The United States has always fascinated me. I grew up in Rosario, the Second City of Argentina, and have lived in Barcelona since the age of 13. But from what I have seen on brief visits, there is nothing like the U.S.: how Americans live, what they have. It’s a unique country. The stadiums are incredible, and I can’t imagine a better place to host a special Copa América, a 16-team mini–World Cup bringing together all the top national teams from South America and the U.S. and Mexico over 24 days in June. People tell me it will be the biggest men’s soccer event in the U.S. since the 1994 World Cup.
Over the years I have played in the U.S. during friendlies for Argentina and FC Barcelona, but never in a competitive tournament. And this one matters for Argentina. We have nearly won our last two tournaments, reaching the finals of the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa América, but we came up just short both times. You may be surprised to hear this, but Argentina has not raised a major senior trophy of any kind since 1993, and I think it’s important that we end the streak. Not that it will be easy, of course. Eight teams in this Copa América Centenario reached the round of 16 at the last World Cup—twice as many as you’ll see at Euro 2016 this summer.
In Argentina’s opening game, we meet Chile on June 6 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. It’s a rematch of last year’s Copa América final, which was a bitter loss for us on penalty kicks, and you can be sure we’ll be motivated to play well that night. Soccer will be the main focus while I’m in the Bay Area, naturally, but part of me is also hoping to meet Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. Seeing him play is magical. Everyone loves what he does: basketball fans, teammates, rivals. Our small sizes, and even our playing styles, are similar. In December he sent me his signed Warriors jersey. I sent back my signed shirt in April to return the favor.
If you watch Curry play—or, just as revealing, warm up before the game—you notice his relationship with the ball. It’s like his body and mind are always on the same wavelength with el balón. I try to have that connection in my sport too. As a child, I always had a ball on me, from the time I woke up to the moment I went to bed. More than once I slept with my ball. In those days kids could go out on the streets in Rosario and be safe playing soccer even if they came back late at night. Unfortunately, times have changed, and you don’t see that much anymore due to the crime, not only in Argentina but also in the rest of South America. Those moments with my friends and the ball—just us, no coaches—are beautiful memories for me.
So too are the times I spent in Rosario at Club Grandoli, where I began to play in organized games. My older brothers, Rodrigo and Matías, also played there. Rosario is much smaller than Buenos Aires, but my hometown punches above its weight when it comes to producing special soccer players (like Gabriel Batistuta and Fernando Redondo) and coaching minds (like César Luis Menotti and Marcelo Bielsa). Soccer is in the air and the water in Rosario. If you go on YouTube, there’s a video of me at age 5 going on a long dribbling run with my left foot during a game at Grandoli, swerving around defenders and moving straight to the goal before firing the ball into the net. It’s a feeling of pure joy scoring a goal, a symptom of happiness. From then to now, nothing can compare.
Even as a kid I decided I would never be a diver on the field. My style of play is about always wanting to reach the goal by whatever means necessary. If I can continue, I try to carry on, no matter what a defender does to attempt to stop me. Not every challenge comes from an opposing player, though. One of mine was my size. I was smaller than every other player on the field, so small that doctors prescribed human growth hormone that I had to inject in my legs.
Yet my stature didn’t keep me from being noticed. In 1999, when I was 12, an agent heard about me from a contact in Buenos Aires and started following me through videos. I received a tryout with Barcelona in 2000 at age 13. This was highly unusual: Despite having one of the world’s best youth academies, La Masía, Barcelona hadn’t signed any kids my age from outside Spain or the European Union. But I must have made an impression. After waiting nearly a month in Barcelona with my father Jorge, Barcelona manager Carles Rexach signed an agreement and I joined the club.
Imagine moving with your family to a new continent at age 13 with everyone’s future riding on you. It was a complicated time. On the one hand, it was spectacular to come play at Barcelona. On the other, leaving everything behind in Rosario was tough: my friends, the rest of my family, my childhood, arriving in a country where I had nothing. I started practically from zero. My first year was hard. I was shy and quiet with my academy teammates, and then I got injured. My sister María Sol had a difficult time adjusting, so she and my mother Celia decided to return to Rosario with my brothers. The only question was whether my father and I would go back to Argentina with them for good.
As always, we made the decision as a family. I chose to stay in Barcelona because I saw I would have chances there. I was confident I would make my dream come true, and my family stuck with me, even though it was tough being apart from my mother and siblings. In the end my rise to the Barcelona first team happened quickly. In the 2003–04 season I made my debut for five different Barça teams, and my first game with the first team came at 16 in a friendly against Porto (and a coach named José Mourinho). Not all the Barcelona players were there—some were with their national teams—but I traveled with a lot of the first-team players, and it was spectacular. I remember that game more than my official debut, because that trip was unforgettable.
So much has happened since. The team trophies have meant the most over the years. Winning the 2005 under-20 World Cup and the ’08 Olympic gold medal with Argentina, and of course the silverware with Barcelona: four UEFA Champions League, eight Spanish league, four Copa del Rey and three Club World Cup titles. My first Ballon d’Or, for 2009, was special because it is such an important award. For them to say you’re the best in the world is unexplainable. While I always say that I don’t value individual trophies as much, it’s an important acknowledgement and first-rate for what it means. And it’s harder to win each time, since everyone makes it tougher on you, so earning my fifth Ballon d’Or in January was truly gratifying, especially after I hadn’t the previous two years.
My goal is to constantly be improving. Year after year you can grow as a player, just as in life. You can always learn something new. And sometimes in the moment you can reveal something in yourself. In last season’s Copa del Rey final, I scored a goal against Athletic Club of Bilbao in which I squirmed at speed past five defenders out wide and cut inside to bear down on the goalkeeper before scoring. You can find that one on YouTube too. It wasn’t planned. The move just started coming out and began to happen in the moment. The only thing I consciously thought was to move forward and get to the opposing goal somehow. That’s what happened, and it developed in an instant. That has always been my style, the close dribbling that in Argentina we call Gambetta, and I worked closely with Adidas to develop my Messi 16 boots to complement that.
Barcelona gave me everything. I grew up here. I made myself here. I lack nothing, and I’m very happy to be in this remarkable city. Despite the distance from my birth country, we have always lived in a very Argentine way in Barcelona, drinking maté tea and eating my favorite Milanesa breaded meat cutlets and dulce de leche pancakes for dessert. Eventually I learned to speak Catalan, but my Spanish still has an Argentine accent. My partner, Antonella Roccuzzo, is also from Rosario. Sometimes people have questioned my Argentine-ness, especially when the national team hasn’t done well, but I love my country deeply and would like to move back someday. Part of my family still lives there: my mom, my brother Matías, my sister and Anto’s family. We’re constantly in contact with them.
I like to think that at age 28 I have grown outside of soccer as well. My foundation, which supports children in health, education and sports around the world, is about to turn 10 years old. And the births of our sons—Thiago, 3, and Mateo, 8 months—were life changing as well. I’m ecstatic about the family we have been able to create. A typical day involves taking Thiago to school, going to training, hanging out at home drinking maté and spending time with Anto and the kids at the park or somewhere. It’s a normal, calm life, the kind of life we have always wanted.
Of course, outside of my family nothing would make me happier than to win my first World Cup with Argentina in 2018. The Copa América this summer is an important step along the way, a chance to show that we can raise a senior trophy for the first time in 23 years. And if we can do that, it will also mean spending nearly a month in the U.S. and learning more about this special country. If you Americans are looking forward to seeing me in person, trust me: the feeling is mutual.
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