When Messi was El Leo
COMMENT: Before the Barcelona star made the headlines he was another kid dreaming of greatness on the streets of Rosario - Goal visits the place where he took his first steps
The rubbish dump had not only been the site of terrible stories, it had also become a place of mischief for the kids of the block. In the moments when they were not playing with the ball, they would kill pigeons, gut them, pretend to be surgeons and perform a post-mortem, without knowing what post-mortem meant.
Some 20 years ago, you could buy around 30 mandarins for two pesos. The kids would pool together their coins, eat the first fruit until they were full and use the rest to smash against the walls or even throw at soldiers in the area. But the rubbish dump has changed. It did not just change because that block was where El Leo, a budding bird surgeon who ended up on billboards in Kyrgyzstan, Ethiopia and Paris, was born.
It changed principally because at the other end of the block which begins at 525 Israel street, a young girl was raped. Young girl, they say, because the anonymity is a way to save her from the gossip and fame which the Las Heras neighbourhood in Rosario earned. From a BBC cameraman to three Chinese journalists, reporters from every continent have visited. It could be a coincidence that it occurred on that block, but there is no such thing as a well-lit rubbish dump.
She was abused in the middle of a mountain of rubbish bags that residents threw onto that wasteland for years due to the lack of a refuse service. Previously the place had a putrid smell, a mix of decaying garbage and the plastic which would never decay. Now it is all changed. The cries of pain were the breaking point in the neighbours' convictions.
The dump would have remained that way forever if the young girl had not been raped, and if a group of kids had not taken it upon themselves to clean it up. They removed all of the rubbish, cut the grass, built a stage out of wood, started to hold rock festivals and the dream of making it a club was born.
Another kid in the neighbourhood decided to paint a mural to act as a tribute to El Leo, but an America producer tried to joke about how it looked nothing like the real person, irking the artist. But no matter: two more images appeared alongside and even a rock band painted its name above the No. 10's goal celebration in the Argentina shirt.
There is a ladies and gentlemen's bathroom. The ladies' could be any bathroom if one is not aware of the rape. But there is a message on the door in graffiti - "Violence is not just about hitting" - leaving the next generations in no doubt.
There will be no doubt either that on another wall, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo human rights group are defended, the Malvinas/Falklands Islands are Argentine and the search for the grandchildren stolen during the last military dictatorship continues, as El Leo is sketched next to activist Estela de Carlotto with a sign before the 2014 World Cup.
The rubbish dump, however, is no longer known as the dump or the wasteland; now it is the pitch. Stood next to an overturned bin used to store ice at parties is Diego, who is wearing a shirt of the rock band La Renga, and who has 25 free minutes before going to pick up his son from school. A while before his brother Sergio walks past and lifts up his shirt. Under his ribcage on the left he has a tattoo of El Leo, like much like many others.
"You don't have one," Diego is asked.
"No, I don't, but I have a different connection. I am so proud of him, but he is my friend. An idol for me is Chizzo from La Renga, maybe."
It is most likely that nobody would tattoo a picture of their partner in eating mandarins or foot-tennis or in the preparation of the first parties where all the boys acted like cowards and could not pick up a girl. But even so, Diego, one of the brains behind the club, an honorary member who used to use any door as a goal, adores El Leo, with whom he now talks about how he gets his kids to sleep. They met there on Israel Street, they became friends along the way. After school they played in the street until siesta time and then went back out until their mothers demanded they return for sleep.
When they reached sixth grade, they started to walk alone up to School 66 in the Las Heras neighbourhood. Diego belongs to the 86 category, El Leo, 87, but he entered a higher grade for "good behaviour". Their friendship included all the neighbourhood mischief, as well as the tricks the shorter one of the pair used to pull, as even at that age he could not bear to lose.
"That one was in, it was in", he would shout, offended, leaving behind that shyness he showed in public. Once in the middle of a game he became obsessed by winning.
El Leo lived for quite some time in two worlds. He had football with Newell's, and in his block, with friends on both sides. His true love, however, was hiding in the club. Central midfielder Lucas Scaglia played with Leo, and his cousin, Antonella, lived in the same area and captured his heart forever. His romantic history began right there, between the block and school. The first dances checked the bravery of the commando who fought the police with mandarins. Those nervous moments of getting ready to look sharp and pray for the miracle of a girl paying you attention took place right there.
But the symbiosis between Diego and El Leo, or the neighbourhood, was broken when Barcelona appeared. There were two goodbye parties: one in 525 Israel Street in El Leo's family home and another in the house in the middle of the block, Diego's.
Las Heras could perhaps one day change its name because its roads were touched with the magic feet of a little kid. Thousands of youngsters will go to play on the rubbish dump which defeated its terrible history, which became a field and will become a club, dreaming of becoming the Argentine No. 10 born in that place. Diego will keep listening to La Renga in Israel Street and every now and then will check his phone to see if, in Barcelona, his friend's two children are eating mandarins.
When someone asks, again, one more time, as happens almost every day, who is Lionel Messi, he will say he is El Leo. And that real friends do not carry each other in drawings, nor tattoos, nor goal statistics: they are carried in memory, throughout one's life, from one continent to another, staring at doorways where there will always be a goal waiting to be scored.
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