By Sudipto Ganguly
SARANSK, Russia (Reuters) - Barely 20 months ago a Russian couple were oblivious of the basic rules of soccer. Now they are ardent fans and the transformation can only be attributed to Messi -- not Argentina's World Cup captain but a pet puma.
Messi, a two-year-eight-month-old cougar, lives with Maria and Aleksandr Dmitriev in a one-bedroom apartment in the Russian city of Penza, not in a very different environment from any other pet cat or a dog in the country.
Maria, 28, and the 38-year-old Aleksandr are both psychologists by education and fell in love at first sight of Messi at the Penza zoo when he was a sickly eight-month old cub.
He was one of three Puma cubs born at Saransk zoo who were named after famous international players -- Suarez and Neymar were the others -- to celebrate the Russian city hosting four matches in the group stages of the World Cup. Messi was sold to the Penza zoo when he was three months old.
"We are not soccer fans... we didn't even know soccer rules," Aleksandr told Reuters, while stroking the puma.
"But since Saransk named this cat after Lionel Messi, we, who were entirely indifferent about soccer, cheer for Argentina team simply because of our Messi."
The Dmitrievs already had a sphynx cat named Kira but Aleksandr always wanted a big cat and they decided to bring Messi home after offering a high price to the zoo authorities. The two cats, however, don't get along and have clearly demarcated areas in the apartment.
Messi was smaller than a normal puma due to his early health problems and needed a lot of medical attention and care. The Dmitrievs took their parenthood seriously.
They have converted their hallway into Messi's den which has a tree in the corner and a hiding hole while the walls are made from bamboo to act as scratching posts.
They have also set up a mirrored wall on which Messi watches his reflection while strolling in the hallway. But Messi's favourite pastime is climbing on the toilet window and staring out of it at the vast grassland surrounding the apartment.
"He is just an ordinary cat, but a big one. He has all the habits of a cat," said Aleksandr, with Messi in tow during an evening stroll.
Like any other cat, Messi loves playing with soft toys and also has a miniature soccer ball in his possession, which was gifted to him by a Brazilian journalist.
While his passing and dribbling skills are not as mesmerizing as those of his namesake, Messi likes playing with the ball, which doubles up as an object to bite.
He is already a social media sensation with his YouTube videos being watched by thousands while his Instagram account has over 400,000 followers. Maria manages the social media accounts dedicated to the puma.
"He does not realise that he is a star and, thank God, as stars usually have demands... He lives here without any special treatment. He eats what we eat, he sleeps where we sleep.
"He does not demand a separate bed and he does not ask for royal shrimps for breakfast."
The Dmitrievs spend 20,000-40,000 roubles (roughly about $300-$600) every month on Messi's food, which is raw meat, and have had to make a number of alterations to their personal and social life.
Options for holiday now only include destinations in driving distance although finding a hotel that will take him is problematic.
Aleksandr, who works as a deputy manager at a local printing house, also cannot slip out for a drink with friends until after eight in the evening because he needs to take Messi for a walk.
Messi currently responds to about 10 commands from Aleksandr but finding a wild animal handler to train him proved futile. A place was finally found at a dog training school where he picked up basic instructions with other canines.
The Dmitrievs still have to deal with environmental and animal rights activists who want Messi to be shifted to a wildlife reserve or a sanctuary.
But the owners believe he would not survive with other animals as he is not trained to live in the wild on his own.
The Dmitrievs want to soon move to a bigger house and hope to add a leopard to their family to give Messi a playmate.
($1 = 63 roubles)
(Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by neil robinson)