Although he has been a Barcelona player for his entire career, Lionel Messi has never been shy about admitting who is first love is.
“My dream is to play for Newell’s in the Primera División” a young Messi told Rosario newspaper La Capital shortly before departing his hometown for the Spanish city of Barcelona.
Throughout his career, in interviews with the Argentine media, he has reiterated the fact that he would like to play for Newell’s Old Boys, the club he first joined at 6 years old, even if its just for a few months.
It’s a love story that had no end on the horizon, until now. Last year, he happily posed with a Newell’s shirt bearing his name and number alongside members of the club’s board while training with the Argentina National Team in Buenos Aires. With the announcement that Messi will now leave Barcelona, Newell’s fans have been left wondering if that shirt has been kept clean and still fits.
Other teams in Argentina have tried to claim his affection, notably River Plate, the club of his idol Pablo Aimar. Beyond that link, anything else is tenuous, and when questioned, Messi has been quoted as saying “The only team I can play for in Argentina is Newell’s”.
The love is mutual. The club actively implements a charm offensive to attract Messi and his family back to Rosario for a last dance (his wife Antonela Roccuzzo is also from the city and a Newell’s supporter). Through social media accounts, they post images of his exploits as a child prodigy at the Newell’s-owned pitches known as “Las Malvinas” where Messi reportedly scored 234 goals in 176 matches as part of an unbeatable youth team called “The Machine of 87” (’87 being the year the players on the team were all born).
A banner permanently hangs from a tier at El Coloso del Parque (Estadio Marcelo Bielsa) which reads “Tu sueño es nuestra ilusión” (“Your dream is our dream”).
Messi returning to Newell’s is not as straightforward as it might seem. There are a number of challenges which would have to be overcome before the dream is realised.
It goes without saying that his wages would have to be waived or he would have to play for free if he decides to play for Newell’s. This is why a loan move has been suggested as a happy medium in the past for both Messi and Newell’s, in a similar fashion to the deal to bring Newell’s fan Éver Banega back to Rosario in 2014. Wages and transfer fees in the Primera División in Argentina are totally incomparable to Europe and clubs like Newell’s are constantly in a state of financial uncertainty. Teams are member-owned and third party ownership is banned so foreign investment isn’t an option.
The safety of Messi and his family is also a concern for many in Argentina. Now settled in Barcelona, the city that his children were born and bred in (although his son Thiago is already a Newell’s member), a move to Rosario is not an attractive prospect when you consider gang violence incidents are frequent and homicide rates are high.
Despite that, Messi owns plenty of property in Rosario and his extended family are all still based there, including his brother Matías who owns a restaurant in the city centre.
In official statements, club representatives like Vice-President Cristian D’Amico appear hopeful yet cautious. Having secured the signing of 33-year-old Diego Maradona against all odds in 1993, there’s a feeling within Newell’s that anything is possible.
As of August 2021, Argentine football is a few weeks into a new season although fans are still not allowed to enter the stadiums as there is still a high rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths in the country. Newell’s Old Boys had a very poor start to 2021 under Germán Burgos but Simeone’s former assistant manager has been sacked with ex-Newell’s legend Fernando Gamboa, who Messi would have watched play for Newell’s as a kid, brought in to steady the ship. It has worked so far and Newell’s sit in the top half of the table with 2 wins, 1 draw and 1 defeat after four games.
Interestingly, the number 10 shirt at Newell’s Old Boys is currently vacant after Mauro Formica left the club a few months ago. It hasn’t been reassigned, despite the club welcoming a handful of new attacking players in recent weeks.
Make no mistake, the standard of football in Argentina would be a huge step-down for Messi. The league’s top scorer is 41-year-old José Sand of Lanús while Messi’s friend 40-year-old Maxi Rodríguez is still captaining the club. While Messi might not reach the 234 goals he scored as a youth for Newell’s if he does ever play for the senior team, with the right preparation and conditioning, he could easily break records again at Newell’s.
Your dream is still our dream, Leo.