|Born:||June 24, 1987|
|Ht: / Wt:||5'6" / 147 lbs|
Young boy in Old World
In 1995, at age eight, Messi was signed by Newell's Old Boys, the club in his hometown of Rosario, Argentina. At 11, his nascent career was nearly derailed when he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency. Buenos Aires-based Primera Division club River Plate, which had scouted Messi for years, withdrew interest due to his medical condition. In February 2001, Spanish super-club Barcelona saw the 13-year-old Messi's great potential and made him an offer he couldn't refuse: a contract that included covering all of his medical costs if he and his family (parents, Jorge and Celia, two older brothers, Rodrigo and Matias, and younger sister, Maria Sol) moved to Spain. Eventually, his father and Rodrigo stayed in Spain with him, while his mother, Matias and Maria Sol returned home to Argentina. (The family remains very close.)
Messi was not selected for the 2004 Olympic team, so his explosion onto the world stage occurred at the 2005 U-20 FIFA World Cup. He won the Golden Shoe as the tournament leader in goals, with six, and captained Argentina to the championship. Included in his six-goal haul were a goal against archrival Brazil in the semifinals and two goals (both on penalties) in the 2-1 defeat of Nigeria in the final. Messi received the Golden Ball as the tournament MVP.
Hot start with national team
Following his incredible performance at the 2005 U-20 FIFA World Cup, Messi was quickly drafted into the full national team, making his debut for Argentina against Hungary in August 2005. (Coincidentally, the player whom Messi is often compared with, Diego Maradona, also made his national team debut against Hungary.) His first cap ended with a red card and immediate expulsion after only three minutes, for throwing an elbow in the face of defender Vilmos Vanczak. During the 2005-06 La Liga season, Messi was slowed by a right thigh injury, but he did recover in time to suit up for Argentina at the 2006 FIFA World Cup. He became youngest World Cup player in Argentine national team history when he came off the bench against Serbia in a first-round game in which he scored the last goal in a 6-0 rout.
On several occasions, Messi has been compared with Maradona as Argentina's most talented soccer player ever. His goal with Barcelona against Getafe in the first semifinal leg of the Copa del Rey in April 2007 cemented his status as an equal to the legendary center midfielder. In a sequence eerily identical to Maradona's second goal against England in the 1986 FIFA World Cup, Messi collected the ball just inside his defensive half, beat two Getafe defenders at midfield with quick dribbling, sped straight down the field with the ball, made two more defenders miss challenges at the top of the penalty box, rounded the goalkeeper and lifted the ball from a slight angle into the goal. The stakes might not have been as high in Messi's case, but the speed, skill and shock value of the play measure up in all ways. Said the World Cup champ about the young player in an interview with World Soccer: "I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentinian football, and his name is Lionel Messi. Messi is beautiful to watch, my kind of player in our blue and white jersey. He's a leader and is offering classes in beautiful football. He has something different to any other player in the world." Messi finished as the runner-up behind Brazil's Kaka for FIFA World Player of the Year in 2007.
A Mess of money
Every soccer club imaginable has lined up to offer Messi another contract he couldn't refuse. It will take a lot to entice Mr. Messi. According to Sports Illustrated's 2008 Fortunate 50 list, the skilled midfielder makes $35,800,000 per year in salary, winnings, bonuses, endorsements and appearances. That ranks eighth among all athletes, behind only Tiger Woods (No. 1, at over $127 million), Phil Mickelson, David Beckham, Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen, LeBron James, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Ronaldinho, and ahead of Kobe Bryant, Roger Federer, Shaquille O'Neal and Alex Rodriguez.
In September 2005, Messi gained Spanish citizenship, a move designed to get around roster restrictions imposed on non-European Union players. He has not renounced his Argentina citizenship and has no intention of ever playing for any country other than Argentina.
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