Lionel Messi won the Copa América with Argentina last year. This year, he wanted the one trophy he didn’t have: the World Cup. Bruna Prado / AP


All Hail the King

The Rise Of Lionel Messi

“Lionel Messi has conquered his final peak, Lionel Messi has shaken hands with paradise, the little boy from Rosario Santa Fe, has just pitched up in heaven, he now climbs into a galaxy of his own.”

This commentary was by Peter Drury after Argentina’s dramatic victory over France in the 2022 World Cup held in Qatar. Lionel Andrés Messi, what was once a name, has now been cemented as legend. A name which has now risen to heights only few have, racing towards the definition of a maestro on the field and a wizard with the ball. This boy from the streets of Argentina started his climb at the base of the mountain – and has now found himself at the age of 35, lonely at the top, a champion on the world’s largest stage. However, this climb to the pinnacle of soccer royalty did not come without setbacks and shattered dreams. It is his determination that makes the rise of Messi, a story to behold.

Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini, son of María Cuccittini and Jorge Haracio Messi, was born on June 24,1987 in Rosario, Argentina, where his father, Jorge, worked as a steel factory manager. Messi was raised alongside three other siblings, and he was the third of four children. The Messi family found their entertainment on the streets, playing soccer – the game that they all loved. The young Messi spent hours kicking the ball around with his two older brothers and as his burgeoning talent became apparent, he inevitably ended up joining a local team which his father coached at the time. Even at that young age, his talent was so formidable on the pitch that he quickly outgrew this team and found himself playing for a club known as Newell’s Old Boys. Despite his spectacular and nimble style of play, a life-altering problem was waiting in the wings.

At the age of 10 he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency, bringing a halt to his natural athletic development. The solution for the problem was a medication to treat the future superstar, but financial constraints were a blockade. Messi’s father was a minimum-wage earner at a steel company and could not afford the medication required. Their determination made them enterprising and so they approached professional soccer clubs to see if they could assist them financially for the treatment. The Messi family were determined not to give up on their son whom they so clearly saw had a great gift. Their efforts paid off when one of the soccer clubs agreed to provide Messi with the necessary medication in return for his joining the youth academy. It was a life-altering offer in which Messi not only became a team member – but a family member. The famous club was Spain’s very own F.C. Barcelona.

The young Messi, with his explosive playstyle, found himself thriving at his new club. At last, he had the solution he needed to grow and develop. Messi’s stellar performance within the youth academy quickly pushed him into the senior professional team at the mere age of 16. It would be the help of the world-class talent, Ronaldinho, one of Brazil’s brightest shining stars, that would welcome Messi into a team that, unbeknownst to anyone, he would one day lead. With many players such as Ronaldinho vouching for the kid from Rosario, and his overflowing potential on the ball, Lionel was offered an 80-million-euro buyout clause in 2004, his first professional contract.

Lionel Messi celebrates scoring the opening goal against Mexico. Kirill Kudryavtsev/Afp/Afp Via Getty Images

It simply took one year on the main stage of soccer within the European and international circuit for Messi to be regarded as not just an upcoming star, but an already established force to be reckoned with. The Argentine winger and most notably, center forward, was breaking into the scene with the accolade of “Argentina’s Player of the Year,” and a Spanish League Championship by 2005. These were just pebbles in the bucket for the Argentine powerhouse. By 2009, Messi had won every prestigious personal award within the professional scene – the most prestigious of these being the coveted Ballon d’Or, which is awarded to the absolute best player of the year – across the globe.

Messi holds the world record for being awarded the Ballon d’Or seven times. His first was in 2009 and his most recent was in 2021. That twelve-year span between his first and most recent award illustrates Messi’s consistency and longevity in a demanding sport. He’s like a fine wine – only getting better as he ages – and he finds ingenious ways to play the game more complexly and more intricately.

The extensiveness of the ‘Barca ‘king’s trophy room which houses the many and various championships he has won for his team, F. C Barcelona, is an important showcase for the depth and breadth of his talent. Messi has rallied Barcelona to prestigious tournament wins over the years, amassing 4 European Champions League trophies, 3 UEFA Super Cup wins, 3 FIFA Club World Cups, and a relentless 10 Spanish Championships dominating the Spanish circuit almost entirely from 2004-2019.

Not only is the 5-foot-7-inch Messi a technical genius with the ball, but he is an unspoken, inspiring leader. Lionel served as the captain of Barcelona for their 2018-2021 seasons, with the baton being passed over by former ‘Barca’ legend, the Spanish center midfielder, Andrés Iniesta. Lionel Messi seemed to be just one step away from the summit, a trophy which – if earned – would widen the gap between his personal status and his competitions. The World Cup trophy was the key differentiating factor between the Argentine legend and trailblazer Diego Maradona and the roaring lion, Lionel.

The prince of white and sky blue needed one more accolade to truly put him at the top: the gleaming gold of the World Cup trophy. Unlike his prolific trophy-winning career with his club team, Messi struggled to find success playing with Argentina’s national team. However, glimpses of personal recognition for his efforts were awarded, but Messi could not do it alone. He was brought up to the senior team in 2005 but it was not until 2007 that Argentina even saw a final at a prestigious tournament. The most they achieved was a second-place finish at the Copa América. Then the candle was blown out until in 2014, when a spark was reignited in the country of Brazil at the 2014 World Cup, where Argentina was to play the highly-organized German side. It was a tense, grueling game and by the 112th minute of play with zero goals scored by either side, the young Mario Gotze of Germany, put one past the Argentine goalkeeper in the 113th minute, bringing the score to 1-0. That single act crushed Messi’s World Cup dreams.

Although in that moment the Argentine striker may have lost the coveted World Cup trophy that he so desperately wanted, he was awarded the golden ball – recognizing him as the best player of the tournament. It was a trophy yes, but a crude joke at that, because being the best player was no consolation for the prize that Messi sought so badly.

Messi’s determination did not stop his relentless pursuit for national team success and his World Cup dream as he brought the team to the Copa America finals in 2015. Unfortunately, the dots still did not connect. The favored side of Argentina was defeated by Chile. Two major tournaments, all the hard work and effort to make it to a world class final – just to be sent back home with silver, not the gold, was heartbreaking for Messi. 2016 came around. There were 120 minutes of play with no hope of a goal from either side. Once again, it wasn’t just any side. It was Chile again. This was redemption. This was the time for Messi to hoist the trophy, taking back the title of “best in the Americas.” But the result would be the last thing anyone would expect from Messi. With overtime running out, the match would move into penalties in order to establish the winner. Messi, calm as ever, walked up to the penalty spot, positioning the ball just right for him to power it into the net. The whistle was blown. There appeared to be no concern or worry from the Argentine team or its fans as they put all hope into their savior Messi – the man they believed would win for them. Shattering disbelief followed as the ball sailed over the goal and into the fans residing behind. Chile would win 4-2 on penalties, sending Argentina home again empty handed.

The soccer star shares three sons with his wife Antonella Roccuzzo: Mateo, Thiago and Ciro. Photo: Antonela Roccuzzo/Instagram

There was no other way to describe it for Argentina. It was pure and absolute devastation. They had just lost three major tournaments – three finals. The mental strain upon Messi was tangible and he must have been wondering why the dots just weren’t connecting; why they couldn’t just make the final push. Messi was broken by this trio of tormenting losses.

In 2016, the soccer world awoke to a shocking statement: Messi would be retiring from international play. Visibly emotional, he said in his announcement: “I tried my hardest. The (national) team has ended for me, a decision made.” The world waited in the hopes that Messi’s announcement would not render him permanently out. He was such a massive inspiration to millions of fans across the world; the heir to the throne of all soccer would surely not throw in the towel just yet.

Two years later in 2018, Messi would be revived and ready for the World Cup, only to find a dry run yet again with no gold.

Then, 2022 rolled up. Lionel Messi, soccer royalty, the player in 2009 who had it all, was still chasing the last piece to his puzzle. He stepped back on the 2022 World Cup stage in Qatar at the age of 35, taking the pitch at the world’s soccer Mecca. People were on the edge of their seats as they watched a shaky start to Messi’s ultimate dream: Argentina lost their first game against Saudi Arabia as the world looked on – shocked. Many presumptuous people calculated that Messi’s dream was already dead, but they underestimated the Greatest of All Time (GOAT). His resilience and determination were unprecedented. Failure or loss made Messi into the exceptional champion that he is. He was able to bury the past and concentrate on the present. He was able to minimize the steely opposition and their adversarial power. This champion soccer player was ready to take on whatever gargantuan challenge he faced. That strength in leadership inspired the entire Argentine team to stand determinedly behind their GOAT. It would turn out to be one of the greatest World Cup finals in history – stretching all 120 minutes – packaged and sealed by nerve-wracking penalties. Messi faced the pressure with resolve and slotted the ball in the back of the net with absolute confidence. The rest of the team followed in the footsteps of their leader – and finally – the dream was accomplished. Argentina won the 2022 World Cup and brought the coveted trophy back home – closing out the French 4-2 on penalties.

The sheer ecstasy and overwhelming emotion could be seen on the superstar’s face. The accumulation of a career’s efforts, a career’s sacrifices, every blood, sweat and tear shed over the beautiful game – was evident in every facial emotion that Messi shared with the world in December 2022. The puzzle had been solved and completed. Messi had become immortal – despite the cruel taunts he’d endured through the years about his height and size. Unlike Ronaldo or Haaland, he was considerably smaller, and that in of itself proves how skilled he was. A puppet cannot outrun or overpower its puppet master. A chess piece cannot overtake its own controller. An athlete, no matter how talented within the world of soccer, cannot outthink this composer of the orchestra. Lionel Andrés Messi now has the cup, now has the fulfillment, and has ascended into a class of his own. Every head must bow, every knee must touch the floor, every tongue shall confess that Lionel Messi is the King of Soccer.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi kisses the World Cup trophy after his team’s victory over France in the final of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Lusail, Qatar. Photo: REUTERS