This is the infamous napkin that brought a 13 year old Argentinian named Lionel Messi to Barcelona with a promise to provide the injections he needed for his crippling hormone deficiency. In the years since, Messi has gone on to win five La Ligas, two Copas del Rey, five Supercopas de Espana, three Champions Leagues, two Super Cups, two Club World Cups, and copious Player of the Year awards. Many consider him to be the greatest soccer player alive.
However, surprisingly, his home town and country seem to have abandoned him. And so too, have many in his adopted nation. ESPN’s Wright Thompson traveled down to Argentina to investigated why everyone seems to be upset with the shyest superstar in sports:
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.
Aside from superstars like Messi, Sergio Ageuro, and Carlos Tevez, Argentina supplied over 1,700 players to professional leagues abroad last year, surpassing Brazil as the worlds leading producer of soccer talent. But back at home, Argentinian football has been mired in a recent outburst of soccer violence among their rabid fans. Outside Magazine’s Patrick Simmons ”brave[d] the bottle rockets, howling mobs, urine bombs and drunken grannies” to document the violent history of Argentinia’s football underworld:
The antiviolence group Salvemos al Futbol tallies 269 soccer-related deaths in its running count—with much of the killing moving off-site in recent years. In 2009, for example, the former Lepers leader Roberto “Pimpi” Camino was shot four times while leaving a wine bar late at night. Today the violence often takes place within the fan clubs themselves, in fights to control the barras’ growing incomes and the benefits of their power. “They fight over money and women,” one sportswriter told me. (He insisted on anonymity, saying, “No Argentine journalist could write this story,” for fear of retaliation.)
Rubeo puts me in touch with someone who knows one of these dangerous men—the head of the fan club for Lanús, a team from greater Buenos Aires. She wishes me luck but issues a warning. “Fútbol,” she says, “is like a Mafia family. If you are not in the family, you don’t come inside.”
The gangster meets me in a tobacco-stained bar on a cool autumn afternoon. He is huge, mostly muscle but wrapped in a layer of fat and covered in tattoos from his neck to his wrists.
“I’ve been the leader of this barra for 12 years,” he says, suddenly angry. “I’m the longest-serving leader in any barra. You understand what that means? We’re wanted men. We don’t do this for free.
“Argentina’s the best in the world at this,” he boasts. If only he means soccer.
Four days later, before a Lanús home game against All Boys, three barras on motorcycles open fire on Lanús fans, killing 21-year-old Daniel Sosa and wounding five others. Police recover three guns from outside the stadium.
The game starts a few minutes later.