The house at 525 Estado de Israel street in La Bajada, Rosario, in Santa Fe province – an area of hard-working, humble people – is where Argentine football star Lionel Messi started, and it has become a pilgrimage site for many fans.
“I love you Messi,” two-year-old Nahitan Vera shouted towards the house.
He traveled with his family from Santiago del Estero in the north of the country to Buenos Aires to welcome the national team, including captain Messi, following their World Cup final victory against France.
Nahitan and his family were part of a wave of more than five million fans to travel to the capital. After realizing they wouldn’t be able to even come close to the team’s victory parade, they decided to travel another 300 kilometers to Rosario and Messi’s childhood home.
“I want to thank him for everything he did for us and for giving us so much football,” said Joaquin Vera, 19.
“Messi is something unique, a genius, we love him very much. We love him.”
In one of the city’s many murals, Messi looks at the sky in celebration, the way in which he always salutes his maternal grandmother Celia, who died in 1998 at the age of 68, a victim of Alzheimer’s.
In another part of the mural, Messi is shown in the middle of a video call with his wife, Antonella Roccuzzo, and his three sons.
“Leo is a character that goes beyond sports, he is magical,” mural artist Lisandro Urteaga, 51, told Xinhua.
“What he does and what he is, is extraordinary, also because he is an emblem, an ambassador for the world, not only because of how fascinating his football expression is, his technique, his skills, but also because he maintains consistency, simplicity, humility and peace.”
The city is divided in two: on one side are the fans of Newell’s Old Boys, for whom in the youth team, Messi played until he left for Barcelona, Spain, at the age of 13.
On the other side are the fans of Rosario Central, from where Angel Di Maria emerged.
Messi, his brothers, and his friends played football all day in the street or in the open space owned by the Argentine Army at the time.
“When he wanted to play football and his mother was punishing him, he would raise the blinds, go out, and start playing,” said Nieves Meyer, 62, a resident of the area, who said it didn’t matter if it was hot, cold, or if the dirt street was flooded.
“Everything was a reason to play football and Leo participated in all of them,” she said.
“You heard the balls hit the gate and you were already screaming: Lionel! We’re taking a nap!”
Carlos Ibanez, another local resident, said that Messi “stood out from the crowd, he was very good”, that he “was not afraid”, even when facing bigger rivals.
Messi went to school at No. 66 General Las Heras, about 600 meters from his house. Andrea Sosa was his fifth and sixth grade teacher.
“He was a calm student, compliant with his tasks, responsible, respectful, without any problem, calm, passionate about recreation, yes, to go out and play ball,” she told Xinhua.
The teacher, who retired this year, said that Messi serves as a positive example for local children.
She tells her students that athletes not only play football, they also “have to know how to express themselves, they have to know how to speak, they have to have culture.”
On the street, everyone speaks glowingly of their illustrious fellow citizen, whom they describe as a “god”, an “idol” who “represents” them.
Alejo, 17, from Villaguay, has a picture of the star as his mobile phone background.
Juan Echeverria, 59, director of the Santa Fe Sports Museum, highlighted Messi’s “integrity as a person, as well as a soccer megastar.”
Julian, 17, put it simply: “He is the love of my life.”
Morena, 17, said she was proud that Rosario was represented in the world while Gonzalo Cejas, 34, said Messi should have a monument in the city.
Sabrina, 40, said that “Leo has always behaved impeccably as a person, which is ultimately the most important thing, beyond the ball, a trophy or winning a World Cup.”
And Martin, 47, walking around the city wearing Messi’s 10 shirt, said: “There is no other like him.” ■