When he was a child in his hometown of Rosario, Argentina, Lionel Messi was nicknamed “La Pulga” (the flea) because of his short stature. This didn’t stop him from starting to play soccer since he was 5 years old. In 2004, when Kobe Bryant, the famous basketball player visited his friend Ronaldinho, considered one of the best soccer players in the world, he told Bryant, “Kobe, I want you to meet the player who is going to be the greatest soccer player who ever lived.” He didn’t know that his words would be prophetic.
In 1998, when he was 11, Messi was diagnosed with Growth Hormone deficiency, a treatment that his parents couldn’t afford. Carles Rexach, sporting director of FC Barcelona, saw him play in Argentina and immediately offered to pay all his medical bills if he and his family would to start a new life in Barcelona. Messi traveled to Barcelona, Spain, with his father, leaving his mother in Rosario, Argentina, to take care of his brothers.
It wasn’t easy for Messi to adapt to this new environment, where he felt isolated from his teammates who made fun of him for being so short and not speaking Catalan, the language of Barcelona. “My teammates were big, rough and kind of assholes. They didn’t really pay attention to me, they would speak Catalan among themselves,” he said in the TV series Sin Cassette. “I cried a lot. I would lock myself in my room and cry my eyes out in secret. I didn’t want my dad to find out,” quoted Guillem Balagué, author of “Messi: The Biography”.
Despite these initial problems, he gradually adjusted, becoming the most successful player in his club’s history. And these childhood adversarial events not only strengthened his resolve to become a very good player, but also to devote part of his earning to improve children’s lives.
In 2007, he established the Leo Messi Foundation based in Rosario, a charity aimed at helping children in crisis situations to gain access to better health and education. It is his way of expressing gratitude for overcoming his own childhood health problems. During an interview Messi said, “Being a bit famous now gives me the opportunity to help people who really need it, particularly children.”
Messi’s foundation supports sick Argentine children by allowing them to get paid for treatment in Spain, covering hospital, round-trip transportation from Argentina and recovery costs. He also pays for Argentinian doctors to be trained in Spain in special fields of research and donates money to pay doctors’ salaries and to rebuild a children’s hospital in Rosario.
Since 2004, he has been collaborating with UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund). In March 2010, Messi became its Goodwill Ambassador, where he has continued his work in support of vulnerable children. Four months after becoming that organization’s ambassador, he carried out a mission to Haiti, where he helped raise public awareness to the plight of that country’s children, after a devastating earthquake that ravaged the country. In addition, he has participated in UNICEF’s campaigns to prevent HIV/AIDS, and promote education and the social inclusion of disabled children.
As a result of the war in Syria more than a million children were out of school and millions more were at risk of dropping out. The Messi foundation collaborated with UNICEF in building fully furnished classrooms so that 1,600 children affected by the war in Syria could continue their educational activities.
The work of the foundation in Mozambique is also remarkable. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world. On health-related missions to that country, I was able to see that children in remote areas often have high rates of malnutrition and must walk several miles to attend school, where they arrive hungry. Through a program called “Programa de Desayuno Escolar” (School Breakfast Program) funded by Messi’s foundation, children are fed when they arrive at school and before they go to class. This also lowers the rate of absenteeism, which is elevated in some rural areas, and is often caused by children being weak by lack of food.
The program started in three schools, but there are now 40 schools receiving aid, plus three kindergartens and three orphanages, benefiting 15,000 children. Pregnant women and some sick adults unable to eat solid food have been added to the program. As a result, more children are now coming to school from deprived areas which have been negatively affected by climate change. Thanks to Messi’s program, children not only are better fed, but they also have improved physical growth and intellectual development.
In addition to other projects, the Lionel Messi Foundation and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation funded the creation of the Pediatric Center at Sant Joan de Déu Children’s Hospital in Barcelona, which was inaugurated on June 16, 2022. The Center treats children and adolescents with cancer, while at the same time conducts research to find more effective treatment for them through an integration of its research and medical teams.
Throughout his professional career Messi has proven to be a remarkable person. Considered by many experts as the best soccer player in history, he is not only the most recognizable face of soccer worldwide. He is a kind man whose humanitarian work improves health and brings food and hope to thousands of disadvantaged children.