Leandro Depetris, the boy who could have been Messi

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The Argentine attacker came through at Newell's at the same time as the brilliant Barcelona forward, but their careers took very different directions


He was always the smallest player on the pitch. Lacking in stature and strength, he was not one for a physical battle. But with the ball at his feet, Leandro Depetris soon made it clear to anyone watching that he was not only a good player, but one destined for greatness.

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Or so it seemed. Blessed with a wonderful left foot, the youngster would often beat three or four players at will. That was his game - and it all came so naturally on the pitch at the age of 10, 11 and 12.

Newell's was a hotbed for future talents at that time and it was not only friends and family that would watch the youngsters playing seven-a-side games on the Malvinas pitches in the late 1990s. Locals came along to see what all the fuss was about, along with coaches and businessmen. The ground was often full to the brink.

In that generation, in the team of '87, there was a certain Lionel Messi. In the team of '88, Depetris. The two had similar characteristics: both were left-footed, very small, skilful and with a playing style honed on the dusty dirt pitches of Rosario.

Back then, many thought the boy from '88 would be better than the kid from '87. But almost 20 years on, one is the best player in the world and has been for some time. The other, meanwhile, is fighting just to stay in the game. However he can. Wherever he can.

This week, Claudio Echeverri, an 11-year-old River Plate youngster, scored four goals against Juventus in a youth tournament and surprised the world with his abilities. "At that age, I did the things he is doing or even better," Depetris told Goal. "But loads of things happened and I don't know... I don't know what to say."

At the age of 29, Depetris is preparing for his debut for Trebolense next Friday. From AC Milan, 20 years ago, to an amateur club in the Liga Departamental de Fútbol de San Martín, in the province of Santa Fe, it is fair to say he has not lived up to those early expectations.

"There was no margin for error, but I ended up erring," he said. Having struggled throughout his career and watched Messi go on to win everything - including five Ballons d'Or - over the same time span, he clearly wonders where it all went wrong.

"The first time I played at San Siro, it was a qualifying game for Milan against Juventus. There were 70,000 people there," said Depetris, who is the only Trebolense player who lives exclusively from his club salary. "I was great. At the age of 11, I thought a lot quicker with the ball than other players. They simply couldn't do it."

From 11 to 14, Depetris travelled to Milan several times each year, with the Italian club paying for his travel and that of his family, as well as providing everything they needed during their 20-day stays in the city. The Argentine took part in training sessions and played in friendly matches. At the age of 14, he was set to sign permanently with the Serie A side, but everything went wrong. His entourage asked Milan for something more than food and a place to live - and the deal broke down. So he returned to his homeland and ended up in the ninth team at River.

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"We did everything wrong," he said. "The decisions my father took were a mistake. Going to Italy at such a young age was bad... I never had problems with alcohol, drugs or bad behaviour... but perhaps I needed some psychological help, or more help from my parents. And we made mistakes."

At 14, he wanted to pick up the ball in midfield and evade his rivals as he had at the age of 11. But he could no longer do it. At 15, he believed he should be in Primera in Argentina. He was frustrated. His body began to change. He was no longer fast and explosive. The gym helped him bulk out, but his fast-twitch muscle fibres went to sleep. He lost agility. He was no longer going to conquer the world. And in the seventh division he was no longer playing as a number 10, moved out to the wing to accommodate a player with a similar build: Diego Buonanotte.

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By then, Depetris had lost everything that had made him different. And without realising it, the pressure had got to him. His mother was a teacher, his father had good jobs and his sisters were studying, but he felt he needed to make it in order to help the family. And the need to show he was the best made his talent flicker out in the end.

"At 11, I was more famous than Messi," he said. "I would go out on the pitch and there were 2,000 people there to see me. At 12, people took pictures with me, they didn't let me walk down the street in peace... here and there. I felt the pressure to show [my talent] and I needed special care to get my head right."

Melancholic, but also serene, he remembers those early days with the current Barcelona icon. "With Messi we played against each other in training. We were very similar at that time," he said. "With Newell's, we went on a tour to Peru, with the '87 and '88 teams. Messi couldn't go, so I played in my team and in the older team. And often I played even better with the older players..."

There is not a day that goes by when he does not think of what might have been. While he has enjoyed his career as a player (at Brescia, Independiente, Gallipoli, Chioggia, Sportivo Belgrano, Triestina, Alvarado, Tiro Federal and Sportivo Patria, among others), he knows it could have been so much more.

"Of course it's fun... if your head is right," he said. "Why wouldn't it be? You play football, train for three hours a day and you get paid a lot. But at my level it's something different, obviously. Because you still train for three hours, but if in Primera they pay you 100, here you get two... and you have to pray to Jesus just to get paid at all..."