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There is a different side to Lionel Messi, one that not everyone gets to see.
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The player who shines with the ball by his feet appears to be extremely shy off the field. But the timid-looking Argentina star, who for years has been attracting the world’s attention because of his mind-boggling soccer skills, is an outgoing, cheerful and humorous character when he is among those he knows and trusts.
It’s the lighthearted and extroverted version of Messi that will be the center of attention on Friday in his hometown of Rosario when he marries 29-year-old Antonella Roccuzzo, his childhood sweetheart and mother of his two children.
The wedding is a highly anticipated event in the central Argentine city, located about 300 kilometers (186 miles) northwest of the capital of Buenos Aires, although the public is not expected to have any access to the festivities.
About 250 guests, including some current and former teammates, are expected to attend the ceremony in a five-star hotel that overlooks the city’s largest shantytown. Special security measures are expected to be in place as guests begin arriving for the event.
Among those expected to attend are Barcelona teammates Neymar, Luis Suarez and Gerard Pique. Colombian singer Shakira, Pique’s wife, is also expected at the ceremony.
Organizers said personal hairdressers will be available for the guests, along with entertainment services for their children. About 150 journalists will be allowed to cover the wedding under very strict rules, without any direct access to the ceremony or the party.
Messi and Roccuzzo have requested that wedding gifts come in the form of donations to the Leo Messi Foundation.
Messi is already in Rosario on vacation, but hasn’t made any public appearances. He was in the city to celebrate his 30th birthday this week.
Messi grew up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in Rosario along with two brothers and a sister. Roccuzzo was the cousin of a close friend of Messi, and the two were always around each other and shared a close relationship from a young age.
They stayed in touch after Messi left to play in Spain as a teenager, and eventually started their relationship in the late 2000s, reportedly after he returned to Argentina following the death of one of Roccuzzo’s close friends in a traffic accident.
Roccuzzo eventually moved to Barcelona, where the couple have two boys, 4-year-old Thiago and 1-year-old Mateo.
“I’m a normal person. I have the same life as any human being,” Messi said in an interview with ESPN before the 2014 World Cup. “When I finish playing, I have my family, my friends. I live like any other person.”
Even before Messi turned into one of the best players in the world, he was already the type of person who kept to himself and avoided the spotlight but opened up in the company of friends and relatives.
People close to Messi and some of his former teammates say he is just a normal guy, talkative and often joking. The serious-looking player who rarely shows any expressions on the field or in front of the cameras is nothing like “the real Messi,” they say.
“No, no, no …,” former Barcelona teammate Jonathan Dos Santos said when asked if Messi was as shy as he appears.
Dos Santos, in Russia with Mexico’s national soccer team at the Confederations Cup, said that Messi always opened up while with his teammates.
“He is a great guy, just a great guy,” said Dos Santos, who was a teammate of Messi’s at Barcelona from 2009-14.
Messi and his family recently were photographed with friends on vacation on a boat in Ibiza. Messi was seen playing with his children and laughing with his friends. It was the same when an Uruguayan television channel showed footage of Messi and Suarez playing cards with friends, with Messi joking and smiling all the time.
Messi, who has tattoos of both of his children, showed a more rebellious side of himself recently, dying his hair blond. He also has tattoos honoring his mother and Jesus.
He became much more active in social media recently, opening an Instagram account and posting many pictures of his children and some private moments with his family.
“I think that on the field I’m completely different than I am off,” Messi told Television Publica Argentina a few years ago.
The soft-spoken Messi rarely speaks publicly and almost never talks to the media after or before games. Only a few times he has shown up at news conferences during tournaments with his club or national team.
Messi moved to Barcelona when he was 13 after being diagnosed with a hormone disorder that affected his growth. Barcelona offered to help him with the treatment.
The entire family initially moved with him, but Messi’s mother and two siblings soon returned to Argentina. Messi stayed in Spain with his father, but he couldn’t play at first because he didn’t have the proper documentation.
“One day I asked him, `What do you want to do? Because in the end, the decision is yours,”‘ his father, Jorge, said in a television documentary about Messi’s life. “And he told me, `I want to stay. I want to play for Barcelona.”‘
Now he wants to get married, and he’s gone back home to do it.
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With July 1 just around the corner (it’s on Saturday, folks) the summer transfer window will open and you can expect a flurry of deals to be confirmed as free agents sign new deals elsewhere.
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The likes of Jermain Defoe (Sunderland to Bournemouth) and Willy Caballero (Man City to Chelsea) have all but confirmed their moves as upcoming free agents, but plenty of other big names players still have their future up in the air.
Here’s a look at the five players Premir League clubs should target to sign on a freebie.
Pepe – Not everyone’s cup of tea (understatement alert) but an experienced defender who will no doubt suit the physical nature of the PL with his style of play. After winning three UEFA Champions League titles in four years at Real Madrid, Pepe is out of contract with the Spanish giants and the 34-year-old could be a useful proposition for plenty of PL clubs. Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United could all do with reinforcement in central defense and Pepe’s pedigree, despite question marks over his temperament, are worth picking him up on a free. Unlikely to want to join a club not in the Champions League though.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic – 28 goals for Manchester United last season says it all. Zlatan is out of contract on July 1 and it doesn’t seem like he’ll sign a new deal at Old Trafford. His situation is a little more relaxed than others with the 35-year-old currently recovering from surgery after a serious knee injury prematurely ended his heroics. If United don’t offer him a new deal, plenty of other PL clubs will be willing to do so. China and MLS remains an option but Zlatan proved he can score goals and have an impact in the PL. Which PL club would be willing to pay Zlatan the big bucks to score goals?
John Terry – Bournemouth, West Brom and Swansea are all said to have been interested in signing Terry following the end of his deal at Chelsea. The Premier League legend still has plenty to offer at the age of 36, but it appears he may be heading to the Championship with Aston Villa and Birmingham City battling for his transfer. If a midtable PL team want to add experience and leadership to their defense, adding a five-time Premier League winner and one of the finest defenders England and the PL has ever seen would be a grand idea. It seems like JT may try something different and head to the lower leagues, perhaps with a focus on coaching, but it would be great to see him at Swansea of Bournemouth leading young defenders.
Jan Kirchhoff – Soon to be out of contract at Sunderland, the 26-year-old German midfielder/defender missed most of last season through injury. That hurt Sunderland a lot as they were relegated from the PL. His arrival from Bayern Munich in January 2016 helped Sam Allardyce steady the Black Cats and keep them up and his supreme reading of the game is coupled with a destructive calmness. Midtable PL clubs could do a lot worse than picking up Kirchhoff to help shore up the space in front of their defenses.
Bacary Sagna – The speedy right back has departed Manchester City (along with Gael Clichy and Jesus Navas who are both good full back options too) and even at the age of 34 he is appearing for the French national team and is a reliable defender. You don’t see as many marauding runs from Sagna as we did during his early days at City and before that at Arsenal, but he provides power and pace when needed. A great pick up for a top half PL team looking to add a versatile defender who could easily play in any defensive position. Newcastle, Watford or Crystal Palace would be a good fit for him.
According to the Daily Mail, Arsenal are close to signing Monaco and France winger Thomas Lemar, 21, for $42 million.
Lemar shone for the French champions last season and will have already endeared himself to Gunners fans after scoring home and away against Tottenham Hotspur in the UEFA Champions League group stage last season, as Monaco reached the semifinals.
Lemar scored 14 goals and added 17 assists in 55 games for Monaco last season and his intelligent wing-play could help freshen up Arsenal’s attack. Per the report, swapping Champions League action for the Europa League with Arsenal is not a problem for Lemar who broke into the French national team back in November.
Able to play on either wing or centrally, Lemar’s ability to possess the ball as well as find pockets of space behind full backs suggest he’d be a good fit for the Gunners. Would his arrival mean the end for Theo Walcott, Olivier Giroud or others?
Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City target Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is being linked with a move to Chinese Super League side Tianjin Quanjian.
Reports in multiple outlets stated that the Borussia Dortmund striker, 28, could be heading to China in the next few days for a fee of $91.9 million with the Gabon international set to earn an incredible $33.6 million a year in wages.
Aubameyang posted a cryptic message on his Instagram account on Tuesday stating he was “ready for new adventures” and it appears he is the latest high-profile name to leave Europe for China.
The Bundesliga golden-boot winner for 2016-17 (he had 31 goals in 32 games) has scored 120 goals in 189 games for Dortmund since joining from Saint-Etienne in 2013. That form led to reports that Liverpool, Man City and Paris Saint-Germain were all prepared to offer big money to sign the lanky forward this summer, but none of those clubs can compete with the huge sums on offer from Tianjin.
Southampton are no longer a selling club. At least, not right now.
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Executive Director Les Reed told Sky Sports in the UK that Saints will not be selling Virgil Van Dijk or Cedric Soares this summer, despite constant reports linking the duo with a move away from St Mary’s.
Speaking about the “bold” decision to fire Claude Puel and hire Mauricio Pellegrino over the summer, the main decision maker at Southampton said he hoped hiring Argentine coach Pellegrino would bring “stability” to the club which has so often lost star names since returning to the PL in 2012.
Reed further reinforced Saints’ solid stance that no stars will depart this summer, starting with Van Dijk and Soares.
“None of those players are for sale. I can’t make it any plainer than that and that’s the way we mean to go forward,” Reed said. “We built this squad over some time and think we have a strong squad. We will fine-tune it but, other than that, we are looking forward to a very competitive season next year and we plan to go forward on that basis. There may be players that go on the basis it is the right thing for them and the club at that given time, but we don’t expect that to be wholesale and this is simply doing sound business in the transfer window.”
The main thing for teams like Southampton is that selling players will no longer significantly boost their financial power. After finishing in the top eight of the Premier League in each of the past four seasons, plus having long-term deals with Under Armour, Virgin Media and many other sponsors, they’re set up to try and compete with the PL’s elite, as are each team who have benefited from the huge financial deals the PL have enjoyed over the past few years.
Plus, they are still in negotiations with Chinese investors Lander Sports about majority ownership potentially switching from the Liebherr family to give them more funds to invest in their squad. Saints believe they are ready to kick on to the next stage and aren’t willing to give up any more of their gems.
ProSoccerTalk spoke with Saints chairman Ralph Krueger in May and he was pleased to see several of Saints’ current stars locked down to new contract — Van Dijk, Oriol Romeu, Ryan Bertrand, James Ward-Prowse and Fraser Forster all have new long-term deals — and insisted nobody needed to be sold. Saints have said this in the past but this time it feels a little different, and more serious.
After making princely sums for Sadio Mane, Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin in the past, plus moving on Nathaniel Clyne, Victor Wanyama and Graziano Pelle who were entering the final year of their contracts for sizable fees, Saints have a reputation as being an easy target for the PL’s top six to buy from.
Yet, with Liverpool forced to apologize after their alleged illegal pursuit of Saints’ star man and captain Van Dijk earlier this month, it appears the South Coast club is getting serious about their best players not being unsettled and remaining at Southampton. Van Dijk’s transfer value is set to be north of $75 million, and it now appears that Southampton will turn down any offer for their classy Dutch center back. That’s a huge shift in club policy, with Saints labeled a selling club for much of their recent history as Alan Shearer, Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are just a few of the star names who moved on from Saints in the past.
Whether or not this new policy can help them break through the glass-ceiling of sixth place (where they finished in 2015-16) and challenge regularly for a European spot remains to be seen, but after years of making big profits on their best players Southampton finally seem to be putting a halt to moving on stars consistently and replacing them with plenty of new gems each season.
That model has worked well for them financially, but last season’s regression — despite reaching the EFL Cup Final and having a Europa League campaign to negotiate they still finished eighth in the PL, but totaled 17 fewer points compared to their previous campaign — suggests they’re at a crucial point in their plans to become a regular contender to push into the top six.
Delivering Europa League action each season is the aim and Pellegrino will have a tough enough task to achieve that in his first season coaching in England.
That said, his task will be made much easier if Van Dijk, Soares and Co. do stick around as Southampton state they will.