ASUNCION, Paraguay — A young Lionel Messi dribbles a soccer ball or poses for a photograph with his grandmother. As an adult, he embraces his children, kisses his wife, or points two fingers to the sky in memory of his grandmother after scoring a goal with Argentina.
The hand-painted images on a pair of soccer boots by a young Paraguayan artist relive some of the most memorable moments in the personal life and career of the best player of his generation. Artist Lilian Cantero sent the boots to Messi as a gift to Barcelona, and he recently displayed them in a photo on a post that went viral on social media. Now, she is getting demands for her work from all over the world.
"It was such an incredibly humble gesture on his part," Cantero, 25, said at her atelier in the outskirts of Asuncion, surrounded by colorful designs posted on the walls. "For Messi to have one of my works was my dream since I began painting soccer boots."
Growing up, Cantero remembers flipping through the pages of an encyclopedia at home, mesmerized by the works of famous painters. In school, she once decorated white sandals with bright motifs. In college, she painted sandals again as part of an assigned project, where students launched their own small businesses. By word of mouth, friends who played soccer began asking her her to paint their boots. Eventually, she began designing for a local sports store and getting requests from Paraguayan professional players.
But it was Messi's remarkable career that she wanted to bring to life.
Through documentaries and interviews, she learned how from an early age, Messi would dazzle with a soccer ball at his feet in his native city of Rosario; how he was encouraged by his maternal grandmother, Celia, to overcome challenges and become a professional player; and how Barcelona took a gamble on a 13-year-old undersized kid and paid for his growth hormone treatment. The five-time FIFA world player of the year would go on to win it all with the club, leading to comparisons with Pele and Diego Maradona, the game's greatest players.
"I chose Messi because he's one of the greatest players in history, but also because of his own history - his childhood, which demanded so many sacrifices," Cantero said. "That's what I wanted to express."
Cantero sent the boots all the way from her country in the heart of South America to Barcelona with a friend who dropped them off in October at the Camp Nou stadium. In January, she could hardly believe it when she saw the photo of a smiling Messi, holding the boots in his hands. She also got a message from Rodrigo Messi, one of the player's brothers, thanking her for the gift.
Messi's boots are decorated on one side with the horizontally striped sky-blue and white colors of the Argentine flag and its golden sun. A phrase from the national anthem and the names of Messi's wife and children are painted on a side next to photos of a young Messi with his grandmother, playing at Grandoli, his childhood club, and in the lower divisions of Argentina's Newell's Old Boys.
The boots are adorned on another side with the blue and garnet colors of the Barcelona club shirt and images of Messi. They include his celebration of his first goal at the club with Brazilian player Ronaldinho, and when he lifted his number 10 shirt at Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium after scoring his 500th career goal for Barcelona.
Messi has faced criticism in Argentina because he has never brought the country a major title, in contrast to his repeated success at Barcelona. All eyes will be on "The Flea" at the World Cup in Russia this year in a tournament that could crown his career. Regardless of the outcome, though, he is already praised both at home and abroad for keeping his common touch.
Since Messi published the photo, Cantero's career has taken off with requests for her designs from professional players, including Peru's Paolo Guerrero and Panama's Gabriel Gavilan. She is also in talks with Argentine players and a member of the U.S. national team. Her goal is to reach out to as many players as possible, and eventually, to get a shot as an official designer for an international athletic company.
"Many people have told me that I'm a source of pride for my country," she said, smilingly. "But I still can't believe all of this."
Henao reported from Buenos Aires, Argentina.