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Capturing Lionel Messi’s viral moment: The story behind the most liked photo on Instagram, told by the photographer who took it

Lionel Messi sits on Sergio Aguero’s shoulders, both hands clasped firmly on the World Cup trophy as he holds it aloft.

A broad smile is etched across his face, his eyes alight; it is a moment of pure, raw joy, the culmination of a lifelong dream after years of World Cup heartbreak all captured in a split second.

It’s a photo that Messi chose to upload to celebrate his World Cup victory over France – now the most liked post in Instagram history, overtaking an ordinary brown egg – and was captured by Getty photographer Shaun Botterill, who had a front row seat to one of the most iconic moments in sports history.

Botterill says the photographers at Sunday’s World Cup final made a plan for one of them to go and stand on the pitch in front of the advertising hoardings by the main stand that held the vast majority of the Argentina fans in the Lusail Stadium.

After Messi had spent some time with his family following the trophy presentation, Argentina’s captain started to make his way over to the fans, causing the photographers to rush towards the goal at that end of the pitch.

“I almost got trapped, but just got trapped in the right place,” Botterill tells CNN. “I think if most of us [photographers] are honest, you always need a bit of luck and I had a bit on Sunday night.

“Messi was just there and he didn’t move that much, sometimes you get pushed around, and he just was doing all the bits, one-handed, two hands on the trophy.

“We had no idea what was going to happen at the end. You can plan for the trophy lift, but you can’t plan for the run around and you don’t know how chaotic it’s going to be. I was pretty close to him, I’m probably like two meters away maximum.

“It is quite a weird feeling, it’s a bit surreal, you go: ‘Holy s**t,’ he’s right there where you want him to be and that doesn’t happen often.

“Even his hands coming up [with the trophy], I think the way he’s holding it and smiling, he’s definitely got a moment with the fans.”

As Aguero, a former Argentina teammate of Messi’s who retired in December 2021 after being diagnosed with a cardiac arrhythmia, carried his friend away towards the other side of the stand, Botterill immediately grabbed a cable from one of the remote cameras behind the goal, plugged it into his camera and sent the photo to his editors.

By chance, Botterill’s son happened to be working on the editing desk that night.

“My eldest messaged me and said: ‘I’ve edited your picture dad, it’s a pretty nice picture,’” Botterill recalls.

His son’s feedback has proved quite the understatement.

In the immediate aftermath, Botterill “knew it was a pretty good picture” – modesty clearly runs in the family – but there is always a concern another photographer at a slightly different angle will have captured a better photo, as “small margins” can make a big difference.

The British photographer admits the crop Messi used on Instagram wasn’t his favorite version of the photo, with the wider view providing greater context and better capturing the adulation the Argentina captain was receiving.

Even after a career that began at the 1986 World Cup, Botterill says these moments still seem surreal.

“I actually do remember thinking: ‘Blimey, how the hell have I ended up where I am?’” Botterill says. “Because in those situations, you’re governed by where the masses are pushing you.

“When I look back, you can’t believe that guy is in front of you on the shoulders of Sergio Aguero, holding up the World Cup, showing that to his fans.

“It’s got that impact, hasn’t it? It’s got the happy face, it’s got the joy, the trophy and it kind of looks chaotic.”

As somebody that doesn’t have a social media account, Botterill says he was initially completely oblivious to the fact that his photo had made history.

On Wednesday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg confirmed that Messi’s Instagram post, fronted by Botterill’s snap, had broken the record for the most likes in the app’s history. It now has more than 72 million likes – and is still rising.

Posted in 2019, the egg photo that Messi’s post usurped for the record now has 57 million likes.

“That’s the funny thing for me because I’m not on Instagram, I wouldn’t even know how to crop an Instagram picture,” Botterill says.

“For me it’s hilarious, the fact that you’ve got this 55-year-old bloke that’s not on Instagram and he’s got two boys who think it is the funniest thing ever.

“The youngest one said: ‘It’s at 62 million, dad.’ I’m from a little town in Northampton, so it’s quite bizarre.

“It’s kind of crazy because … I didn’t really have a clue what was going on,” Botterill adds. “It’s only when a colleague messaged me and said: ‘Oh, have you seen how many likes [your photo has]?’

“So it’s slightly ironic that all of a sudden I’m this old guy not on social media that, obviously on the back of a great footballer, has put out a picture that’s been picked up a bit. So it’s quite funny really – I got off the plane and didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

After 36 years in the industry, Botterill says he still feels the same passion and excitement he had as an 18-year-old just starting out when trying to capture sport’s iconic moments.

After covering his first World Cup in 1986 as an editor, Botterill took a career break and even turned down the chance to go to the 1990 World Cup as he was busy scaffolding. He returned to photography to cover the 1994 World Cup and has been to every edition since.

Born near the English town of Northampton in 1967, Botterill got his first break at the age of 16 at the agency founded by renowned sports photographer Bob Thomas, working in the dark room.

Given his vast portfolio and the number of major events he’s covered, Botterill struggles to pick out a favorite photo of his.

He reveals that photographers are “kind of funny,” rarely dwelling too long on a snap and instead are always looking forward to the “next decent picture.”

When everything does come together, however, as it did on Sunday at the Lusail Stadium, Botterill does take a moment to enjoy it.

“I think when you get a picture of a player or a sports person that is really up there, you know, they can debate is he the greatest ever; is it Pelé? Is it Maradona?” he says.

“But the bottom line is he [Messi] is up there, so if you get a really nice picture of a great player, it’s kind of a nice feeling.

“He’s a great, he’s fantastic, he’s unbelievable. So that kind of gives you the buzz, to get a really good picture.

“Everybody else can decide what they think about the photo, but it’s a really nice picture of one of the greatest players ever, so that’s nicest bit for me. This is why you got to work.”


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