Messi is “a simple man” on “top of the world.” Last week, at the age of 35, he finally managed to hold the World Cup in Qatar. And, upon returning to Argentina, four million people gathered in the streets of Buenos Aires to chant his name – one of the greatest collective experiences in history.
That same day, on Tuesday, December 19, he travelled from the capital to Rosario, his hometown, as he does every year. After a couple of days at home, he sent a recorded message to Andy Kusnetzoff – a radio journalist – and Hernán Casciari, a prominent Argentine writer. Messi told the two men that he and his wife, Antonella Roccuzzo, had cried together after hearing a nine-minute text that Casciari had read aloud on Kusnetzoff’s program. The protagonist of the short story was meant to be Messi – it was titled Lionel’s Suitcase.
Casciari spent 15 years of his life in Spain. There, he witnessed the long road that turned Messi from a young Argentine player who scored goals in the lower ranks of Barcelona FC, to that “simple man” who reached “the top of the world.”
“There were two kinds of immigrants: those who put their suitcases in the closet as soon as they arrived in Spain… and those of us who kept them out!” Casciari laughs, recalling how he never adopted Spanish slang, always using Argentine expressions.
With the victory in Qatar, Messi “shut the mouths of his detractors” in Argentina. Casciari confirms that Messi – despite his huge salary and long list of accomplishments – has kept his gaucho accent intact.
“We all enjoyed seeing Messi come home with the World Cup in his unstored suitcase… this epic story would never have happened if Lionel had kept his suitcase hidden in the closet. He never settled down in Spain… he never lost his accent or forgot his place in the world,” Casciari wrote.
The story of being uprooted struck a chord with Messi, who heard Casciari’s story thanks to his wife and childhood sweetheart, Antonella. He then decided to send a recorded message through Andy Kusnetzoff, the host of the program:
“I wanted to send you this audio because I was here [in Rosario] with Antonella… we were drinking mate, I started watching a little bit of Tik Tok,” Messi laughed. He said that he was happy to hear that Kusnetzoff was well, as the journalist had recently recovered from a health problem. Then, the greatest player of all time spoke about Casciari’s text:
“What Hernán wrote, what he narrated… we both began to cry, because everything that he said was true. Anyways, I wanted to send a greeting to both of you. Please thank him (Casciari) and tell him that we heard it, we were moved, he made us cry. I want him to know. I send a big hug to all of you. Thanks again,” Messi said, before signing off.
Everyone in the radio station – and probably among the listening audience – had to dry their tears, including Casciari.
“Lionel’s message this morning was tremendous, saying that he had cried with his wife while listening to the story. If, as a boy, they gave me a choice: the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Cervantes prize, or moving Messi with my story, I would have chosen what happened today.”
Authorized Spanish to English translation by Antonella Perazzoni of an extract from La valija de Lionel, a book by Hernán Casciari.
On Saturday mornings in 2003, Catalonia’s TV3 was broadcasting live the matches of Barça’s youth teams. And in the chats of Argentine emigrants, two questions were frequently asked: how to make dulce de leche by boiling cans of condensed milk, and at what time the fifteen-year-old boy from Rosario who scored goals in every game played.
In the 2003–2004 season, Lionel Messi played thirty-seven matches and scored thirty-five goals: the morning rating on Catalan TV on Saturdays was higher than at night. People were already talking about aquest nen in the hairdressers, in the bars, and in the stands of Camp Nou.
The only one who didn’t talk was him: in the post-match interviews, the teenager answered all the questions with a yes, no or thank you, and then looked down. We Argentine emigrants would have preferred a chatty guy, but here was a good thing: when he put together a sentence, he swallowed the s’s and said: ful instead of falta.
We discovered, with great relief, that he was one of us, one of those who had the suitcase unpacked.
There were two kinds of immigrants: those who kept the suitcase in the closet as soon as they arrived in Spain, said vale, tío and hostias. And those of us who had the suitcase unpacked kept the traditions, such as mate or yeísmo. We said yuvia, we said caye.
Time began to pass. Messi became the undisputed 10 of Barça. The Leagues, the King’s Cups, and the Champions League came. And both he and us, the immigrants, knew that the accent was the hardest thing to hold on to.
It was hard for us all to keep saying gambeta instead of regate, but at the same time, we knew that it was our final trench. And Messi was our leader in that battle. The kid who didn’t talk kept our way of talking alive.
So, all of a sudden, we were not only enjoying the best player we had ever seen, but we were also monitoring him to make sure he didn’t slip a Spanish slang in interviews.
In addition to his goals, we celebrated that, in the locker room, he always had his termo and mate. Suddenly he was the most famous human being in Barcelona but, just like us, he never stopped being an Argentinian in another country.
His Argentinian flag at the celebrations of every European Cup. His attitude when he went to the Olympic Games to win gold for Argentina without his club’s permission. His Christmas always spent in Rosario, even though he had to play in January at Camp Nou. Everything he did was a wink for us, for those of us who, in 2000, had arrived with him in Barcelona.
It is difficult to explain how much he made our lives happier for those of us who lived far from home. How he took us out of the boredom of a monotonous society and gave us a sense of purpose. How he helped us not to lose our orientation Messi made us happy in such a serene and natural way, and so much our own, that when the insults from Argentina began to arrive, we could not understand it.
Cold chested. You only care about money. Stay there. You don’t feel the shirt. You are Galician, not Argentinean. If you ever quit, think again. Mercenary.
I lived fifteen years away from Argentina, and I can’t think of a more horrible nightmare than hearing voices of contempt from the place you love most in the world.
Neither more unbearable pain than hearing, in your son’s voice, the phrase Messi heard from his son Thiago: “Dad, why are they killing you in Argentina?”
My breath catches when I think of that phrase from a kid to a father. And I know that an ordinary person would end up overrun by resentment.
That’s why Messi’s resignation in 2016 from the Argentine national team was almost a relief for us immigrants. We couldn’t see him suffer like that, because we knew how much he loved his country and the efforts he made not to break the umbilical cord.
When he resigned, it was as if, all of a sudden, Messi had decided to take his hands out of the fire for a while. Not only his own. We were also burnt by those criticisms.
That’s where, I think, the most unusual event in recent soccer occurred: the afternoon in 2016 when Lionel got tired of the insults and decided to quit, a fifteen-year-old boy wrote him a letter on Facebook that ended with: “Think about staying. But stay to have fun, which is what these people want to take away from you.” Seven years later, Enzo Fernández, the author of the letter, turned out to be Lionel Messi’s revelation player in the World Cup.
Messi returned to the National Team (he said so himself) so that those kids who sent him letters would not believe that giving up in life was an option.
And when he came back, he won everything he was missing and closed the mouths of his detractors. Although some found him “for the first time vulgar” in front of a mic. It was when he said: Qué mirá’, bobo, andá payá. For us, those who monitored his accent for fifteen years, it was a perfect phrase, because he swallowed all the s’s and his yeísmo is still untouched.
We are happy to confirm that he is still the same who helped us to be happy when we were far away.
Now some of us immigrants are back; others remained. And we all enjoyed watching Messi return home with the World Cup in his unpacked suitcase. This epic story would never have happened if the fifteen-year-old Lionel had hidden his suitcase in the closet. If as a kid he had surrendered to the vale and the hostia, tío. But he never forgot his accent or his place in the world.
That is why the whole Humanity wished Lionel to triumph so strongly. No one had ever seen, at the top of the world, a simple man.
And yesterday, as every year, Messi returned from Europe to spend Christmas with his family in Rosario, to say hello to his neighbors. His traditions don’t change.
The only thing that changes is what he brought us in his suitcase.