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Ballon d’Or 2021: Lionel Messi and the first time he was international champion in Peru

In the photo appears Lionel Messi hugging a Peruvian boy named Kevin Méndez. More than twenty years have passed since the registration of that portrait on an old soccer field that today is a container warehouse in the port of Callao. The Argentine star, today the winner of his seventh Ballon d’Or, looks with some tenderness at that image that we have printed to give him as a gift and tribute before interviewing him at the El Prat airport in Barcelona. The calendar tells us that we are in May 2013, a few hours before Leo celebrated a new Spanish League title with Barza using a baby pacifier and presenting his first son Thiago in society.

That night, the Barça star will get on a private jet that will take him to Qatar, where he will offer a conference as the image of an Arab telephone company. Before embarking, he stopped his hurried pace and received that photo to return to that nineties summer when he obtained, with the Newell’s Old Boys -the same one that he used in November 2020 to honor Diego Armando Maradona-, the title of the Friendship Cup. Dressed in a white T-shirt, with the printed face of a young Mick Jagger, the rocker Messi has agreed to remember the details of his first big concert.

It is raining in Barcelona and that’s why Messi carefully gets out of his white Audi that he has parked in front of the entrance to the airport’s corporate terminal, where private flights are scheduled. Not much time to talk to him and Rodrigo messi, his older brother, tells us that a few months before Lionel had only given fifteen minutes to “Time” magazine in the United States. “And it took five to take the cover photos”Rodrigo comments with some irony.

We have reached the Barcelona because Leo wanted to promote a friendly match in Lima where he was going to be with Neymar, Mascherano, Julio César, Marco Materazzi, among others. Before recording a video where he invited the public to attend the meeting called “Messi and his friends”, we gained an extra dose of attention with that photo of, which according to official records, could be called his first international title as a footballer.

Lionel Messi and Neymar were present in Lima to play a friendly match in 2013. (Photo: El Comercio)

“I was very young when all this happened. I did not know that there were still some photos or videos of this moment, they are very good. I don’t have many details of how those games were played, only that we scored a lot of goals and they called the team the ‘Machine’. I remember a little that we took the plane and went to Lima. But more … no“Messi says without letting go of that portrait enlarged and printed on a sheet of newspaper for a single minute.

After having passed through the club Grandoli de Rosario, where he almost always played with children older than him, Lionel Messi arrived at Ñuls at the age of seven. With that team of the 1987 category, Leo won all the regional and national championships that they disputed.

It is true, they called him the ‘Machine’ because of the scandal markers they reached in their matches. Two decades ago, they received the invitation to travel to Lima and participate in the Friendship Cup, children’s tournament organized by the Cantolao Sports Academy Since 1983. Of that exhibition of the first Messi, only six videos of less than five minutes, four low-resolution photos and a small red and black shirt that Leo gave to the Lima family that hosted him have been archived.

-Kevin and his wonderful years-

Kevin Mendez, the other boy in the photo, left football when he was a teenager and today he is 34 years old. He lives in the heart of Lima’s Pueblo Libre district, about ten blocks from that house that hosted Lionel Messi. “My dad asked the tournament organizers about the most talented player who was coming, they told him about Leo and we asked to host him. It was almost a week ”, says Kevin.

Lionel Messi with Kevin Méndez on the old Cantolao court.  (Photo; Kevin Méndez Archive).

Already on the night of May 2013, before leaving for Qatar, Messi will have a gastronomic emergency that ratifies him as an Argentine. Meat lover, Lionel was alarmed when he was told that there were no Milanese on the private jet. Despite having embarked, he asked to get off the plane and got into the white Audi in search of some hamburgers at the fast food restaurant closest to the airport. Twelve months after that rush, Lionel had to give up that culinary habit a bit by going on a strict diet after losing the final of the season. World Cup in Brazil. Twenty years ago, that weakness for the cuisine of his country almost left him without an Olympic return.

“Lionel only asked for Milanese when he was at home. I didn’t want to eat anything else. But when the date of the finals approached, we invited you to try our grilled chicken. I think he liked it, although the bad thing was that he got intoxicated the night before the semifinals “, Kevin says.

It was the only awkward moment in that first visit to Peru by Lionel Messi. During that week, his routine between Lima and Callao had only captured happy moments of a child who all he wanted was for no one to take him away from the ball. For those afternoons of the Friendship Cup, Kevin Méndez’s parents asked him to buy bread for the family lunch. The guest Lionel accompanied him, and in that distance of five blocks to the bakery, Messi did not stop doing ‘kicks’ in a street choreography only seen before in a Japanese anime called “Supercampeones”. The neighbors of the Méndez family called him Oliver, the protagonist of that drawing that was fashionable in those years on open signal television.

Lionel Messi is one goal away from reaching 700 for his career.  (Photo: Reuters).

Eight years have passed since that first meeting of Trade with Lionel Messi. The flamboyant seven-time winner of the Golden Ball That night he was accompanied by a six-person security team, his brother Rodrigo and Adrián Barbini, a marketing consultant who managed the interview and who also kept time with a relentless mental timer.

With his right hand Leo holds his luggage and with his left he carries the photo before that semifinal of the Friendship Cup in front of the team of Kevin Mendez. The coach of that Ñuls asked the boy Messi if he could play despite the intoxication, and Leo only asked for rehydration before going out on the pitch and scoring seven goals.

The semifinal against Cantolao category 89 finished 10-0 in favor of the Rosario team. He said Pep Guardiola that Messi should never be replaced on the field, however, in that match he himself asked for rest to recover and reach the final healthy against Cantolao category 87. He won Newell’s 7-1 with a hat trick from ‘La Pulga’.

“They treated me very well in Peru. I have somewhat blurred scenes and that that I got sick is also one of the little that I still have. But after that championship there were several tours with Ñuls and there were other families in the different countries that hosted the players. I got used to it quickly, although I missed the family a little, especially the grandmother “says Messi before taking flight. The Messi Cuccittini family home did not have a landline, and little Lionel when he asked to make his calls from anywhere in the world had to dial his neighbors’ number.

The sports headquarters of the Cantolao Academy in Callao it disappeared in 2000. The field where Messi scored more than ten goals today is a huge warehouse near the Jorge Chávez international airport that stores containers and merchandise from the ships that arrive at the first port. It is an area that everyone who arrives in Lima on a plane can see before landing. That was what Lionel Messi He did twenty years ago: he polished his chimneys, caught a ball and descended from the skies.

The comic con the first international title won by Lionel Messi in Peru


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