Long Before Israel-Argentina Soccer Match Saga, Messi's Career Was Saved by This Jewish Doctor

The Barcelona forward may have been at the heart of the diplomatic spat that led to Argentina canceling a friendly against Israel in Jerusalem. But back in 2011, Haaretz reported on the big debt the diminutive superstar owes to Dr. Diego Schwarzstein

Lionel Messi playing for Argentina during the Copa America Centenario final in New Jersey, June 2016.
ALFREDO ESTRELLA / AFP

On June 24, 1987, a chubby baby weighing 3.6 kilograms was born at the Clinica Italiana in the Argentine city of Rosario. The name on his birth certificate: Lionel Andres Messi. The next day, his mother, Celia, and his father, Jorge, brought him to their modest home, on 525 Estado de Israel (State of Israel) Street, in the southern part of the city.

>> Who Needs BDS: Israel Scores Spectacular Own Goal in Argentina Soccer Fiasco >> If Israel persists, Argentina soccer fiasco will only be the beginning >> Argentina cancels match following Palestinian pressure >>

Two decades later, this baby would grow up to become the greatest soccer player of his generation, an athlete who is famous everywhere on the planet, a young man who earns astronomical sums, and who is possibly still yet to reach his peak.

It is this fame that catapulted him into a political dispute when Israeli politicians decided to move a game between the national side and Argentina from Haifa to Jerusalem on June 9.

The head of the Palestinian Football Association, Jibril Rajoub, called on Arab fans to burn images and T-shirts of the soccer superstar if he took part in the game – the Argentinians' last warm-up match before the World Cup starts in Russia on June 14. The political pressure worked, Argentina canceled the fixture and Israelis were denied the opportunity to see one of the world's greatest players in the flesh. 

But we can reasonably assume this career wouldn't have happened – and the history of soccer would have been wildly different – without the fateful intervention of Dr. Diego Schwarzstein, a Jewish doctor who works and lives in Rosario.

A shy boy in Rosario

Dr. Schwarzstein reflects on his former patient: "Nothing he does on the field surprises me. I already saw him playing like that, here in Rosario, when he was 10-years-old."

Lionel Messi playing for Argentina against Russia, November 2017.
Pavel Golovkin/AP

The doctor refuses to wax poetic when discussing his own crucial role in the life of Lionel Messi. "I was a doctor and he was a very shy boy with a problem that required the proper diagnosis and treatment. That's all."

Of course, it's not so simple. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. In our story, Messi is 5-years-old, and for the past two years he has been practicing – usually by himself – with a white ball with red spots that he received as a gift for his third birthday. His highly impressed caretaker is his maternal grandmother, whose name is also Celia, a sworn fan of legendary Argentine midfielder Diego Maradona.

The city of Rosario, which was established during the period of the French Revolution, in 1793 to be exact, now has over one million inhabitants, and is the third largest city in Argentina. In the past, until the world discovered Messi, it was mentioned mainly as the birthplace of the bearded revolutionary Che Guevara. It is a bustling city, primarily middle class, located in the Santa Fe district on the banks of the Parana River, about 300 kilometers northwest of the capital, Buenos Aires.

In the south of the city, in the Barrio Sur, not far from the Messi home, is the soccer field of the Grandoli team, one of the least successful in a city that lives and breathes soccer all year round. Grandmother Celia, holding the little hand of her grandson Lionel, appeared one day at the edge of the muddy field where the club's children's team was practicing, and turned to their coach, Salvador Ricardo Aparicio: "Let him into the game please, for me. If he starts crying or if you see that he's scared, take him out and we'll forget about it." Years later, in innumerable interviews with many newspapers, Aparicio recalled that moment, Messi's first on a real soccer field: "It was amazing, the ball stuck to his foot and he left everyone behind; he was unstoppable."

Although he was small for his age – earning him the nickname "the Flea," which accompanied him throughout his childhood – Messi stood out on the kids' team where he played, and very soon was invited to play with the children of Rosario's leading youth team, Newell's Old Boys (named after the British-born educator Isaac Newell, who emigrated to Argentina in the second half of the 19th century and was one of the pioneers of soccer in Rosario ). The ball reached his knee and the children were all a head or two taller than him, but he was unstoppable and a prolific goalscorer.

Messi scored 100 goals in his first year on the children's team, and everyone around him was waiting for him to develop physically, grow taller, so he could advance to the youth team. But that moment didn't arrive. Eventually, the owners of the club and the family realized that the child had a problem.

One of the biggest followers of Newell's Old Boys was endocrinologist Dr. Diego Schwarzstein, a native of Rosario, who is now about 50 years old. His Jewish family fled Russia for fear of pogroms ("Maybe it was Ukraine, there are different versions in the family" ) in the late 19th century. When they arrived in Rosario, there was already a small Jewish community in the city. The new immigrants engaged mainly in commerce, purchased agricultural produce from the neighboring farmers in order to sell it in the big cities, and prospered. Solomon Schwarzstein, Diego's great-grandfather, was one of them.

Do you have family members who went in the other direction and arrived in Israel?

Reuters

"Not that I know of, certainly not close family. But I assume that we do have distant relatives in Israel. The only time I've been there so far, at a congress in Jerusalem in 2000, I didn't have time to search."

During the past two generations, there have been several doctors in the extended Schwarzstein family. Diego first studied at the National University in Rosario, and continued at the University of Barcelona, Spain, where he specialized in endocrinology (a branch of medicine concerned with hormonal disorders ). When the Messis became worried that their 9-year-old son was not developing physically, the owners of the soccer club recommended that he visit the clinic of Dr. Schwarzstein, with whom they were in contact.

"He came to me with his mother, a shy boy, but an ordinary, normal child, like many of my patients before and since," says the doctor. "But very small. The only thing that got him to talk, that opened him up a little, was soccer, of course. He spoke already then about his dream of being a professional soccer player some day. I don't know how tall he was when I saw him the first time, but I do remember that when I heard how old he was, I realized immediately that what we apparently had here was a problem of growth hormone deficiency."

Schwarzstein says he can't always treat such a problem. "Sometimes children who are shorter than average in their class come to me. The parents are concerned, but there's nothing to be done, because it's a genetic issue unrelated to the growth hormone." Messi had to undergo a series of tests until they discovered that the reason for the hormone deficiency was a rare defect – which is found in one in every 20 million children, and requires prolonged treatment.

"In order to reach the correct conclusions regarding the cause of the lack of growth and finding the proper treatments, I had to invest a great deal of time," Schwarzstein recalls. "It was impossible to give a precise diagnosis overnight. We kept close track of Lionel Messi for almost eight months - measurements and various medical tests every month, and based on the results we did additional tests. It's a process."

What did you discover?

"Usually I expect a child of his age to grow at least four centimeters each year; Lionel Messi grew much less than that. The next stage was to decide on the right dosage. You have to be very careful, on the one hand, so the treatment will be effective; and on the other not be too aggressive, to the point of damaging various body organs. In the end, I decided on the appropriate injections, and Messi needed one injection every single day."

How is the treatment done? At home or in your clinic?

"After proper guidance, you can give the injection at home. At first his mother would inject him, but after a while he began to inject himself."

A child of 10?

"Yes. At first it scared him a little, of course. I can't recall a child who isn't afraid to inject himself, and his hand shakes. But with time he got used to it and it became part of his daily routine."

Later, Messi himself said about it: "It became a routine activity for me, like brushing your teeth. I knew how important it was for me, it was an assignment."

Lionel Messi's body responded very well to the treatment, Schwarzstein says: "He began to grow, the effect of the injections was excellent. I remember how happy the boy was. His body developed and he needed a new pair of soccer shoes and new pants, almost every three months. All that did wonders for his self-confidence too, he began to smile at every opportunity."

At the age of 11, Lionel Messi had grown to a height of 1.32 meters, and weighed about 30 kilograms. His joy at the fact that the treatment was showing positive signs was tempered when his beloved grandmother Celia died. It was a very sad moment in the boy's life, and the grief caused him to be even quieter than usual.

According to Schwarzstein's instructions, he was supposed to continue with the daily injections for an additional period of three to six years. This represented a very large financial expenditure for his family – over $1,000 a month. At first there was a solution: Jorge Messi, Lionel's father, had family medical insurance from his job as a supervisor in a steel company in Rosario, and the insurance helped pay for purchasing the injections. But at around the turn of the millennium, the great financial crisis hit Argentina; at its height, banks collapsed, insurance companies lost their assets, people saw their savings disappear, and the assistance for the treatment of Leo Messi was discontinued.

"It was a real problem," recalls Schwarzstein. "I told them it was impossible to stop the treatment at that stage, the injections were essential for him. The team for which he played, Newell's, wanted to help, but didn't have the means. And so, due to the need to pay for the treatment, began the journey that in the end brought the Messis to Barcelona."

The heads of Newell's Old Boys knew they had a very talented child, but they didn't fight enough to raise the necessary funds to keep him in Rosario. His parents repeatedly came to meetings with the coach, with the owner, and each time they returned home with promises that weren't kept. At the same time, talent hunters in Argentina sent the name of the young talent to the technical staff of the great Barcelona team, with warm recommendations, and Lionel Messi was invited for a trial.

At a meeting of the extended family – which included parents Jorge and Celia, older brothers Matias and Rodrigo and younger sister Maria – it was decided that they would all accompany Lionel to Spain. The family brought one preliminary demand to the table: Barcelona would pay for Lionel's injections as long as he needed the treatment. Carlos Reshak, who was the coach of the club's youth teams at the time, watched the boy play for a few minutes and decided that he was a major talent. But he still had to convince the heads of the club. In the end, after several tense months, early in 2001 the contract between the Messis and Barcelona was signed.

During his first game with the Barcelona youth team, the Flea from Rosario left the spectators open-mouthed when he scored five goals and set up three more. That was the beginning of Messi's marvelous journey to the summit of world soccer.

Dr. Schwarzstein, what would have happened to Messi if he hadn't received the appropriate treatment?

"From my experience, children who suffer from a similar deficiency and aren't treated remain very short, sometimes real dwarfs. It's simple: Children with a growth hormone deficiency don't grow. I have no doubt that, without the treatment that caused him to grow, he would have had no opportunity to become the soccer player that he is today."

By the way, do you know how tall Lionel Messi is today?

"I do. He reached 1.69 meters!"

Are you still in contact?

"Yes, of course, I'm in contact with him and his family. We went through quite a lot together. Of course it's different now from the close relationship we had during the treatment, when they were still living in Rosario. After all, Barcelona is far away, and Lionel has become a famous international personality, a public figure – the whole world runs after him and wants to be near him. I saw in Barcelona and other places how he has no chance of walking down the street quietly without being besieged from all sides. In that situation, it's hard for him to maintain old friendships on a daily basis. But we keep in contact by phone, a conversation here and there, not regularly. And sometimes he comes here, to Rosario, for the activity of a special fund he set up and finances from his own pocket, for the children of the city.

"He loves the streets of his childhood, the friends he left behind, he enjoys his recollections, and that's why every time he has a break from the soccer games in Spain, he and his family come back. Several of them even live in the old house on Estado de Israel Street."

When you saw him performing miracles in the ranks of Barcelona's adult team, were you surprised by your former patient?

"No. His tremendous talent was known and clear. We saw him so often here on the field in Rosario, scoring after an amazing slalom that left all the defenders of the rival team behind. Everything he's doing in Barcelona, he already did here as a child."

Are you still a fan of Newell's Old Boys?

"Of course, a devoted fan. I go to the games on Sundays. But now I'm also a Barcelona fan."

Jewish and Arab coexistence

Miguel Lifschitz, a 56-year-old engineer, the scion of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who arrived in Argentina at the end of the 19th century, served for many years in municipal administrative positions in Rosario, which has over a million residents. In 2003 he decided to run in the mayoral elections, at the head of a slate identified with the Socialist Party. Although he was almost unknown to most of the city residents at the beginning of the contest, he managed to win by a small margin of about 5,000 votes.

Very soon Lifschitz proved to be an effective mayor and his popularity increased. When he ran in the elections for the second time in 2007, he received sweeping support and was called the most popular mayor of Rosario in many years. Lifschitz takes pride in the good relations between the sons of Jewish and Arab immigrants who live in the city, and two years ago he initiated the placing of a plaque on San Luis Street, commemorating the neighborly relations in the area between Jewish and Arab immigrants when they lived there together in the mid-20th century.

In August 2009, during a visit from the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra to Rosario, Lifschitz conferred honorary citizenship from the city on conductor Zubin Mehta. Rosario is also a sister city with Haifa.

Although there is a street in the city named after the State of Israel (the street where Lionel Messi grew up), the fact is of no particular political importance. Many streets in the southern section of the city bear names of countries that have diplomatic relations with Argentina.

A version of this story was originally published on July 29, 2011.