Where's Messi? Tributes missing in his native Argentina city

In this April 18, 2018 photo, German tourist couple Oshin Gharibi and Lena Wagner, from Heidelberg, leave a handwritten letter at the home where Lionel Messi grew up in La Bajada, Rosario, Argentina, accidentally making the house alarm go off. The couple are college students who saved for months to come all the way to Rosario for a pilgrimage to their idol's native city. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 17, 2018 photo, a small mural depicting Lionel Messi as a child decorates the wall at a soccer field used by the Newell's Old Boys youth teams, Messi's childhood club, in Rosario, Argentina. Messi, born in Rosario, played for Rosario's local team before signing with Barcelona at age 13. The mural is the only sign that he was a standout player here as a child. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 17, 2018 photo, German tourists Oshin Gharibi and his girlfriend Lena Wagner, both students from Heidelberg, pose for a picture at the VIP restaurant owned by Lionel Messi's family in Rosario, Argentina. The couple walked into the bar, nearly-empty, expecting to watch Messi play a game broadcast on TV, but had to ask the waiter to put the game on. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
This April 17, 2018 photo shows a soccer field used by the Newell's Old Boys youth teams in Rosario, Argentina, the city where soccer great Lionel Messi grew up. "You breathe football everywhere in Rosario, but, curiously, the air doesn't smell of Messi. There are hardly any photos, or pictures, nor even advertisements depicting Leo," author Guillem Balague writes in "Messi," the official biography. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 18, 2018 photo, Andrea Liliana Sosa, Lionel Messi's primary school teacher, poses for a picture at the "Escuela General Las Heras" in Rosario, Argentina. "For us, the teachers who took care of him, it hurts to hear the criticism, the comparisons to Maradona," said Sosa. They don't give him the importance he deserves. It's as if the city can't grasp that Lionel is from here." (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 17, 2018 photo, photos of great soccer moments decorate the cafeteria inside Newell's Old Boys youth training center in Rosario, Argentina, the hometown of Lionel Messi. Photos of former coaches and players lifting trophies decorate the cafeteria's walls, but there's not a single image of Messi, the five-time FIFA world player of the year. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 17, 2018 photo, children train at the Newell's Old Boys youth training headquarters in Rosario, Argentina, the hometown of soccer great Lionel Messi. Messi was born a year after Maradona led Argentina to the World Cup trophy in 1986, and has faced comparisons to the former Argentine captain throughout his life, even when they could not be more different off the field. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 17, 2018 photo, customers are reflected in a picture of Lionel Messi at the VIP restaurant owned by Lionel Messi's family in his hometown of Rosario, Argentina. In Messi's hometown, where there are no statues or museums in honor of the soccer idol, everyone seems to agree: the Messi's are a humble, decent family; Lionel was a good kid, and he only cared about one thing only: the soccer ball. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 18, 2018 photo, artist Sandro Alzugaray shows his clay model of Lionel Messi at his studio in Rosario, Argentina, Messi's hometown. Alzugaray has proposed to create a monument to honor Messi in their hometown since the previous World Cup, four years ago, but is still confident that some day it will be approved by the city government and that he'll find the financial support to make it happen. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 18, 2018 photo, an Ernesto "Che" Guevara statue by artist Andres Zerneri stands in a park in his hometown of Rosario, Argentina. Rosario, a river port and Argentina's third-largest city is best known for being the country's agricultural hub, the hometown of the revolutionary leader and a talent factory for some of Argentina's best footballers and coaches, including Lionel Messi. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 18, 2018 photo, Alejandro Daniel Fernandez poses for a photo by a mural of his childhood friend, Lionel Messi, that reads in Spanish "From my neighborhood!" in La Bajada, Rosario, Argentina. Fernandez said Messi's family had always helped him, including living with the family for a while, and that he remains friends with Lionel and his brother who all play soccer together when in town. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 18, 2018 photo, Lionel Messi's former neighbor Marta Rodriguez shows her autographed picture with the soccer idol inside her home, on the same block that Messi grew up on in La Bajada, Rosario, Argentina. Messi is still very much connected to Rosario. His accent and expressions are unchanged, even though he left the city as a teen, 18 years ago. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 18, 2018 photo, a woman cycles past Lionel Messi's school "Escuela General Las Heras" primary school in Rosario, Argentina. The mural featuring Messi was painted by the school's students and teachers with the help of local artist Ruben Perez Barrios. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 18, 2018 photo, a mural of Lionel Messi covers a residence one block from his childhood home in La Bajada, Rosario, Argentina. As a wedding gift, some of his childhood friends painted the large mural on a wall at a small field where they used to play as kids. It shows a bearded Messi surrounded by colorful planets, and on a corner it reads: "From another galaxy - and from my neighborhood." (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
In this April 18, 2018 photo, a foosball table stands inside the "Escuela General Las Heras" where Lionel Messi went to primary school in Rosario, Argentina. "When I see him on TV, I think of that little kid on this same yard doing those same dribbles," said Andrea Liliana Sosa, one of Messi's former teachers. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

ROSARIO, Argentina — Right before kickoff, the plasma TVs were still tuned to a tennis match on mute instead of the Barcelona game at a nearly empty bar owned by Lionel Messi's family in his Argentina hometown.

The only clue at the bar were some photos of Messi. No one seemed to care about the game until a couple walked in hurriedly and asked a waiter to change the channel. The college students from Germany had saved for months to travel on a pilgrimage to their idol's native city. By this point they were disappointed: they had seen no Messi statues, plaques or museums. Nothing.

"It seems like I feel more for Messi than Rosarinos," Oshin Gharibi, 32, said as he watched the match next to his girlfriend, Lena Wagner, 23. She wore a Barcelona shirt adorned with Messi's number 10 on the back.

"Messi is such a big star from such a small place," Gharibi said. "How can you not give him the recognition that he deserves?"

It's a mystery that confounds many. Cristiano Ronaldo has an airport named after him on his Portuguese home island of Madeira; Pele has his museum in his Brazilian native city of Santos; even Rocky Balboa - a fictional boxer- has been paid homage with a statue in Philadelphia. So why does Rosario seem to have an ambivalent relationship with the world's most famous footballer?

Many here seem to come back to the same theories: a soccer-mad city divided by the rivalry of its two beloved clubs; the comparisons to Diego Maradona; and the idea that anything but winning is worthless. In a decade of winning trophies for Barcelona, the best player of his generation has yet to deliver a World Cup for Argentina - as Maradona did in 1986. Russia might be the last chance for Messi, who will turn 31 during the tournament.

Rosario, a river port and Argentina's third-largest city is located about 180 miles northwest of Buenos Aires. It's best known for being the country's agricultural hub, the hometown of revolutionary leader Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and a talent factory for some of Argentina's best footballers and coaches. But for Rosarinos only two clubs matter: Rosario Central and Newell's Old Boys, its eternal rival and Messi's childhood club.

"You breathe football everywhere in Rosario, but, curiously, the air doesn't smell of Messi," author Guillem Balague writes in "Messi," the official biography.

Everybody seems to have a story about Messi, but "the city does not seem to want to gloat. It's almost as if it is considered vulgar to have his face posted everywhere," Balague says. But "when you ask him what his favorite memories are, he is in no doubt. 'My home, my neighborhood, where I was born.'"

In the working-class neighborhood of La Bajada, neighbors greet each other by name and kids ride bikes on narrow streets. As they walk up to the rusty gate of Messi's childhood home, the German tourists can hardly contain their joy.

"We could have traveled to a beach in Barcelona, Thailand or Australia, but we came here," Wagner said. "It's worth it because we get to see the places where he grew up."

Messi is strongly connected to Rosario. His accent is unchanged, even though he left the city 18 years ago. He returns often and last year, he married his childhood sweetheart in the city.

"I don't think it's something against Messi, but perhaps something cultural that we have to evaluate and rethink about ... people who perhaps deserve more recognition," said Sandro Alzugaray, a sculptor. In his atelier, he keeps a scale model of a Messi statue. He presented the plan to city officials four years ago and it has yet to receive approval.

Messi was born a year after Maradona led Argentina to the World Cup trophy in 1986. But he has faced comparisons to the former Argentine captain throughout his life.

"For us...who took care of him, it hurts to hear the criticism, the comparisons to Maradona," said Andrea Liliana Sosa, one of Messi's former teachers.

A mural of a young Messi clad in the red-and-black colors of Newell's features at the club's youth sporting complex. It's the only sign that the five-time FIFA world player of the year was a standout player here as a child.

"I think we're not using the marketing correctly," said Gustavo Pereira, a Newell's youth division coach.

Perhaps Rosarinos care so much about Messi's privacy because they want him to keep coming back.

"When people ask me about a Messi tourist tour, it pains me," said Hector De Benedictis, Rosario's Tourism Secretariat. In his hand, he held copies for a Messi tour that his office has tried to launch twice. But the Messi family rejected the proposal because of privacy concerns. "It's a question of ethics."

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