Lionel Messi sits on Sergio Aguero’s shoulders, both hands firmly clutching the World Cup trophy as he holds it aloft.
A wide smile is engraved on his face, his eyes shine; it’s a moment of pure, raw joy, the culmination of a lifelong dream after years of World Cup heartache, all captured in a split second.
It’s a photo Messi chose to upload to celebrate his World Cup win over France – now the most liked post in Instagram history, surpassing an ordinary brown egg – and was captured by the photographer Getty Shaun Botterill, who was front row in one of the most iconic moments in sports history.
Botterill said photographers for Sunday’s World Cup final had planned for one to stand on the pitch in front of the advertising boards near the main stand which hosted the vast majority of Argentina fans at the stadium Lusail.
After Messi spent some time with his family following the trophy presentation, the Argentina captain began to walk towards the fans, prompting photographers to rush towards goal at this end of the pitch.
“I almost got trapped, but I just got trapped in the right place,” Botterill told CNN. “I think if most of us [photographers] are honest, you always need a bit of luck and I had a bit of that on Sunday night.
“Messi was just there and he didn’t move much, sometimes we got pushed around, and he was just doing everything, one-handed, two-handed on the trophy.
“We had no idea what was going to happen at the end. You can plan the trophy lift, but you can’t plan the race and you don’t know how chaotic it’s going to be. I was close enough to him, I’m probably two meters maximum.
“It’s a pretty weird feeling, it’s kind of surreal, you say, ‘Holy shit’, he’s where you want him to be and that doesn’t happen often.
“Even his hands that go up [with the trophy]I think the way he holds it and smiles, he’s definitely having a moment with the fans.
As Aguero, a former Argentine teammate of Messi who retired in December 2021 after being diagnosed with cardiac arrhythmia, carried his friend to the other side of the stand, Botterill immediately grabbed a cable from the one of the remote cameras behind the goal, plugged into his camera and sent the photo to his editors.
Luckily, Botterill’s son was working in the editorial office that evening.
“My eldest messaged me and was like, ‘I edited your picture dad, that’s a really nice picture,'” Botterill recalled.
His son’s comments turned out to be quite understated.
Immediately after, Botterill “knew it was a really good shot” – modesty clearly runs in family – but there’s always a concern that another photographer from a slightly different angle will have captured a better shot, because “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 better context and capturing the adulation the Argentina captain was receiving.
Even after a career that began at the 1986 World Cup, Botterill says those moments still feel surreal.
“I actually remember thinking, ‘Blimey, how the hell did I end up where I am?'” Botterill said. “Because in these situations, you are governed by where the masses push you.
“When I look back you can’t believe this guy is in front of you on Sergio Aguero’s shoulders, holding up the World Cup, showing that to his fans.
“It has that impact, doesn’t it? He has a happy face, he has joy, the trophy and it looks chaotic.
As someone who doesn’t have a social media account, Botterill says he was initially completely unaware that his photo had gone down in history.
On Wednesday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg confirmed that Messi’s Instagram post, complete with Botterill’s snap, broke the record for the most likes in the app’s history. At the time of this writing, he has over 69 million likes – and still growing.
Posted in 2019, the egg photo that Messi’s post spoofed for the record now has 57 million likes.
“That’s the funny thing to me because I’m not on Instagram, I wouldn’t even know how to crop an Instagram photo,” Botterill says.
“To me, it’s hilarious, the fact that you have this 55-year-old guy who’s not on Instagram and he has two boys who think that’s the funniest thing ever.
“The youngest said, ‘It’s 62 million, dad.’ I come from a small town of Northampton so this is kind of weird.
“It’s kind of crazy because…I didn’t really have a clue what was going on,” adds Botterill. “It wasn’t until a colleague messaged me and said, ‘Oh, how many likes have you seen? [your photo has]?’
“So it’s kind of ironic that all of a sudden I’m this old man not on social media who, obviously on the back of a great footballer, posted a photo that got taken over a bit. So it’s is kinda funny really – I got off the plane and didn’t know what was going on.
After 36 years in the industry, Botterill says he still feels the same passion and excitement as when he started at 18 trying to capture the sport’s iconic moments.
After covering his first World Cup in 1986 as an editor, Botterill took a break from his career and even turned down the chance to go to the 1990 World Cup as he was busy erecting scaffolding. He returned to photography to cover the 1994 World Cup and has taken part in every edition since.
Born near the English town of Northampton in 1967, Botterill took his first break aged 16 at the agency founded by famed sports photographer Bob Thomas, working in the darkroom.
Given his extensive portfolio and the number of major events he has covered, Botterill finds it hard to choose his favorite photo.
He reveals that photographers are “pretty funny”, rarely linger too long on a shot and always eagerly awaiting the “next decent shot”.
When everything falls into place, however, as it did on Sunday at the Lusail stadium, Botterill takes a moment to enjoy it.
“I think when you get a picture of a player or sportsman who’s really up there, you know, they can debate if he’s the greatest of all time; is it Pele? Is it Maradona? he says.
“But the main thing is that he [Messi] is up there, so if you get a really nice picture of a great player, that’s kind of a nice feeling.
“He’s a big one, he’s fantastic, he’s amazing. So that kind of gives you the buzz, to get a really good image.
“Anyone can decide what they think of the photo, but it’s a really great photo of one of the greatest players of all time, so that’s best for me. This is why you have to work.