For Lionel Messi, soccer stardom was a dream — and an escape : La última copa/The Last Cup From his earliest goals on the soccer fields of his hometown in Argentina to his arrival in Spain's Barça Football Club, host Jasmine Garsd follows the journey of a gifted kid who would go on to become one of the best. In Argentina, where the national sport is a fierce obsession, Lionel Messi was the one that got away.

As Garsd retraces Messi's early career, she examines the consequences of Argentina's devastating economic crisis of 2001, how it shaped Messi's path, and what it meant for her own life.

In Argentina, achieving soccer stardom isn't just a dream — it's also an escape

In Argentina, achieving soccer stardom isn't just a dream — it's also an escape

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María Jesús Contreras for NPR
Teen Lionel Messi plays soccer in front of a younger version of himself getting on a plane to leave Argentina.
María Jesús Contreras for NPR

Kids dream about becoming many different things when they grow up. Some want to be astronauts, others doctors and superheroes.

In Argentina, many kids also dream of being pro soccer players. Some parents even hold the same dream for them too — el sueño del pibe.

Roughly translated, "el sueño del pibe" means "the kid's dream." The phrase originates from a 1942 song by Argentine lyricist Reinaldo Yiso. In the song, Yiso writes about a boy who received a soccer club summons. The boy then tells his mom about how he will earn money and become one of the greatest players to ever live, all while listing players he idolizes. The ultimate pibe, who was known as "El pibe de oro" (Golden boy), was Argentine player Diego Maradona.

Diego Maradona singing a cover of "El sueño del pibe."

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Maradona grew up in a poor family, went pro just before his 16th birthday and eventually became one of the most successful soccer players of all time. Yiso's lyrics clearly align with Maradona's narrative, but the dream isn't unique to Maradona or Yiso alone. Many Latin American kids look to a career in soccer as the ultimate goal, especially when it's a means of escaping unfair circumstances.

For many, it's an out-of-reach pipe dream. But — like Maradona — Lionel Messi made his hopes a reality too. And just like Yiso looked to the idols before him, Messi looked to Maradona as an inspiration of his own.

El sueño (the dream) is threatened

Argentina's soccer team coach Diego Maradona speaks with forward Lionel Messi in 2009. Juan Mabromata/Getty Images hide caption

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Juan Mabromata/Getty Images

Messi's soccer career began at the young age of 7 when a major national club, Newell's Old Boys, sought him out.

"Lionel did stand out among the others. Not just because he was small physically, but also because of his speed," said Sergio Maradona, a former teammate who played alongside Lionel on Newell's. "The technique he had. Back then, he was totally different. He was from another planet."

Though Messi's talent spoke for itself, his small size was due to a hormone deficiency, which threatened the dream he was working toward. Newell's agreed to pay for his treatment, but when Argentina's economic crisis affected the country's soccer clubs, they were left with no choice but to cut off their end of the bargain.

And though Argentina's teams were spiraling economically, European teams were thriving. This meant they had the resources to recruit potential players from South American countries, including Argentina. Messi's own father — like many other Argentines in a tough situation — was looking for an escape from the financial crisis and saw an opportunity to go where the money was, so he sought out a trial for his son with FC Barcelona.

Messi was then faced with the ultimate decision — stay in the only country he's ever known, or leave everything behind at the age of 12 to avoid killing his very own sueño del pibe, and with it, his family's dream of escape.


Listen to The Last Cup on Spotify or Apple Podcasts to follow the rest of Lionel's journey to soccer stardom, and read about Lionel Messi's past in Episode 1.

Escucha a La Ultima Copa en español en Spotify o Apple Podcasts.

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