Skip to content

Messi’s Medical Journey

In 1999, the future greatest soccer player of all time sat in a doctor’s office in Rosario, Argentina. Lionel Messi was just 11 years old and awaiting a diagnosis after over a year of tests (Caoili, 2012, p.41). He was 4 feet and 4 inches inches tall (Hawkey, 2008), and had not grown since he was nine (Thompson, 2012). His doctor, Diego Schwarsztein (Caioli, 2012, p.41), diagnosed him with Growth Hormone Deficiency (GHD), predicting he would grow to a maximum height of about 4 feet and 7 inches tall without intervention (Cooney, 2016). Yet, three years later, thanks to an agreement inked out on a paper napkin with one of the richest sports teams in the world, Lionel Messi would be treated, healthy, and ascending to both normal stature and soccer stardom.

GHD, Messi’s childhood disease, affects between 1 in 3,000 to 1 in 10,000 children. It is caused by a missing or smaller gland in one of the parts of the larger pituitary gland (“Growth”, 2018). As a result of this, the pituitary gland releases significantly less growth hormone than in usual circumstances. Growth hormone enables the growth of muscles, bones, and organs in the body by stimulating the creation of a protein called insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) in various tissues including the kidney, which more directly causes the growth (Peterson, 2010). An insufficient amount of hGH, and therefore IGF-1 as well, is associated with overweightness (“Growth”, 2018), skin/teeth problems, poor vision, and low immunity, among other things (Carroll, 2017). GHD is treated by daily injections of somatotropin, or human growth hormone (hGH), into the lower body, which enable people to grow to potentially an average height, effectively curing the disease. These injections made it possible for Messi to achieve both a soccer career and a normal life, saving him from both being 4’7” and suffering from the other aforementioned effects.

In spite of his stature, pre-teen Messi was no slouch. Despite always being the shortest child in his school (Balague, 2013) and being held out of playing soccer with his friends there (Hawkey, 2008), he was an incredible youth player since he was four (Caioli, 2012, p. 21) and first began playing in a team called Grandoli. He continued to impress after age six, when he joined the youth academy of Newell’s Old Boys, a top tier Argentinean football club. He scored over 500 goals with Newell’s Old Boys (Caioli, 2012, p.33), and his team of children born in 1987 became locally known as The Machine of ’87 for its dominance: during one four-year stretch, the youth team lost only one game (Thompson, 2012). These achievements were already being facilitated by his daily growth hormone injections, which he started at age 11 and did himself (Balague, 2013).

By the time Messi was 12 or so, the injections were beginning to have a more unfortunate effect; they were hurting the family’s savings. The drug had only been commercially available for about 20 years (Peterson, 2010), and being the son of a steelworker and a part-time cleaner (Ghosh, Goni, Levy, & Abend, 2012), the $1500 per month treatment (Balague, 2013) was mostly unaffordable for the Messi family. Newell’s Old Boys briefly paid for his expenses (Thompson, 2012), but did not feel willing to invest long term in such a young boy, even one who showed promise. The family managed to pay for the treatments for a couple of years using his father’s work benefits (Hawkey, 2008), but that only covered the payment for so long. Because they had family in Catalonia, his parents flew him out to Barcelona and were able to arrange a trial with La Masia, FC Barcelona’s famed youth academy. At the trial, where not just a soccer career but the possibility of a normal life were on the line, the 13-year old Messi scored five goals and had the coach convinced within two minutes that he had to be signed (Hawkey, 2008). A contract was reached at dinner, on a napkin, agreeing to pay his treatments if Messi played for the club.

Some of Messi's most characteristic qualities, both on and off the field, might originate in these early hardships. His self-administered injections from a young age surely bred self-reliance and kept him humble. During his early soccer development, being short taught him to play with an agility and a quickness that set him apart (Balague, 2013). Moreover, at age 13, he had to perform for coaches just to guarantee himself a normal and healthy life. He accomplished this with ease, already demonstrating a complete lack of nervousness in the toughest and most high-pressure of situations. During his early time with FC Barcelona, a deal to employ his father with the team was beginning to fall through and his family was having a hard time adjusting to life in Spain. In response, his mother and his three siblings moved back to Argentina while his father stayed with him and eventually struck a deal for the club to pay him for a building project (Balague, 2013). This isolation probably ingrained independence and adeptness at dealing with discontinuities, both important qualities when a player plays for a single club their whole life as Messi has done with FC Barcelona, withstanding many player and coaching changes over the years.

Some more unfortunate aspects came out of this hardship as well. Though Messi grew to 5’7”, an average Argentinian male height (Caroll, 2017), the move away from Argentina caused Argentineans to later feel sincerely unattached from their best player because he hasn’t lived there since age 13 (Ghosh, Goni, Levy, & Abend, 2012). Furthermore, some Argentinians, like the doctor that diagnosed him with GHD, believes the family could have paid for the treatment using work benefits and government programs and not moved to Spain at all (Caioli, 2012, p.44).

We should also evaluate another aspect of the treatment in today’s doping climate: should Messi have been allowed to play professionally while receiving the treatment, or at the very least while still profiting (as he currently does) from his childhood injections of it? Although he stopped taking hGH at a pretty young age, it is important to remember that his career began around that same time. In fact, Messi may have still been taking it at the time of his competitive debut for FC Barcelona at age 17. Even if he was not, the competitive debut is not the starting point of an athletic career. His friendly debut and his debut for the club’s reserve team took place when he was 16, when he was probably still taking human growth hormone. Even before that, while on the drug, he was competing in the youth academy with other players equally hungry for a spot on the professional roster.

Nonetheless, FIFA has always been consistent on this issue of morality: though hGH has been prohibited since at least 2004, the start of Messi’s career, the governing body have applied Therapeutic Use Exemptions (TUEs) for these types of scenarios. These allow athletes medically in need of a prohibited substance to use them. The rules for TUEs in 2004 were as follows:

  • The player must provide three weeks’ notice before a competition
  • A significant impairment to health would be caused without the prohibited substance
  • There can be no advantage to the player beyond the return to normalcy
  • There must be no other alternative non-prohibited substance, and the need for the prohibited substance cannot be caused by a previous non-therapeutic use of a prohibited substance (FIFA, 2004).

Messi clearly embodies some of these; he would be impaired without hGH, a prohibited substance has not necessitated its use, and there is no alternative non-prohibited substance that would effectively treat his disease. However, the idea of a return to normalcy becomes problematic. Can any player with a below average height take hGH to achieve “normalcy?” If the difference between a TUE and not simply lies in a prescription, many athletes would be capable of finding a doctor somewhere in the world to give them one. Nevertheless, Messi received TUEs and few people have questioned whether they were wrongly given.

Since FIFA has always permitted Messi’s use of hGH at both an amateur and professional level, we should question the logic behind this permission. Sigmund Loland proposes that there are three basic normative views on the meaning of sport: no meaning separate from ulterior motives, achieving the best possible performance, and becoming the best possible performer (2004). Since FIFA directly profits from the sport of soccer, we might attribute Messi’s TUEs to the first of these meanings of sport, known as instrumentalism. Assuming FIFA is instrumentalist due to their business model, we can look at the decision as being profit-driven inclusion. When FIFA grants TUEs, it widens the player pool and therefore raises the level of play at the top. Furthermore, TUEs widen the potential player pool by allowing more kids to dream of being professional soccer players and invest their time and money into the sport, some of which makes its way back to FIFA. Though this is a cynical way of viewing it, FIFA has often chosen money over morals, especially during the Blatter presidency of 1996-2015, which was stained with corruption and concluded with an 8-year ban on Blatter himself.

Being less cynical though, those who govern FIFA are mostly old men who have watched the sport since the mid-20th century, which would probably render them both soccer purists and performer theorists. Performer theorists are those who ascribe to the latter of the three meanings of sport, that sport is about the ultimate performer. FIFA would also allow Messi’s hGH usage using this guiding principle, since it levels the playing field and provides opportunity to those who, as a result of conditions they did not choose, would otherwise be unable to play the sport at a professional level.

Despite the questions we might have, Messi never thought about morality or cheating when he injected hGH into his legs every night for half of his youth. For Lionel Messi, he was chasing both a normal life as a person of normal stature and a very abnormal life as one of the best soccer players ever. HGH enabled his life from when he was a dominant youngster to when he was a dominant professional. During part of his youth career with Newell’s Old Boys’ Machine of ’87, he was injecting hGH. During his youth career at the best youth academy in the world, FC Barcelona’s, he was injecting hGH. Even probably during his early professional career he was injecting hGH. Though Messi is an incredibly gifted and hardworking player, his success could not have occurred without hGH, a drug available only 20 years before Messi began relying on it. Had Messi been born 25 years earlier, or had he not wowed Barcelona’s coaches, or had he not had a good doctor capable of the correct diagnosis, or had there been any other reason why Lionel Messi couldn’t obtain hGH, the whole story of likely the greatest footballer of all time would have never occurred.

Balague, G. (2013, December 02). Lionel Messi's improbable progression from struggling youngster to world super star. Retrieved January 14, 2019, from

Caioli, Luca. Messi: the inside Story of the Boy Who Became a Legend. 2nd ed., Corinthian Books, 2012.

Carroll, W. (2017, October 03). Lionel Messi and hGH: The truth about the best footballer in the world. Retrieved January 14, 2019, from

Cooney, G. (2016, April 04). After yesterday's revelations, it's worth asking again: would Messi be Messi without hGH? Retrieved January 14, 2019, from

D’Hooge, M., Dr.* (2004), Chairman of FIFA’s Doping Control Subcomittee. Regulations doping control for FIFA competitions and out of competition[PDF]. Zurich, Switzerland: FIFA. Retrieved January 14, 2019, from

*It is not clear D’Hooge wrote this document, but he headed FIFA’s subcommittee on doping, so I felt that he deserved the credit for the document.

Growth hormone deficiency [Video]. (2018, April 11). Child Growth Foundation CGF. Retrieved January 14, 2019, from

Ghosh, B., Goni, U., Levy, G., & Abend, L. (2012, February 13). Lionel Messi's final goal. Time179(6), 40-43.

Hawkey, I. (2008, April 20). Lionel Messi on a mission. Retrieved January 14, 2019, from

Loland, S. (2004). Normative theories of sport: A critical review. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, XXXI, 111-121.

Peterson, D. (2010, May 21). Does human growth hormone really help athletes? Retrieved January 14, 2019, from

Thompson, W. (2012, October 22). OTL: Lionel Messi, here & gone. Retrieved January 14, 2019, from