There is a different side to Lionel Messi, one that not everyone gets to see.
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 centre of attention on Friday in his hometown of Rosario when he marries 29-year-old Antonela 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 kilometres (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 neighbourhood 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 honouring 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.