hours to Rosario. He had dinner with his family, went to sleep, and got up the next morning and rode back to Buenos Aires in time to step onto the field.

"Why does he do it?" I asked his old doctor.

We sat in Schwarsztein's office, where he'd just read me the text messages from the day before. He paused, speaking in English, trying to articulate an idea about Messi and the reasons he returns home.

"It was very hard for him leaving Rosario," he said finally. "He suffered a lot."

There it is, at last, beneath a lot of layers: the familiar sight of cause and effect. Something about the pain of Messi losing his childhood seems to make him always be looking for it — or even still living it — whether he's got a ball at his feet in a packed stadium, or visiting the town where that childhood was lost. I read a interview not long ago with Bruce Springsteen where he said he spent years driving past the house where he grew up, night after night, and a psychologist told him he was trying to go back in time to change the things that happened in that house. Does Messi come back to Rosario because it's normal for someone to miss his family, or is he subconsciously trying to change something about his past, or is he simply stuck at age 13?

Forever Young

Past one in the morning, at the end of our trip, we crowded around a table in a dark corner of a Rosario hotel. It felt like Havana, haunted by a sort of faded gentility. Juan Cruz Leguizamon sat with us. We'd been talking for almost three hours. It was late.

"What do you think Leo is scared of?" I asked.

"To leave football," he said.

"I can't imagine a 50-year-old Messi," I said.

"The truth is," his close friend said, "me neither."

The Old House
ISI/Polaris
Until Messi became a superstar for Barcelona, most people in his hometown had never heard his name.

Home Again

Rosario Tall
ISI/Polaris
Until Messi became a superstar for Barcelona, most people in his hometown had never heard his name.

Leaving town, Paul put on a Pogues record. He sang along, thinking of home, and I looked out the window at the roadside stands selling oranges and trucker food. Route 9 parallels the gently meandering Parana River, which irrigates endless rows of green soybeans. Pastures of cattle stretched to the sky. This is the road that took Messi away when he was a shy, homesick boy and the one that brings him back now that he's a star. Flags flapped in the wind. Old women hawked produce. Sheet metal windmills pumped water, and I pictured the 13-year-old Messi making this drive with his father. Everything about the exterior of his life changed after that moment, at first for the worse, later for the better, but we can never know what happened inside. We settle for glimpses, like Messi retracing that long ago drive, three hours each way to spend a fleeting night, chasing the things he lost on this road.