BUENOS AIRES: View of the front pages of newspapers showing the news of Argentine Barcelona player Lionel Messi, at a kiosk in Buenos Aires on September 5, 2020. - AFP

ROSARIO: Rosario had dared to dream but was left disappointed after the Argentine city's most celebrated son Lionel Messi announced he was staying at Barcelona. When Messi told the Spanish giants last week he wanted to quit the club, some back in his home town and at Newell's Old Boys, the club where he played junior football, allowed themselves to imagine the 33-year-old superstar returning home to play for his boyhood team.

Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, a week ago hundreds of Newell's fans organized a joyous and colorful vehicle procession through the town under the banner: "Your dream, our hope." But after 10 days of anxious waiting, there was to be no fairytale homecoming. Despite Friday's deflation, many Newell's fans still believe the prodigal son will one day return home.

"No one in their right mind could imagine that he would come back now," Diego Schwarzstein, an endocrinologist who treated Messi as a boy, told AFP. "I'm from Rosario, a Newell's fan and I desperately want to see him here; but for now, it's wishful thinking. "I'm not frustrated that he's not coming now because it wasn't realistic to think about this. "But if he retires from football without coming to Newell's, then I would feel great frustration. "I hope that he will indulge himself-and also give us Newell's fans that pleasure too."

The diminutive Messi left Newell's at the age of 13 as his family emigrated to Spain after Catalan giants Barcelona offered to pay for his growth hormone treatment, among other benefits. At the age of 10, he had been diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency. "Every time there is talk of his contract renewal, we fans dream, even though we know it's very difficult because his reality is in Europe now," said Lisandro Leoni, a journalist and "Leper," as Newell's fans are known. "But we also know that he's a fan of this club, so we never lose hope that, at some time and even if for only one season, he'll wear our jersey."

'Doors always open'
"We've always got that hope that Leo will wear the Newell's jersey, but we have a lot of respect for his decision," said Roberto Mensi, part of the group that organized the vehicle procession. "Last week's event was a gesture of affection that we wanted to give Messi, so he would know that we love him and the doors here are always open."

As for the club itself-a hotbed of talent that includes the likes of renowned coaches Marcelo Bielsa, Gerardo Martino and Mauricio Pochetino, who all played for the team-it has remained tight-lipped over the issue. Messi, known as "The Flea" in Argentina, has always said he would love to return home to play for the club. Although he left Rosario 20 years ago, he always returns for the New Year celebrations with his family and that of his wife Antonella Roccuzzo. Locals were delighted when the couple decided to celebrate their 2017 wedding in the city, bringing over several Barcelona stars with them.

A few weeks ago, Messi donated 50 ventilators to the city's hospitals to help treat patients suffering from Covid-19. He owns several homes, a luxurious apartment, an iconic bar and an exclusive country club in Rosario, the third biggest city in Argentina. Messi also still owns his simple childhood home in a middle class neighborhood that his friends have covered with murals that pay tribute to Rosario's greatest export. Newell's were founded in 1903 and named after Isaac Newell, an English teacher who pioneered football in Argentina. They have been Argentine champions six times, the last of those in 2013.- AFP