Imagine Lionel Messi grew up in Australia. Deadset, he almost did

Lionel Messi’s family seriously considered moving to Australia, according to his biographer.

And whilst Messi would have been every chance of being a Socceroo had they made the move down-under, he would not have become one of the world’s greats.

That’s the verdict from respected Spanish reporter Guillem Balague, ahead of Sunday morning’s (6am AEDT) Round of 16 clash between the Socceroos and La Albiceleste, a contest that the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner will almost certainly decide.

The Messis moved to Barcelona in 1999, when freakishly talented Lionel was 12, a seed that was planted earlier when they contemplated moving to Australia for economic reasons.

“Messi is the perfect storm. He went from Argentina at the right time, to the right club that benefitted his style, then found the perfect manager to help him grow. Along the way he wasn’t injured, had the right family. A lot of things (went right) to make Messi,” Balague told KEEPUP.

“But along the way, it could have been so completely different. In Argentina, there was a crisis. Money was losing value. There were no jobs. And Argentinians have long gone to Europe or elsewhere as emigrants. 

“It must have been a casual conversation that Jorge Messi – Leo Messi’s dad – had before Leo was born that he had with somebody that came across with the idea of going to Australia to live, why not? When you get that mind frame in which the solution to your problems is to be abroad, it doesn’t really matter where you go. And they knew people that had come to Australia.

Lionel Messi starred in the win over Poland.

“Finally the decision was to stay put. Leo was born. When he’s 12, eventually gets a trial to Barcelona.

“For a second, imagine this. Leo Messi gets born in Australia. It would be fascinating to picture what would have happened if they had gone. 

“Would he have been the same Leo Messi? My conclusion, having thought about it a little bit, is that Leo Messi would have played the last 16 of the World Cup in Qatar with Australia. And we’d look at him and said, God, he’s good, isn’t he? He’s got something, doesn’t he? And sometimes he does things, doesn’t he? And that would be it.

“Because to be Leo Messi as well as all the things that we’re talking about, he has to be born in Argentina. He’s got to have a clear path to godness through (Alfredo) Di Stefano, through (Diego) Maradona, all those things that makes Messi and that wouldn’t have happened in Australia.”

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Unlike Argentina, had Rosario-born Messi had been among the near-15,000 Argentines living in Australia, there would have been more opportunities and pressure to try other sports.

But Balague believes that Messi, who’s scored 93 goals in 168 games, would have persisted with the sport they and the passionate South American nation adores.

“He comes from a passionate football family – Jorge Messi was his coach, big football fan. So are brothers Matias and Rodrigo. Football is a huge thing for Argentinians and they tend to love Argentina and football even more abroad because it becomes an identity thing,” Balague said.

Messi spent over 20 years at Barcelona.

“In Argentina, perhaps they give too much importance to what football does to their lives and to being Argentinian. But when you’re abroad, you multiply that by 10. I imagine he would have he would have played football with some team, maybe Jorge would have been coach. 

“Leo wouldn’t have had so much competition to go to the next level. And Leo does have things that he’s born with. I could have seen him and his brothers, who were talented, playing for a club that respects the academy. It was a different league at the time, so it could have been Sydney United or Sydney Olympic. 

“He may have gone to a club like Leeds United (as a teenager), and followed someone else’s career (path), like Harry Kewell. Then a different kind of career would have happened. He would speak English.”

Balague said culture plays a crucial role in the development of playing coaching and administrative talent.

“Football is everything in Argentina. It uses every single corner for pitches, most (people’s) time, because men and women are coaches, referees. People play three leagues at the same time,” he said.

“So it’s very difficult for another sport to actually have any space and it creates a huge collection of brain and football talent to pick from. When you have so much thinking about football, the people at the top, who get chosen eventually to represent or manage the national side, they are the top of the top. To get there is so hard. 

Aaron Mooy will have another big role against Argentina.

“In the case of Leo to not just do that but go to the next level, it’s almost impossible. He is human, so it can be done again. When you look at what he’s done and it looks completely impossible. But it couldn’t happen if he (didn’t) have below him all that mountain of knowledge, thinking, playing, developing, pitches.

“And it doesn’t have to be the best pitches, the ones in which he played in the world the best. There’s a famous saying, can he do it on a cold, rainy Tuesday night at Stoke City, he said of course I would, didn’t you see the pitches I used to play in when I was 11? Where there was glass, stones and dogs passing by.

“They’re so passionate about football that the consequence of that love and passion is an elite (group of talent) that allows you to win the World Cup and have a thousands-plus professional players playing abroad. So imagine having to pick the national side from over 1000 players, when you need 26 players.

“Brazilians and Argentinians are the ones that occupy more places all over the world because of that in both cases is exactly all this mountain I’m talking about. And if in Australia you’ve got a you’ve got this fight between sports, when actually complimenting sports should be the path to follow.”

While many believe Messi is a World Cup win away from confirmation as the world’s best, as Argentines hope he can follow in Maradona’s footsteps in leading his nation to glory, the PSG attacker was relaxed about his place in the football pantheon.

“Leo Messi has come to this World Cup with everything done. His legacy is that he has been the most consistent player in the history of the game ever. The last time I looked he scored 25 goals in 32 finals. Nobody’s ever done that,” Balague said.

“He has won the Champions League, won the league, won the league in France, seven Ballon d’Or’s. He got close to winning the World Cup in 2014, but he doesn’t feel he’s got to win the World Cup.

“He came (to Qatar) without pressure, I don’t think he thinks Argentina is the strongest squad. But once the World Cup started and they lost against Saudi Arabia, the reaction against Mexico from him, the team, manager, fans is something I’ve never seen before. 

“It was it was like the defeat was not possible in their minds and victory and the first goal, of course. And who scored the first goal, the key goal? Had to be Messi yet again influencing the games at the highest stage.

“There was so much tension inside, and now all of a sudden they win the group and see one of Australia, Argentina, the United States, and Netherland are going to be in the semifinals. And if you get to the semifinals, everything is possible.”

Balague said the unified Socceroos must replicate the blueprint of their fellow Asian combatants Saudi Arabia, who caused a 2-1 opening game upset.

“I’ve seen a team that is well structured, physically well, difficulties to (have) long possession. Against Denmark they didn’t the ball for long period, or enough to actually defend with it and attack with criteria. But you’ve got a goal or two in you,” he said.

“What seems very clear – and you’re not the only nation like that – there is a unity in the idea and there is a belief, faith in what has been done. And talent will take you (so far). 

“Once you’re here it’s 90 minutes and the lessons would’ve been learnt – you cannot play like Mexico played against them by giving them total initiative. You have to play like Saudi Arabia, who were very brave in their approach.”