ROSARIO, Argentina — Right before kickoff, the plasma TVs were still tuned to a tennis match on mute instead of the Barcelona game at a nearly empty bar owned by Lionel Messi's family in his Argentina hometown.
The only clue at the bar were some photos of Messi. No one seemed to careabout the game until a couple walked in hurriedly and asked a waiter to change the channel. They were college students from Germany, and they had saved for months to come all the way to Rosario for a pilgrimage to their idol's native city. To call them hardcore Messi fans would be an understatement. But by this point they were a bit disappointed: they had seen no Messi statues, billboards, plaques or museums. Nothing.
"Messi is playing, he's from Rosario. Tell me: why is there not a line outside to watch this game?" Oshin Gharibi, 32, said as he watched the match next to his girlfriend, Lena Wagner, 23. She wore a royal blue away Barcelona shirt adorned with Messi's number 10 on the back.
"It seems like I feel more for Messi than Rosarinos," Gharibi said. "Messi is such a big star from such a small place. How can you not give him the recognition that he deserves?"
It's a mystery that confounds many. Cristiano Ronaldo has an airport named after him on his Portuguese home island of Madeira; Pele has his museum in his Brazilian native city of Santos; even Rocky Balboa — a fictional boxer — has been paid homage with a statue in Philadelphia. So why does Rosario, a city that lives and breathes soccer, seem to have an ambivalent relationship with Lionel Messi — the world's most famous footballer?
Many here seem to come back to the same theories: a soccer-mad city divided by the rivalry of its two beloved clubs; the never-ending comparisons to Diego Maradona; and a word repeated in Argentina all too often — "exitismo." Roughly translated, it means that anything but winning is worthless. In a decade of winning trophies for his Barcelona club, the best player of his generation has yet to deliver a World Cup for Argentina — as Maradona did in 1986. Russia might be the last chance for Messi, who will turn 31 during the tournament.
Back at the bar, a TV commercial for the World Cup says it's time for Argentines to believe in the national team again. Outside, and seemingly as if on cue, Leandro Intile jogs across the street wearing the white and sky-blue striped jersey of Argentina's national team with Messi's name on the back. But the college student says it's just a coincidence. He bought it for the 2014 World Cup, and it was "the first clean shirt" that he grabbed from his closet today.
"People follow Messi. I do, but it's not like Maradona," Intile said, swiping beads of sweat from his forehead. "There's not much of anything Messi-related here. There should be. Perhaps Rosarinos, are not very demonstrative — like Brazilians, who like to dance and show their feelings."
Rosario, a river port and Argentina's third-largest city is located on the bank of the Parana River about 180 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. It's best known for being the country's agricultural hub, the hometown of revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and a talent factory for some of Argentina's best footballers and coaches who have triumphed in clubs worldwide. But Rosarinos like to say that only two teams really matter, and they like to show it. You'll see it in the yellow-and-blue colors of Rosario Central painted on concrete barriers along the highway as you enter the city. And in countless murals painted in the black-and-red of Newell's Old Boys — its eternal rival, and Messi's childhood club.
"You breathe football everywhere in Rosario, but, curiously, the air doesn't smell of Messi. There are hardly any photos, or pictures, nor even advertisements depicting Leo," author Guillem Balague writes in "Messi," the official biography.
Everybody seems to have a story about Messi, but "the city does not seem to want to gloat. It's almost as if it is considered vulgar to have his face posted everywhere. Or perhaps they have just decided to respect his low profile," Balague says. "When you ask him what his favorite memories are, he is in no doubt. 'My home, my neighborhood, where I was born.'"
One of the murals depicting Messi in Rosario is located a few blocks from his childhood home. It shows him smiling with one of his sons in his arms, and it reads: "Lionel: tu barrio te espera campeon! (Your neighborhood waits for you champ!). Eduardo Mazzini, 64, said he let a group of young neighbors decorate one of the walls of his former gas station four years ago for the last World Cup. He's known the family for years.
"Lio would walk by here with his grandma and with the ball under his arm on his way to the field." Mazzini said.
He then points to a project for a sports museum that is being built nearby. "That's where they should have a Messi museum," he said. The futuristic paneled building that looks like a Manhattan bank stands in sharp contrast to the low-rise concrete homes in the sleepy, working-class neighborhood of La Bajada.
Here, neighbors greet each other by name and kids ride bikes on narrow streets. Everyone seems to agree: the Messi's are a humble, decent family; Lionel was a good kid, and he lived for one thing only: the soccer ball.
As they walk up to the rusty, unmarked gate of Messi's childhood home, the German tourists can hardly contain their joy. When they try to leave a handwritten letter for their favorite player on the mailbox, the house alarm goes off.
"We could have traveled to a beach in Barcelona, Thailand or Australia, but we came here," Wagner said. "And it's worth it because we get to see the places where he grew up and the people who knew him."
Jose Manicavale, 44, has lived most of his life across from Messi's childhood home.
"I've known Lio since he was in his mother's belly. He began to play here in our streets," he said. "The whole neighborhood feels pride and satisfaction because we have a representative of Argentina in the whole world. And he's ours!"
Messi is still very much connected to Rosario. His accent and expressions are unchanged, even though he left the city as a teen, 18 years ago. He returns on every occasion and has been spotted riding a bike or shopping around town. His favorite meal is still the same "milanesa a la napolitana," a breaded beef cutlet with melted cheese and tomato sauce, just like his mom and grandma used to make for him growing up. He chats with childhood friends on WhatsApp, buys meat from an Argentine butcher in Barcelona, and is often seen drinking mate, the traditional Argentine herbal tea. He also celebrates almost every goal the same way: pointing two fingers to the sky in memory of his maternal grandmother, Celia, who encouraged him to overcome challenges and become a professional player. Last year, he also married his childhood sweetheart in Rosario.
As a wedding gift, some of his childhood friends in La Bajada painted a large mural on a wall at a small field where they used to play as kids. It shows a bearded Messi surrounded by colorful planets, and on a corner it reads: "From another galaxy — and from my neighborhood as well."
On a recent day, Walter Barrera, 31, walked into the field with his pitbull puppy. Barrera attended elementary school with Messi, and now works at a nearby gas station.
"Everyone loves him here," he said. "He already has the recognition. He's amazing."
But sometimes the love has been unrequited.
A teenager tried to punch him as he was leaving a restaurant in his hometown in 2011. Messi downplayed the incident, saying that he "didn't feel a thing." Local media said that the teen was a fan of Rosario Central, the archrival of Messi's Newell's club.
The head of the civil registry who married Messi was asked in a radio interview if the ceremony, which was attended by some of the biggest names in soccer, had been the most important wedding of his life. "No, not at all," Gonzalo Carrillo said. "The most important wedding that I officiated was my best friend's wedding." Unsettled by the answer, the journalist said: "But surely it's the most important document in possession of Rosario's civil registry." Carrillo responded: "Not at all, the most important one in the civil registry is the birth certificate of (Ernesto) "Che" Guevara."
The image of "Che" Guevara can be found on t-shirts, key rings and tattoos, a global symbol. In his native city, a banner marks the building where he was born, and there's a center devoted to the study of his life. But he has also attracted controversy. Last year, a liberal think-tank launched a petition to remove a statue from Rosario's Che Guevara square.
"I don't think it's something against Messi, but perhaps something cultural that we have to evaluate and rethink about what we do with our two or three idols, people who perhaps deserve more recognition — and if we're going to give it to them while they're still alive," said Sandro Alzugaray, a sculptor. In his atelier, he keeps a small scale model for a 2-meter statue that he wants to build to pay homage to Messi.
"Why hasn't it been fulfilled? I don't have the answer," he said about the plan that he presented to city officials four years ago and that is still pending approval. "It hasn't happened, and it's unfortunate."
Not everyone agrees. On the street across from the atelier, Ezequiel Videla, 36, parks cars for a living wearing the yellow-and-blue striped shirt of Rosario Central. "Maybe other fans of Rosario don't like Messi because he comes from Newell's. I think we should support the dude," he said. "But you can't pay homage to Messi, because he hasn't really won anything for Argentina. The day he wins a World Cup like Maradona, then maybe ... I'm not denying that he's a great player, but building a monument or a statue for him wouldn't be right."
Maradona played for Newell's in 1993. The Church of Maradona, a mock religion, was also founded by a group of fans in Rosario in the late 90s, and has grown to more than 100,000 members worldwide.
Messi was born a year after Maradona led Argentina to the World Cup trophy in 1986. But he has faced comparisons to the former Argentine captain throughout his life, even when they could not be more different off the field. While Maradona was involved in numerous scandals and battled drug addiction for years, Messi is known for being understated and shuns the limelight, preferring the company of his family and close friends.
"When I see him on TV, I think of that little kid on this same yard doing those same dribbles," Andrea Liliana Sosa, one of Messi's former teachers said near a large Messi mural painted at his elementary school by an artist with help from students.
"For us, the teachers who took care of him, it hurts to hear the criticism, the comparisons to Maradona. They don't give him the importance he deserves. It's as if the city can't grasp that Lionel is from here. Maybe because we're so obsessed with being successful and he hasn't won a World Cup."
A mural of a young Messi clad in the red-and-black colors of Newell's features at the club's youth sporting complex. It's the only sign that he was a standout player here as a child. Photos of former coaches and players lifting trophies decorate the cafeteria's walls. But there's not a single image of the five-time FIFA world player of the year.
"I think we're not using the marketing correctly. He hasn't been chosen as a benchmark of the club," said Gustavo Pereira, a Newell's youth division coach. "Sometimes, delegations of tourists from the Netherlands or Japan, will pass by here and they're in awe, and we don't even notice," he said. "No one uses his name. It's a mystery."
That mystery seems to have another side to it, another theory that says that perhaps Rosarinos care so much about Messi, that they respect his privacy because they want him to keep coming back to the city.
"I know it sounds pretty absurd that Messi is not even included in the city's touristic package," said Hector De Benedictis, Rosario's Tourism Secretariat.
In his hand, he held copies for a Messi tour that his office has tried to launch on two occasions. But the Messi family rejected the proposal because of privacy concerns.
"Unfortunately, you have a beloved character, an unquestionable character from any point of view, but the truth is that you also don't want to do something against his wishes," he said "When people ask me about a Messi tourist tour, it pains me as if I'm being stabbed. But it's a question of ethics."