By Rodrigo Garcia
Rosario, Argentina, Dec 20 (EFE).- Residents of the neighborhood where Lionel Messi spent his early years say they hope he will pay a visit there in the wake of Argentina’s World Cup victory, the greatest triumph of the soccer superstar’s illustrious career.
“We were born here, we grew up together. I have a memory of him always kicking some little ball, a rolled-up piece of paper, a bottle,” Debora Ferreyra, who lives just across from Messi’s childhood home in La Bajada, a small neighborhood in the northern city of Rosario, told Efe.
“He was always walking with a ball at his feet. If there was no ball, he’d come up with something else.”
Ferreyra, who runs a perfume and cosmetics store out of her home, said she and her fellow neighbors would love to see him again and give him “a warm embrace.”
While Messi, 35, and his World Cup teammates are receiving a heroes’ welcome in Buenos Aires on Tuesday, two days after defeating powerhouse France in a thrilling final in Qatar, expectations are that the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner will travel in the coming hours to Rosario to spend the Christmas holidays with his family.
Officials in that northern city told Efe a stage is being set up opposite the National Flag Memorial – Rosario’s main gathering point for festivities – to celebrate Argentina’s victory and pay tribute to Messi, Angel Di Maria and other national-team players who hail from Rosario.
But the players themselves have not yet confirmed their presence.
Ferreyra said Messi’s family still maintains the house where the soccer star lived with his parents and siblings before moving in 2000 to Spain, where he enrolled at FC Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia, at the age of 13.
“They’re there all the time.”
“We all practically grew up together. We all went to the same school. I’m a couple of years older (than Messi) and so I have more stories about his siblings, but we were always walking around together. All the boys here would play in the street … in those times you could still play in the street,” she added.
On a table, Ferreyra has a photo signed by the soccer great in which he is standing next to the woman’s mother.
“He would take photos with all the local residents,” she said, referring to Messi’s younger years, when he was a promising player but not yet the superstar he would become.
A few meters away, another neighbor, Cristina, proudly shows two photos of the famous athlete, one as a young boy and another as a teenager.
In the first, he was one of the guests at her son’s birthday party at Club Grandoli, where the future FC Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain star played as a very young child.
“That’s the nicest thing, that he grew up with the boys. Everyone loves him and we want the best for him … Once in a while, he’ll come around (to the neighborhood),” the woman said.
“You remember him above all as a young kid because later he grew up more in Spain,” she said while showing another photo taken several years later in which she and several other residents pose next to Messi when he was home at vacation time at around age 17.
While Cristina guards that photo like a precious bar of gold, she hopes to get another one with the newly crowned World Cup champion.
“I hope he comes by and takes photos … with all the kids and all the people,” she said.
Another local resident of La Bajada with fond memories of a young Messi is Walter Barrera, who grew up with Leo and went to the same school as the future soccer legend.