The plain house at 400 Lavelleja Str. has long been a pilgrimage site for tourists and Lionel Messi fans alike. Born here 35 years ago, in the industrial town of Rosario, a three-hour drive north of the capital Buenos Aires, graffiti on one of the walls reads: "From another galaxy, but from my neighborhood."
In the week before the World Cup final between Argentina and France, the atmosphere in the neighborhood of Las Heras is even more international than usual. TV teams are here from China and Japan, as are tourists from Colombia, Mexico and France — and Messi's former neighbor, Carlos, who is 65 years old.
Carlos goes into his house to fetch photos "from the old days." Some show a young Lionel Messi celebrating with friends the evening before he left Rosario. Carlos' family was among them. The following day, Messi flew to Barcelona, where he caused a sensation in Barca's youth academy before embarking on one of the all-time great soccer careers.
"We knew he was a big talent. But who'd have thought the boy who played with the street kids on the sports ground would one day become the best soccer player in the world," says Carlos. The people of Lavelleja are following the World Cup tournament with tremendous pride.
Nowadays, the corner sports ground where Messi used to play with the neighborhood boys, the spot where he scored his first goals, has become a cult site. Artists have painted scenes from Messi's life on the walls around it. Messi is immortalized, larger than life, on the back wall of his birthplace. "Thank you!!!" the mural says.
In the run-up to the World Cup final, the tension and anticipation is palpable everywhere in Rosario. Everyone is somehow sure that this will be the one. Official Number 10 football shirts have sold out, but black market sellers are doing a roaring trade with cheap copies. "People are in an unprecedented state," says Marta, a saleswoman. "Everyone wants to dress in the national colors once more before the finale."
Good news for Rosario
The international interest in Lionel Messi is a blessing for the town. Rosario has recently been in the news on account of an increase in violence and drug-related crime. The murder rate has risen, the local archbishop has called for prayers and peace marches.
But now at last there is some positive news. After losing the World Cup final 1-0 to Germany in 2014, the Argentines have had to wait eight years for another chance. They hope this time they will be victorious, and that Messi will crown his career.
Rosario is the third largest city in Argentina, the capital of the province of Santa Fe. Its smart new sports museum is already prepared for the great day. The World Cup trophy is displayed between oversized photos of Argentina's former World Cup heroes: Mario Kempes in 1978 and Diego Maradona in 1986.
"La Esperanza," it reads. "Hope." Accompanying these is a photo of Argentinian winger Angel Di Maria and Lionel Messi. Eighteen months ago, these two played a major role in Argentina's first Copa America victory since 1993, in the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro against their arch-rival, Brazil.
The museum also recalls Rosario's important role in the history of Argentine soccer. The current national coach Lionel Scaloni was born here, as was the legendary 1978 World Cup coach, Cesar Luis Menotti. The list of prominent soccer players and trainers Rosario has produced really is impressive.
Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara, who helped to liberate Cuba from the Batista dictatorship, before he too resorted to authoritarian means, was also originally from Rosario.
City's most famous son
However, none of those individuals is as visible in this city as Lionel Messi. In his former school, a mural decorates a wall that overlooks the schoolyard. His soccer shirt hangs in tower block windows. In the city's soccer academies, all the children wear the number 10 shirt.
People here love him for his exceptional playing ability but also because he maintains a close connection with his hometown. Messi always comes back here to celebrate Christmas with family and friends.
"The whole city is rooting for Messi," says Carlos, Messi's former neighbor. "I'm glad for him, because despite his great success he's always kept his feet on the ground, never caused any scandals. Quite simply, he's a good kid."