Childhood sweethearts Lionel Messi and his wife Antonela Rocuzzo smile for the camera during a day out at the beach in this never-seen-before photo taken when the Barcelona star was just 10.
Argentinian newspaper La Capital uncovered the touching picture, showing the footballer and the stunning mum of their three sons as children nearly two decades before they became man and wife, enjoying themselves in the Atlantic holiday resort of Punta Mogotes.
Messi was playing in a youth football tournament in the nearby city of Balcarce.
Lionel Messi poses with wife-to-be Antonela Rocuzzo on a beach in Argentina back in 1998
Messi and Antonela now have three children – Thiago, six, Mateo, three, and Ciro, one
Antonela, who was about to turn 10 and was already a close friend of the footballer, had travelled to the area with her parents to see her cousin Lucas Scaglia, who was one of Messi’s teammates.
The photo, showing the pair with other children including Lucas and another team-mate called Matias Pecce, was taken in January 1998.
Antonela’s parents were among the mums and dads who took the youngsters to Punta Mogotes during a day off from the boys’ football tournament but Messi’s mum and dad, Jorge and Celia, stayed in their native city of Rosario, an eight-hour drive away.
It was not clear on Monday if the footballer, who the Pope insisted was ‘very good’ but not God in a recent interview, has ever seen the picture.
It is going viral after the work of a La Capital journalist tracking it down and publishing it.
The paper said it had taken three years to uncover it after several members of its editorial team had set about trying to find a photo of Messi in Mar del Plata, a famous resort which most Argentinians visit at some point in their childhood.
Messi in action for Barcelona during their win against Real Sociedad on Saturday evening
The Argentina star poses with Antonela in a photo posted to his official Instagram account
Punta Mogotes is a 20-minute drive from the centre of Mar del Plata, which in January, at the height of Argentina’s summer, fills with holidaymakers from around the country including the capital Buenos Aires.
Messi travelled to the area in January 1998 to play for Newell’s Old Boys, one of Rosario’s two best-known teams.
Local reports said his youth team won the tournament they played in – known as El Mundialito and featuring youngsters from Argentinian teams like Boca Juniors, River Plate and Velez Sarsfield – that year.
A broken arm prevented Messi from playing in the same tournament the following year and he had to watch from the sidelines as his team were knocked out in the semi-final stages.
Bruno Verdenelli, a journalist with La Capital, revealed he was sent the photo by Messi’s old team-mate Matias Pecce after a lengthy attempt to find images of the footballer in Mar del Plata.
Messi, Antonela and their three boys pose for a photo during Ciro’s first birthday party
He told on his Twitter page how he uncovered the picture after conversations with Pecce and an acquaintance called Francisco Luduena.
Explaining he had discovered the Barcelona star had played against Luduena and stayed at his family home along with Pecce during the 1998 tournament, he said: ‘The two of them told me everything.
‘I couldn’t believe I finally had the whole story. I needed the photo. Francisco couldn’t find anything and I was really gutted. That’s when Matias remembered he had one that was better than I thought and sent it to me immediately.
‘The photo had a bonus. Next to Messi was Antonela.’
The footballer, regarded by many as the best player of all time, married Antonela in a glitzy wedding in Rosario on June 30, 2017.
The pair have been together since they were young and got married in Rosario in June, 2017
They have three children – Thiago, six, Mateo, three, and Ciro, one.
Antonela posted an adorable family photo on her Instagram the weekend before last alongside a message which said: ‘Good weekend to everyone. Here with them, as always.’
Mr Luduena spoke over the weekend of the days Messi and Matias Pecce stayed at his family home during the 1998 football tournament.
He said: ‘Matias wouldn’t eat anything that wasn’t sausages with rice. Messi ate everything.
‘The way he played back then was amazing. Everyone was talking about him. You could tell he was different when he got hold of the ball. I went to see every game because my mum had to take him to the stadium. No-one could get the ball off him.’