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Blog - Wright Thompson

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Lionel Messi's hometown divide

Lionel Messi and Argentina open their World Cup competition Sunday against Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Lionel Messi and Argentina open their World Cup competition Sunday against Bosnia-Herzegovina.

ROSARIO, Argentina -- Leo Messi grew up in a city divided by football, and last night, on the eve of his first World Cup match in Brazil, even something as unifying as the national team roster was viewed through the lens of that division. Everyone in town has done the selfish math. Three players, including Messi, have roots in Newell's Old Boys, while only one comes from crosstown rivals Rosario Central.

Rosario is football crazy, more earnest in its support than Buenos Aires, which can be too cool for myopic, reductionist fandom -- in the same way the Steelers matter more to Pittsburgh than the Giants do to New York. Neighborhoods in this river-port city are identified by the painted stripes on telephone poles, the blue and yellow of Central or red and black of Newell's, like dogs marking territory. A year ago, a 13-year-old boy walked home from the annual derby wearing a Newell's jersey. Two men on motorcycles wearing Central logos, shot him in the chest with a 9 millimeter. The boy died.

During the match Sunday, you'll hear that Messi is from Rosario, but that's not exactly true. He is from Newell's, the club his father supported, the one he supported as a boy and where he made his professional start. On Saturday evening, half of Rosario celebrated, and the other half grumbled.

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"People from Newell's are expecting Messi to be the best," local doctor and Newell's fan Diego Schwarzstein says. "People from Rosario Central are waiting for Messi to fail."

Schwarzstein, the doctor who diagnosed and treated Messi's famous growth hormone deficiency, hung out with his family in a local restaurant, watching Italy play England. Diego's 18-year-old son, Santiago, looked across the table.

"They hate Messi," Santiago says. "They hate Newell's. They hate Barcelona."

Diego interrupts him, wanting the perspective of age to temper the fire of youth. Diego's best friend supports Central. Of course, Diego ridiculed him so much about his struggling team that his best friend blocked him on Facebook.

"They don't hate Messi," he says. "They don't want Messi to be as important as he is."

Messi's stardom is troublesome to both fan bases, which might explain why he's always had such a difficult relationship with his hometown. For Central fans, the dislike is easy to understand. But Messi's genius, obvious to even the most casual observer of the game, is a powerful weapon in the smack-talking arsenal of a Central fan. Newell's had the golden ticket and threw it away, and that global failure outshines any local success. The Newell's supporters didn't just lose the best player in the world -- possibly the best to ever play -- their management forced him to leave, all because they were too cheap to pay his doctor's bill.

The doctor in question was Schwarzstein, a lifelong Newell's fan. He's also a world-class endocrinologist, and when Newell's officials noticed that their best young player, a kid named Lionel, had stopped growing, they sent him to someone they trusted. Schwarzstein ran tests and found the hormone deficiency, treatable by a series of daily injections, which the young boy would administer himself. Every time he went to play with his friends, Messi carried a little blue cooler full of his medicine. When he got the diagnosis, and the possible cure, a teary but focused Messi had a single question.

"Will I grow?" he asked.

"You will be taller than Maradona," Diego Schwarzstein told him.

A few years later, Newell's management decided the injections cost too much and they stopped making payments. The family begged and wrangled and then finally went looking for someone who would continue to give their child the treatments he needed.

One club said yes: FC Barcelona.

The family made plans to move to Spain. Before leaving, Messi came to Diego's office to say goodbye. He carried a jersey with him, the one he'd worn in his last game for Newell's. Signing it, a hint that he knew what might happen next, he gave it to Schwarzstein. Messi was 11. Sometimes Diego looks at that jersey and surely imagines what might have been for Newell's. Diego was right all those years ago. Today, Messi is 26, and two inches taller than Maradona. In the years since, he and Messi have kept in touch, a few phone calls a year, a few visits to Barcelona.

Graffiti showing support for Argentine first division football club Newell's Old Boys is seen at a shantytown near the city of Rosario, football star Lionel Messi was born.
Graffiti showing support for Argentine first division football club Newell's Old Boys is seen at a shantytown near the city of Rosario, football star Lionel Messi was born.

The next month in Brazil is his time, Diego says, because a journey that started in his office all those years ago has been leading, it's clear now, inexorably to the Maracana Stadium. In the past, Messi didn't understand what was expected of him, or what he should expect from himself. Now Diego believes he does.

"He realized what being Messi means," he says. "And he is Messi."

Remembering his old patient, and seeing his success, makes Diego happy, even if they aren't as close as they used to be. Life gets in the way: schedules, pressure, stress.

"It's difficult to keep a relationship going," he says.

Mostly, he just sees Messi on billboards and on the news. It's impossible to miss Messi right now in Argentina. In the restaurant, the television shows him working out in Rio, getting in a final practice.

Diego grins and begins to tell a funny story.

"We were in Barcelona," he says.

Santiago grumbles and looks down at the table, which delights his older sister, Julia, sitting next to him.

"He's embarrassed," she says.

Santiago doodles on a napkin while his dad tells the story. They were in Barcelona a few years ago, and after practice, Messi asked him if he wanted his shirt, a new version that lacked some of the simplicity and grace of previous Barca jerseys. Drunks and children always tell the truth, Diego says, sharpening his spear.

Santiago interrupts to defend himself.

"It was a horrible shirt!" he says.

His dad ignores him and continues with delight, narrating the conversation.

"You want a shirt?" Messi asked the teenager.

"It's an awful shirt," Santiago blurted to Messi.

Messi cackled and then smiled.

"It's ugly as s---," he agreed.

Everyone laughs, and Santiago plots his revenge. A little while later, he calls for the attention of the table. A grin blooms on his face.

"My sister has had three boyfriends," he says.

She huffs, her voice rising.

"I hate it when they talk about this," she says. "I hate it!"

Santiago has the table now and knows it, slowing the story down, savoring every detail. Being a fan in Rosario isn't just the cartoonish expression of game day passion, but a more subtle daily devotion, where the club works its way into every part of your life, creating the prism for viewing the national team, or the world's best player, or simply being the thing you use to crack on your sister. The first boyfriend supported Central, and they dated in the year that Central was relegated to the second division. The second boyfriend supported Independiente, which was then promptly relegated to the second division. Now he's arriving at the punch line. His pretty blonde sister is giving off the evil death vibe.

"Her actual boyfriend supports Colon," he says, pausing just a bit, letting it hang. "One month ago, Colon went to the second division!"

He turns to her, says "You're cursed!" and then theatrically scoots away on the banquette. "We told him," he says. "'Be careful. She's cursed. Don't say we didn't warn you.'"

The conversation is starting to move on, but Julia is stewing, and finally, she can't contain herself.

"I mean," she says, "it wasn't my fault!"

These conversations last from birth to death, and even beyond; the last time Newell's won a league title, 10 years ago, Diego hugged his son and began to cry. His first thoughts were of his late father. In Rosario, allegiance to your club isn't something that can be traded or abandoned. Even Messi, who almost saw his career end before it started because Newell's wouldn't pay for the treatment it promised, is still the little boy who cheered for the red and black. Messi wrote a check to build a new gym and dorm for young players in the club's stadium, and he has talked longingly about wanting to end his career with Newell's and not with Barcelona. When he does finally retire, he will certainly be seen in a suite at the Marcelo Bielsa Stadium, sitting with his children, who will feel a love for Newell's greater than whatever feelings they hold for Barcelona.

Diego grabs a pen and a napkin. He wants to prove a point, scribbling something and then hiding what he's written.

"Who do you want to be man of the match tomorrow?" he asks.

"Maxi Rodriguez," his son says without hesitation, not choosing the star striker who happens to be a family friend, but a talented winger who is now in decline.

Diego grins and turns over the napkin, which reads Maxi Rodriguez.

"Why?" he asks.

"Because he plays on Newell's."