Argentinians in Atlanta explain why Lionel Messi is more than a great soccer player

Listen to Ramiro Canovas, Lisandro Torre, Luigi Perez, Matias Gallardo or read Tiffany DeBrock’s words about how much they love Lionel Messi,and it’s clear that Thursday will be a special day not only for them, but for all fans of the world’s greatest player.

Messi and Argentina, defending World Cup and South American champs, will open the Copa America tournament against Canada at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. For those who were born in Argentina and moved to Atlanta and the U.S., such as Canovas, Torre and Perez, for those who work here, such as Atlanta United′s Gallardo, and for those whose families were born in Argentina, immigrated to the U.S. and whose children were born here, such as DeBrock, getting to see and share their national treasure carries an importance they struggled to describe. Listening or reading, the words came across in shades of blue and white.

“He has had a huge impact, not only on the world but specifically on Argentine culture,” said Canovas, who moved to the U.S. when he was 17 years old years ago to play soccer at Mercer and lives in Dunwoody. “The kind of player, he’s the kind of person he is as well. He’s a great role model as well. A tiny guy that had health problems, how he overcame that and became the best player in the history of the world. I think that drives people.”

Canovas goes back to Argentina every month for his work in software development. The office is next to a kindergarten. In the morning, he can hear the children singing songs about Messi.

“They’re amazing people, but they’ve been suffering the past about 40 years, social and economic issues back home,” Canovas said. “Soccer has always been an outlet for all the problems that happen in the country. So when someone like Messi comes and gives them that outlet, what Messi represents, that’s humongous.”

That fever and love have come to Atlanta. The team hotel and its training site in Kennesaw have been swamped with people this week who were just trying to catch a glimpse of Messi and his teammates get on and off buses.

In their words, with some editing for brevity and clarity, here is why Thursday will be a special event:

More of Why Messi?

Torre, Atlanta resident since 1987: “When you think about Argentines, there’s this stereotype, I would say machismo. It’s a big part of Argentine lore, the Gaucho and everything, and something that I’ve always appreciated about Messi, and kind of is sort of what he’s given us since 2007, but kind of push back against that. He’s always the smallest guy in the field. If you watch him, he would get knocked down all the time. He just got up and kept going. He was relentless after the ball. Baby-faced, always pushing, always humble, always quiet, he’s challenged, to me, this idea of my machismo. He cried when they lost the 2016 Copa final.

“He was rejected by Argentines for not being from Argentina because he moved away when he was 13. I’ve always admired that he goes back and identified as Argentine and challenged that machismo. My kids are growing up and loving soccer and wearing Messi jerseys. I’m always glad that he’s the example that they’ve got.”

Perez, Atlanta resident since 1999: “Messi came from a family that in today’s world cannot pay the training and for the treatments (Messi needed medical treatments to spur his growth). And I think it is an example, his personality, to always push to be better, and that is something that I think is not only is a good example in Argentina, I think it’s a good example everywhere.

“And he’s a gentleman. When you have the combination of the good person and this incredible talent, I think that made him so special. He’s humble. He’s never actually hurt anyone. I think the combination of his technique and his personality, I think that’s what made Messi who he is.

“Argentina has been going through many, many difficult years. The economy is not good. The politicians are actually not doing a good job. This is always something that always catches my attention. Usually when you go to Spain, this is the same language, you started speaking Spanish with a Z. He has never changed the way he speaks. That idea that you don’t you never lose your sense of who you really are I think is amazing. With all the money that he has, with everything he’s already accomplished, he can be wherever he wants. You listen to him speaking Spanish, it is the same Spanish style from Santa Fe to Rosario. That is so important for us.”

Gallardo, joined Atlanta United 2 in 2023 and joined Atlanta United on a short-term agreement Wednesday: “I think he’s seen as like a king for a lot of people in Argentina just because of everything that he’s achieved for the country at a moment when maybe Argentina wasn’t at its best. He’s brought the people a lot of happiness.”

DeBrock, whose family moved from Buenos Aires before she was born: “Messi being here is the greatest gift and a huge source of pride! He is not only the best soccer player in the world, but an incredible example of who Argentines are as a people. Humble, kind, hardworking, driven, and most importantly, focused on their families. Messi is so important to Argentines that his photo hangs in the Casa Rosada. (Diego Maradona also graces the wall of photos of influential Argentines).

“I have watched Messi for over 20 years in complete awe and pride, never in my wildest dreams thinking that he would play on a team in the United States. I always imagined that I would take a trip to Barcelona and see him play at Camp Nou, but that wasn’t in the cards. Every time the World Cup comes around, my family watches every single Argentina match together. We often invite friends over and cook Argentine food with cherished recipes from our family. I once even asked a boss if I could come in to work late in order to watch an Argentina match while it was live on TV. I couldn’t imagine missing it or seeing spoilers. Luckily, she said yes to coming in late that day!”

First Messi memory?

Torre: “I was in Peace Corps, and I had a friend who was really into soccer. He would talk to me about some Argentines. ‘There’s this kid. He’s 17. He’s going to be the best in the world. Lionel Messi.’ I always remember him, my friend.

“And then he just kept rolling and rolling and getting better, getting better. As an Argentine, especially expats, like, we check in at the World Cup, The 2014 final, when we lost, and thought he had it and he blew that goal. And then 2018 losing to Croatia was a heartbreak. And then, finally, in 2022 it was just like that whisper from that friend saying, ‘there’s this kid.’ Here we are almost 17 years later, and he’s done so much.”

Canovas: “I still remember his first game in Argentina in 2005 in Hungary. He actually got a red card. I remember that Argentina had a lot of great young players in the past, and he was one of them. I remember Messi was super-special his first game. We were kind of like, ‘We want to see more of him.’”

Gallardo: “I remember watching him play at a River Plate stadium, he scored a goal and he had an assist. And I was there watching with my family and it was a special, special time.”

Seeing him live

Canovas, who will be there Thursday: “I’ve been to the last three World Cups out of the four. I saw him in South Africa when Maradona was the coach. That was an amazing experience. Russia, the last one as well, I went to Qatar. Always an amazing experience.”

DeBrock: “I’ve only seen Messi play once (despite several attempts in Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale), during their defeat to Atlanta United (matches ago). But it was everything I imagined it would be. Magical. I watched Messi during warm-ups and did not take my eyes off him the entire match. I didn’t want to waste a moment of what could be a once in a lifetime experience. I told my daughter that years from now she can claim to have seen the greatest soccer player of all time from the a place where she has roots and family.

“My family is going to the Copa. We have all of our Albiceleste gear ready to go. Kits, flags, face paint, scarves, everything we would normally wear while watching an Argentina friendly, Copa game, or World Cup match at home. I think my heart may explode when we walk into Mercedes-Benz Stadium and it’s filled with fans in blue & white. It’s a moment I could never have dreamed up in a million years – to see the National team play in person. Much less with Messi. At home. This Copa, Finalissima, and World Cup Champion team is special for so many reasons and is a source of genuine happiness and pride to all Argentines. It means so much, and I can’t wait.”

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Atlanta United’s 2024 schedule

Feb. 24 Columbus 1, Atlanta United 0

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