Twenty years ago Enrique Domínguez was coaching 10-year-olds at Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina when he saw Lionel Messi for the first time. He remembers it still: “He was a gift of life!”
Sitting in the empty stands of the Rosario club now as a 67-year-old, Domínguez gets emotional at the memory. “What was special about Leo was his naturalness. Leo was the natural leader of his group of companions.”
While coach Domínguez gave his 10-year-old charges instructions, Messi would listen while juggling a ball, eager to start training. “Messi is exceptional. The best in history. He competes against himself, his own records.”
The impishness he brings to a football pitch was there even as a kid. Domínguez says that in those days he was fat and wore a red tracksuit for coaching, so Messi nicknamed him “Santa Claus.”
Like everyone in Rosario, Vallejo is hoping this will be Messi’s year.
“What I want most is for Leo to win a World Cup, which will be his achievement. Argentina is going to have many more World Cups but I want this one to be his, “ said Vallejos, who was born in 1986, the year Maradona came to greatness as a World Cup winner – the stamp of greatness that still eludes Messi.
In the working class Las Heras neighbourhood, Messi’s house stands empty now, its facade shabby.
On the street corner, a mural brings together several symbols of Argentina. There is Messi, fingers pointing to the sky in a typical goal celebration, Maradona, the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
‘BIGGER THAN MARADONA’
In 2000, the Messis were going through financial hardship.