Rosario: Twenty years ago Enrique Dominguez 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, Dominguez 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 Dominguez 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. Dominguez says that in those days he was fat and wore a red tracksuit for coaching, so Messi nicknamed him "Santa Claus".
Though admired the world over for his raw talent, Messi still trails behind the legendary Diego Maradona in the Argentine psyche.
But that would all change if Messi finally won a World Cup, says Dominguez.
"Russia is the last chance with Messi as the top star of the national team and the world," he says.
Lifelong friend and neighbour Diego Vallejos still lives in Rosario's Estado de Israel street. He remembers them hanging around together as kids.
"Leo was naughty, mischievous. In football, he was better than everyone." When it rained, and "when the streets around here were flooded we played with water up to our knees."
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 Falkland Islands and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.
Bigger than Maradona
In 2000, the Messis were going through financial hardship. Three years earlier, endocrinologist Diego Schwarztein had detected a hormone deficiency and prescribed daily injections.
His father Jorge had lost his job as a metalworker, and the family were unable to pay for treatment for young Lionel's growth hormone disorder.
Neither were Argentine clubs willing to take a gamble.
Barcelona stepped in for the 13-year-old. The family moved to Spain, and the rest is history.
In the Catalan capital, he began a treatment that boosted his height by several centimetres to 1.69 metres, (5 foot, 5 inches).
Schwarztein told Messi: "Don't worry, you'll be taller than Maradona. I don't know if you'll be better, but you'll be bigger."
At the time, Messi's family feared he would be too small to play professional football.
Schwarztein told AFP he could never have imagined his shy patient would be a five-time winner of FIFA's Ballon d'Or.
He dreams now of seeing him becoming a World Cup winner in Russia, happy in the knowledge that he will have played his own small part.
"Leo is neither my disciple nor my protege, but I feel part of his story," he said.
Firstpost is now on WhatsApp. For the latest analysis, commentary and news updates, sign up for our WhatsApp services. Just go to Firstpost.com/Whatsapp and hit the Subscribe button.
Updated Date: Jun 12, 2018 18:13:25 IST