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


Lionel Messi sitting on Sergio Aguero’s shoulders, both hands strapped on World Championship trophy while holding it high.

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

That’s a photo there Messi chose to upload to celebrate his World Cup victory over France—now the most-liked post in Instagram history, overtaking a regular brown egg—and was captured by Getty photographer Shaun Botterillwho 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 at the main stand that held the vast majority of Argentina fans at Lusail Stadium.

After Messi spent some time with his family after the trophy presentation, the Argentina captain began to make his way over to the fans, prompting photographers to rush towards the goal at that end of the pitch.

“I almost got caught, but just got caught in the right place,” Botterill told CNN. “I think if most of us [photographers] Let’s be honest, you always need a bit of luck and I had some on Sunday night.

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

“We had no idea what was going to happen in the end. You can plan the trophy lift, but you can’t plan the ride around, and you don’t know how chaotic it will be. I was quite close to him, I’m probably a maximum of two meters away.

“It’s quite a strange feeling, it’s a bit surreal, you’re like, ‘Holy s**t’, he’s right where you want him to be, and that doesn’t happen often.

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

This is a wider view of Botterill's viral Messi photo.
Botterill also took this photo of the trophy lift where Messi is wearing a black and gold bisht - a traditional garment worn in the region for special events and celebrations.

As Aguero, a former Argentina team-mate of Messi who retired in December 2021 after being diagnosed with a heart 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 image to his editors.

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

“My oldest texted me and said, ‘I edited your picture dad, it’s a pretty nice picture,'” Botterill recalls.

His son’s feedback turned out to be an understatement.

Immediately afterwards, Botterill knew it was a pretty good picture – modesty clearly runs in the family – but there’s always the worry that another photographer at a slightly different angle will have taken a better picture, which “small margins” can make a big difference.

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

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

“I actually remember thinking, ‘Blimey, how the hell did I end up where I am?'” Botterill says. “Because in those situations you are controlled by where the masses push 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 and showing it to his fans.

“It has that effect, doesn’t it? It has the happy face, it has the joy, the trophy, and it looks a little chaotic.”

As someone who doesn’t have a social media account, Botterill says he was initially completely unaware that his photo had made history.

On Wednesday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg confirmed that Messi’s Instagram post, preceded 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 counting.

Posted in 2019, the egg image that Messi’s post usurped 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 photo,” Botterill says.

“To me, it’s funny, the fact that you have this 55-year-old guy who’s not on Instagram and he’s got two boys who think it’s the funniest thing ever.

“The youngest said, ‘It’s 62 million, Dad.’ I’m from a small 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 wasn’t until a colleague messaged me and said, ‘Oh, have you seen how many likes [your photo has]?’

“So it’s kind of ironic that all of a sudden I’m this old guy who’s not on social media, who obviously on the back of a great football player has posted a picture that’s caught on a bit. So it’s really pretty funny – I got off the plane and didn’t know what the hell was going on.”

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

Picture perfect ... Botterill has covered the world's biggest sporting events for decades ...
Come wind, rain or snow...
Or ice cream...

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 World Cup in 1990 as he was busy building scaffolding. He returned to photography to cover the World Cup in 1994 and has been in every edition since.

Botterill, who was born near the English city of Northampton in 1967, got his first break at the age of 16 at the agency founded by the famous sports photographer Bob Thomas, who worked in the dark room.

Due to his large portfolio and the number of major events he has covered, Botterill struggles to pick out a favorite photo of him.

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

But when everything comes together, as it did Sunday at Lusail Stadium, Botterill takes a moment to savor it.

“I think when you get a picture of a player or a sports person who’s really up there, they can debate whether he’s the greatest of all time; is it Pelé? Is it Maradona?” he says.

“But the bottom line is he is [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 great, he’s incredible. So that kind of gives you the buzz, to get a really good shot.

“Everyone else can decide what they think about the picture, but it’s a really nice picture of one of the best players ever, so it’s the best for me. That’s why you have to work.”

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