The story behind the viral photos of Lionel Messi and a baby Lamine Yamal

“It was a difficult photo to take,” Joan Montfort tells The Athletic. “We can say I sweated some blood to take it.

“(Lionel) Messi is still shy now; he was much more shy when he was starting out and he finds himself there with a tiny baby in a plastic bath full of water. And with his mother. At the start, there was not much interaction. It was difficult for all of them. But, bit by bit, it started to happen and in the end, it’s a pretty good photo.”

In December 2007, Montfort took a photo of a 20-year-old Lionel Messi, who had begun his legendary Barcelona career just over four years earlier, and Lamine Yamal — who was just six months old.

It was published in a 2008 charity calendar organised by Barcelona’s club foundation and Catalan newspaper Diario Sport, with the money raised going to charitable organisations including UNICEF and different NGOs around Catalonia.

Members of the Barcelona squad were photographed alongside children. Hundreds of families collaborated with the initiative for a number of years and most of the photos have now been forgotten, outside of the families of the children who have treasured private memories.

It just so happens that Yamal, Barca’s teenage star of the future, ended up paired with the man who would go on to win the Ballon d’Or eight times.

The bathing photo, as well as a number of other images from the shoot, including one where Messi is seen cradling a baby Yamal in a towel and another where his mother Sheila Ebana helps wash her son, have returned to public view because one was posted on social media on Thursday night by Mounir Nasraoui, the father of Barca’s Yamal — the record-breaking 16-year-old who is starring for Spain at this summer’s European Championship.

“It’s something incredible,” Montfort says. “Back then, nobody could imagine that this baby would be who he is now — and you could not have known that Messi would become who he became, either.

“We are talking about 2007. Messi was only beginning at Barca then. Destiny plays an important role in these things.”

In December 2007, Messi had already won two La Liga titles and a Champions League, but was still just an emerging talent in a squad full of established stars including Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Thierry Henry and many other household names.

“They gave you a list of players — 12: one for each month,” Montfort says. “You have to take your time. Often footballers come in and say, ‘Let’s go, let’s do it. I’m in a rush; what do you want to do?’.

“It can be a bit cold, especially in a photo where you need interaction between two people who do not know each other. Then, when one is six months old and the other is 20, it can get difficult, but it turned out pretty well.

“The mother helped a lot. Her presence was super necessary, so the baby did not feel it was too strange. You look for a tender image — something sweet and nice.”

Lamine Yamal, Spain

Lamine Yamal has been a revelation for Spain at Euro 2024 (Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Montfort says he always tried to make sure that each family got a copy of the photos he took to keep themselves, especially in this case given the effort Yamal’s mother made to take him to the Camp Nou from the town of Mataro, north-east of Barcelona.

“I’d always want to give them a photo; it makes them really happy,” Montfort says. “The player might not be too worried but the parents of the kids would be very excited. They lived in Mataro, 40km away from Barcelona. Not everyone would do that, with a young baby too. They would have to make the trip, then wait for the player to arrive; for everything to be set up.”

Six and a half years later, Yamal started to get the train regularly from Mataro when he joined Barca’s La Masia academy.

His progress has been phenomenal: a La Liga debut aged 15 in April 2023, an international debut at 16 last September, and now Yamal is a key part of the Spain side which on Friday beat Germany 2-1 to make the Euro 2024 semi-finals.

“It’s a one-in-a-million chance that this could happen,” Montfort says. “It’s such good fortune.

Lionel Messi, Argentina

Lionel Messi is currently playing for Argentina at the Copa America (Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)

“These days, it happens a bit more as people have their phones and share photos, but this is like the photo of Guardiola as a kid applauding (former Barcelona and England manager) Terry Venables being carried on players’ shoulders. When Venables died, Pep posted the image.”

This photo of a 15-year-old Guardiola, himself then a La Masia student and Barca ball boy, later a Barca player and coach, and now Manchester City manager, is from April 1986. Englishman Venables was then midway through his three-year spell as Blaugrana coach and was hoisted aloft by players Paco Clos and Migueli after the team came from 3-0 down and then won a penalty shootout in a European Cup semi-final against Goteborg.

Montfort is still taking photos, these days for Madrid-headquartered Diario AS. He was surprised when a former colleague from Diario Sport contacted him after the photo of Messi and Yamal was posted and went viral.

“He asked me, ‘Was this my photo?’,” Montfort says. “I said ‘yes’. He sent me the photo and I asked him, ‘Who is the baby?’ and he started to laugh, and said ‘Lamine, Lamine’.

“He told me the father had put it on social media. In Sport, they could hardly believe it. They had just realised too.

“It’s been really surprising, all this. We take so many photos, so many images. Some of them will remain.

“For Lamine to grow up to be a footballer, and to have this photo, I’m just really happy it happened. It’s especially nice in today’s football, when so much is to do with money and power.”



Spain’s Lamine Yamal passes school exams during Euro 2024

(Top photo: Diario Sport/Joan Monfort)

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