Superfan Spotlight: Lionel Messi

Soccer icon Lionel Messi has one of the most recognizable faces on Earth. Lots of people collect his cards. But Damian Olivera’s situation is a little different. He’s got so many of the Barcelona forward’s cards in his possession that the folks with Guinness World Records want to take a closer look.

“I guess in the last year it started to get a little more [intense],” says Olivera, a collector who lives just outside of Detroit with his wife, children and dog, Leo. “The last two years, [my collection] got really big. For me, it’s been a lot. I just got an application for Guinness Records. Oh my God! What is happening?”

To build a Messi stash that’s literally one for the record books, you need dedication, capital and lots of space. Olivera might have all of that now, but there was a time when he didn’t. There was a time he had nothing. There was a moment when he lived in his car. But as Olivera explains in the following interview with Sports Card Investor, there was also a day when he was shopping for shoes at a Goodwill thrift store that would change his card-collecting life forever.

A sample of Olivera’s treasures. Photo courtesy of Damian Olivera

How does a Michigan man have the largest Lionel Messi card collection in the world?

Well, I’m from Argentina. I’ve been living in the States for about 10 years. In the beginning, I was living in Florida. Then I met my wife, and her family is from here. I can do this from anywhere, so we moved here to be closer to her family. So, that’s how I ended up in Michigan.

And the love for Messi came from growing up in Argentina?

Well, in Argentina, the culture is you are kicking a soccer ball before you are even walking. My first memory, my first toy, was a soccer ball. So, it’s a big, big soccer culture. The world moves around soccer in Argentina. It’s actually like a profession that people look for. If you find a way to be a professional, you can actually make good money for your family and get out in the world. Kids go to college here [in the United States]. There they try to be professional soccer players. So, it’s very competitive.

I wasn’t that good, but I was always interested in business and things like that. It wasn’t anything that I even tried, being a professional soccer player. But in Argentina, we start with soccer early, and one of the first things you do is [collect] stickers. It’s very common [around] the World Cup and all that. You start to buy stickers and trade at school. That’s how I started collecting.

When I moved to the States, I saw that there were so many options here for cards. In Argentina, it’s only stickers, but here you have so many brands and products. It was overwhelming. I saw, and this was 10 years ago, that people [in the U.S.] weren’t really giving so much attention to soccer, so I saw an opportunity there and I started to buy. It wasn’t the prices you are talking today, so I was able to start my Messi collection way early.

I love to watch him play and I love his story, too, because he moved out of Argentina at a very young age and he left [to earn money for] his family. I left my family in Argentina, so I feel a connection with a part of his person.

When you watch Messi on the pitch, what separates him from everybody else?

Well, he is so fast. I read they made a study on his brain. When he is on the field, he is looking for all the opportunities and thinking where the ball is going to move next. The way he sees the field and the way he moves is completely different to any other players we’ve seen. I just love to watch him play. It’s not something new. He’s been out there for 16 years. You see a lot of good players and a lot of new rookies right now, but this soccer player has been there for 16 years. Since the beginning we knew he was something different.

Do you see any of those unique qualities in any of the young guys?

There are a lot of new rookies out there. A lot of people are talking about Erling Haaland. I actually see him more similar to Cristiano Ronaldo. Even like his personality. He knows he’s good. He’s not scared. He’s out there. I think he reminds me a lot more actually of Cristiano than Messi. And I love Cristiano Ronaldo, too. I love his game. I don’t know why people think that you have to love one or the other. I don’t understand why. I collect Messi. He’s my favorite player. But I love watching Ronaldo, too. I don’t know why people think you can’t like both. It’s crazy.

Like Kobe or LeBron, right?

Exactly. Why? They are good at what they do. Why not just enjoy them. But [Haaland] reminds me a lot of Ronaldo. I don’t see a player right now that reminds me of Messi in that way because he’s not only like a scoring striker. He’s actually in the middle of the field. He’s looking for the opportunities, not only to score, but to also play with his teammates. It’s like he’s looking at everything. And the other players, like [Kylian] Mbappé, are really good. He’s super fast. He’s really good. But he’s a striker. He’s all about scoring. I don’t see right now any other player like Messi.

An onslaught of Messi autos. Photo courtesy of Damian Olivera

You mentioned how your collection started about 10 years ago. Do you remember what those first couple of cards were that sparked things?

I can tell you how it really started. It’s kind of a weird story, but it’s how it is. When I first moved here, everybody thinks that you move to America and it’s like the American dream and you do good right away. The reality is it’s not like that. When I first moved here, it was a struggle. I left all my family and my business, everything there in Argentina. And I moved here. I was alone. My first two years were really hard. To the point that it was hard to live. To the point that I was buying things at Goodwill, like clothes and things like that. That’s what I had to do.

One day I went to Goodwill to buy shoes and I had like $200. I had to buy clothes and shoes, and I saw a huge pile of sealed boxes from the ‘90s. I knew they had Michael Jordan and Larry Bird [in them]. It was a pile. It was huge. And I couldn’t help it. I just wanted that. I read when I was in Argentina that people collect and make a living with it, and I kind of fell in love. So, I didn’t buy any clothes that day. I actually came out of Goodwill with like 400 boxes. It was insane. I had a little ‘99 Cadillac that I bought. Sometimes I would sleep in there, I have to be honest. I’m not going to lie to you about it. But I put all [of those boxes] in my car and I was just happy with those cards. I still have some of those boxes. It’s crazy. It was like 10 years ago.

But I started to do some research. I researched about the grading companies and I sent my first submission and I started with Jordan and this and that. Then I was like, “What is going on with soccer?” because I was seeing that it was growing as a sport in the country. I saw a lot of people getting into soccer. I feel that soccer is more inclusive. You have all kinds of people, all kinds of backgrounds when other sports have some differences. So, in my head, I was like, “Soccer is growing. People are getting more into it. In 10 years, what is happening with cards right now in basketball, baseball and football might happen in soccer.” I didn’t know for sure, but I got that feeling. So, from there, I was doing a little better with my businesses and with the card business, and I started to buy everything I saw in soccer. Seriously. I still have sealed boxes and boxes and boxes I haven’t opened yet because it was cheap at that time. It was crazy. Everything I saw I was buying. I focused on Messi. Most of the cards I opened myself and I sent to grade myself, I have to say. That’s how I started with soccer. And 10 years after, I’m here.

I know it’s impossible to name your favorite card, but if you could list a few that mean the most to you, which would they be?

Well, there is one, I’m looking at it right now. It’s a 2013 Icons and it’s signed. Why is it special for me? Because this is actually the first set that has an official signature of him. And before Upper Deck, Panini or Topps had his signature cards, this was the first official set that had his signature. It was released in Japan, if I remember correctly. So, there are only a few of these cards. I think this is the only one graded that I’ve found. I actually missed one last month. I found the 1-of-1 signed of this one and I tried to buy it but I was late. The person, he didn’t even sell it; he traded it. In Japan, they are really respectful with everything. And I was like, “Just let me buy it from you. Just tell me a number.” And he was like, “No, I already traded. I cannot do that.” And I was like, “Okay, I can respect that.” But I was so mad.

Are you on eBay constantly looking for things?

Yeah, lately I’ve started doing that. Like I was telling you, two years ago people weren’t putting much attention [in soccer cards], so it was easier for me to get boxes and cases. Now they release something and it’s gone in 10 minutes. So, I have to look awhile for single cards and not the boxes. If you saw my Twitter, you know I’m breaking cases every day of Immaculate, for example. But I look on eBay. And a lot of people on Twitter send me what cards they have and I buy from them. That’s how I do it.

Can you give me the best estimate of the value of the collection?

Oh man, that’s a hard one. Seriously, I have no idea. It is so hard because sometimes people call me and make me offers and this and that. I know it sometimes sounds weird, but I tell them I like your offer and it’s good, but money is there and it’s a lot. But collections like this, there is only one.

So, you never sell any of the Messi cards?

I do sell, but I only sell when I have more than one of those. But that is even hard. I never felt regret of buying a card, but I do feel regret of selling a card. You know what I mean? I mean, of Messi. I’m selling cards constantly. It’s crazy. Because I’m opening all these cases and boxes to find Messi. The rest I sell. But I really have no idea [of the value]. I have more than 1,500 cards and boots, jerseys and arm bands signed. I even named my dog after Messi. Imagine that.

A potpourri of 2018 Prizms. Photo courtesy of Damian Olivera

You said you have 1,500 Messi cards?

At least 1,500. They sent that Guinness Records [application]. I am supposed to make a list, one by one, [of what I own]. That’s a lot of work. I don’t even know if I want to do that right now. And [you have to do it] with video and with two witnesses. It’s a lot.

Are you going to go through the process?

I might do it eventually, but right now it’s impossible for me. This has been so overwhelming. Thank God I have a lot of support from my wife and my kids because, seriously, I get up at 5 in the morning and I start work until I go to bed like 9 or 10. And until I fall asleep, I’m working. Every single day. So, it’s a lot.

How do you have your cards displayed?

I have it in a basement, but I have it in a special room. It’s like a vault. It’s very cool. I built it especially for that. I have the whole thing set up. People are like, “What do you have in there?” My cards.

You mentioned the 1-of-1 that got away. Is that the one card you’re still trying to get?

I’m looking for more like his first cards. Like first signed cards, when the signature was a little different. Since the 2013 Icons set, his signature changed, the signature that we all know now. With a lot of players, that happens. They have a different signature and all that. That’s what I’ve been looking for. There is a lot of heat right now on his rookies and all that. It wasn’t like that a few years ago. I’m still trying to finish the master set. I’m like at 70% right now with the PSA master set. But it keeps growing, so it’s like you never finish.

I know some of Messi’s cards are well into the thousands of dollars. For the collector who reads this story and wants to get a few, can you name a few reasonably priced cards they should look for?

Right now, I would start to focus on 2007 and 2008. They are still cheap. Someone asked me the same question two years ago and I said 2005 and 2006. I actually said the 2006 World Cup sticker. They were like nothing two years ago. Right now, you’re talking about $10, $20, $50,000. So, I think the 2007, 2008 and 2009 [cards] are super available and they are not that crazy in prices.

A rainbow of rare Messi cards. Photo courtesy of Damian Olivera

You’re the CEO of DROB Collectibles. Tell me a little about the company.

Well, it started with those boxes in the Goodwill. And I did some research. I started working with PSA for years. That is the grading company that I use because it’s what I trust and I have the best results. What I wasn’t saving for my collection, I was grading and selling basically on eBay and some auction houses. I tried to focus more on premium stuff and on soccer. It’s all my own.

If somebody wants to possibly check out your collection, they just go to your Twitter page?

Yes, my Twitter (@damian_rodrigo). I don’t have a website right now. Honestly, in Argentina, I had a website design company. I worked with that for years. You know when you get burnt out on something? I don’t even want to think about building a website. Maybe now it’s different because I’m getting more people knowing about my collection and all that. But when I tried two years ago, most sales were out of eBay. So, sometimes when something works, I try not to change it. And it has been working good so far. But eventually, I should have a website, so I probably have to work on that.

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