LIONEL MESSI and his wife Antonela Rocuzzo smile for the camera during a day out at the beach in a never-seen-before photo taken when the Barcelona star was just ten.
The touching picture shows the childhood sweethears enjoying themselves at Atlantic holiday resort Punta Mogotes, nearly two decades before they tied the knot.
The photo, showing the pair with other children including Lucas and another teammate called Matias Pecce, was taken in January 1998.
Messi was playing in a youth football tournament in the nearby city of Balcarce.
Antonela, who was about to turn ten and was already a close friend of the footballer, had travelled to the area with her parents to see her cousin Lucas Scaglia – one of Messi’s teammates.
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 is not clear if the footballer has ever seen the picture.
But it is going viral on social media after the work of a La Capital journalist tracking it down and publishing it.
The paper said it had taken three years to uncover the snap.
Several members of its editorial team tried to find a photo of Messi in Mar del Plata, a famous resort which most Argentinians visit at some point in their childhood.
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 up with holidaymakers from around the country, including 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, in a tournament known as El Mundialito.
Local reports said his youth team won the competition, featuring youngsters from Argentinian teams like Boca, River and Velez, that year.
And Bruno Verdenelli, a La Capital journalist, revealed he was sent the photo by Messi’s old teammate Matias Pecce after a lengthy attempt to find images of the footballer in Mar del Plata.
He explained on Twitter how he had uncovered the picture after conversations with Pecce and an acquaintance called Francisco Luduena.
The Barcelona star played against Luduena and stayed at his family home along with Pecce during the 1998 tournament.
Verdenelli wrote: “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.”
‘MESSI ATE EVERYTHING’
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.”
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The footballer, regarded by many as the best player of all time, married Antonela in a glitzy wedding in Rosario on June 30 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.”