Messi's holiday in Rosario again fuels hope of a return home to play for Newell's Old Boys
ROSARIO, Argentina -- There's only one place Lionel Messi and his family go to spend Christmas, and it isn't Ibiza, Los Angeles or Monte Carlo.
The Argentine might have lived in Barcelona since he was 13 years old, but every Christmas, he and his family return to their native city of Rosario. This year was no exception.
The Messi clan flew back from Barcelona in their private jet, dropped Luis Suarez and his family in Uruguay en route and landed in Rosario on Sunday morning.
Eating a milanesa napolitana, spending time by the pool with family in the sweltering heat, asados (barbecues) and drinking lots of mate will no doubt be on the agenda for Messi during La Liga's midseason break.
Having the Messi family back in town is a routine that rosarinos and the local media are used to, and the family is notoriously reclusive and private and largely left alone.
With the five-time Ballon d'Or winner now 31 years old, the prospect of Messi coming back to Rosario on a more permanent basis is never too far from the conversation in the city, especially amongst Newell's Old Boys fans.
Messi hasn't been shy about saying that his dream is to one day play for Newell's, the club he supports and used to watch with his family when he was young.
"I would love to [return]," Messi told Telefe's Polemica in 2016. "It is something I have kept an eye on because it was my dream as a child.
"Obviously, my life started to change and went another way, but I have no regrets. It's something I have kept an eye on. I want to play in Argentine football and Newell's, where I grew up."
Newell's released a video in May compiling various interviews in which Messi expressed his desire to one day return. Naturally, the prospect of Messi pulling on the red-and-black shirt is something the club is very much hoping becomes a reality.
"Every day, we want it to happen," Newell's sporting director, Sebastian Peratta, said in a recent interview with ESPN FC. "What makes us dream and generates excitement is that it's not something we are saying. It is him saying it."
Peratta stresses that the prospect of Messi returning to the club -- for which he shined as a child and at which he likely would've stayed had Barcelona not promised the family to pay for treatment for the youngster's growth hormone disorder -- is a complicated one.
"I'd be a fraudster if I told you, 'We're thinking about bringing Messi,'" Peratta said in his office. "It would be very difficult for the club to get things together for that to happen. But if Messi says that he wants to fulfill his dream and play for Newell's, it'd be welcome. We would do everything we can to facilitate it, but it doesn't depend on us.
"We would be secondary actors in the movie, and obviously, as the years go by and the possibility [of Messi arriving] gets closer, the excitement in the club and city is there. I can't deny it. We get excited by the prospect of it someday happening."
Fans around the Parque de la Independencia, inside of which Newell's Estadio Marcelo Bielsa is located, have their fingers crossed, especially because Newell's is badly struggling and in need of a lift. The club has produced a disproportionate number of players and coaches over the years -- Bielsa, Mauricio Pochettino, Gabriel Batistuta, Gerardo Martino, Gabriel Heinze -- but is in financial difficulty and flirting with relegation from the Superliga.
"Messi: Your dream is our hope," reads a banner Newell's fans have paraded at matches, and it almost goes without saying that everyone linked to the club is excited by the prospect. Many say that Messi coming home would be like when Diego Maradona signed with Newell's in 1993.
"It's not impossible. Maybe difficult or seemingly distant, but I believe that he'll end up playing a game [for Newell's]," said Lucas Vitantonio, a journalist at La Capital de Rosario. "And the day he does, Rosario will once again be news on a world level, like it was when Maradona came to play for Newell's."
Santiago Baraldi, a Newell's fan and local journalist, is less optimistic, pointing out the financial complications the club is going through.
"The club is bad economically, and it's as though there has to be the right atmosphere for him to come, and today there isn't that atmosphere in Newell's," Baraldi said.
In the Newell's club cafe -- "La Visera" -- next to the stadium, the mats have "Tata" Martino's, Bielsa's and Lionel Messi's faces on them. Despite never playing a first-team game at the club, Messi already takes his place alongside Newell's legends.
But outside of the club around the provincial city, there is little sign that arguably the greatest player in football history is from Rosario, located 190 miles from Buenos Aires and whose metropolitan area has a population of just fewer than one million people.
In Messi's neighborhood in the south of Rosario, the blue-and-yellow colors of Rosario Central are more prominent than those of Newell's. There are no signposts or signals indicating that the Barca star is from there. It's only when you start to enter his old block that you see murals dedicated to Messi -- many of which were produced ahead of the last World Cup -- and it hits you that you are in the area where Messi's genius began to take shape.
The number "10" is painted on the pavements, and Escuela General Las Heras, the school Messi attended, has a mural of the Barcelona star but little else. It almost seems fitting with his personality that Messi's old neighborhood and city haven't managed to capitalize on their most famous export, unlike Portugal has with a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, who has a museum and an airport named after him in Madeira.
In the coming days, Messi will jet back to Barcelona for the Jan. 6 away game against Getafe. But for Newell's fans and the whole club, the dream of seeing the left-footed legend playing for Los Leprosos in a first-division game remains very much alive.