We’re celebrating 15 years since Lionel Messi made his official debut for Barcelona by chronicling his career so far through five chapters. Here’s is chapter one, all chapters can be read here:
Thursday 16 October 2004: Barcelona were locked in a closely-fought local derby at fierce rivals Espanyol, holding a 1-0 lead thanks to an early goal from Portuguese ace Deco.
With time running out, manager Frank Rijkaard opted to protect his lead by adding fresh legs into his forward line. The tiring Deco was taken off, and replaced by a promising teenager from the club’s youth ranks: Lionel Messi.
And so it began.
Except it had all really begun much earlier, with a truly remarkable story which unfolded in Messi’s hometown of Rosario, Argentina.
Young Lionel was always a fanatical footballer, spending every spare minute playing in the streets or at the park with his two older brothers and, later on, as part of the youth ranks of local professional side Newell’s Old Boys.
He was very good…but very small. And at the age of 10, he was diagnosed with a hormone deficiency which prevented normal growth. Expensive medical treatment was available, and initially the cost was covered by his father’s social security payments.
But then the government funding ran out, and his family could not afford to pay for the treatment. Neither could (or, perhaps, would) Newell’s. So Lionel travelled to Buenos Aires and trialled with the country’s biggest club, River Plate, who liked what they saw…but they wouldn’t take the risk of paying for the drugs.
Before it had even begun, Messi’s career was on the line: without finding the funds from somewhere, he would not finish the course of hormone treatment; without the treatment, he would not grow; without physical growth, he would not be able to physically compete with his peers. His progress as a highly promising young footballer would be curtailed, probably irreparably, and he would have to settle for whatever life in Rosario might provide.
Messi, though, was not one to settle for second-best. Even as a little boy, he was fiercely competitive to the point of psychosis, and he would not lightly surrender his dreams of becoming an elite footballer.
His family backed him, enlisted the support of an agent (Josep Maria Minguella, who had previously played a role in Diego Maradona’s move across the Atlantic to Barcelona), and secured a two-week trial with the Catalan club. If Lionel impressed sufficiently, Minguella assured the family, a contract would be forthcoming.
Messi, then 13 years old, certainly did impress during that trial, even if one of his new teammates – an attacking midfielder named Francesc Fabregas – joked that the timid Argentine was so quiet he must have been mute.
Signing Messi, however good he looked, was not an easy decision for Barca, greatly complicated by the fact that it entailed not just bringing a talented player onto the books but also moving over his entire family from Argentina, giving them an apartment and finding a job for the father.
After much deliberation, sporting director Charly Rexach took the gamble – ignoring the noisy protestations of several club directors, who were reluctant to make such a commitment to a 13 year-old – and, in February 2001, the family moved to Barcelona.
Messi quickly proved the faith placed in his talents by the club and his family was well-founded as he accelerated through the youth ranks – at one point advancing through five different levels in one season.
No other player had ever achieved such a rapid progression, and first team manager Rijkaard could not help but notice. He gave Messi a debut, aged 16, in a friendly fixture against Porto (managed by Jose Mourinho) in November 2003. Messi’s slender frame briefly prevented him from making further inroads into senior football, but after a few training sessions several experienced players – including the king of Camp Nou, Ronaldinho – pleaded with their manager to give the tiny Argentine a chance.
That league debut at Espanyol was followed by a handful more outings as Barca moved towards the league title, and Messi bagged his first goal towards the end of the campaign, against Albacete in May 2005, when Ronaldinho teed him up by providing a perfect pass and Messi did the rest by lobbing the advancing goalkeeper. In a moment that has become iconic, Ronaldinho then celebrated by lifting the young scorer high onto his shoulders, and the Camp Nou crowd roared in appreciation of a special goal.
Those lucky fans present that night could never have known just how special Messi would become, but further clues soon emerged.
A few weeks later, in the summer of 2005, Messi inspired Argentina to the World Youth Championship title, finishing the event in the Netherlands as player of the tournament and leading scorer after netting brilliant goals in the quarter and semi-finals against Spain and Brazil, along with a title-clinching pair of penalties in the final victory over Nigeria.
Back with his club after a short break, Messi expunged any ideas of sending him out on loan to gain experience by producing a show-stopping performance against Juventus in a pre-season friendly. The Italian team, prompted by their wily coach Fabio Capello, immediately offered to buy him, but Barca reacted with a firm ’no’: Messi was going nowhere, except into Rijkaard’s first team and into the boardroom to sign a new contract.
Messi duly became a regular starter, and before the end of the 2005/6 season he burst into the consciousness of the wider footballing public with an astonishing display against Chelsea in the Champions League, running rings around opposing full-back Asier Del Horno until the defender’s only option was hacking his tormentor to the ground, earning himself an early dismissal.
Despite this apparently unstoppable progress, Messi also had to overcome some significant disappointments. Firstly, in August 2005, he was sent off less than a minute into his international debut, harshly dismissed for using his arm to repel the attentions of Hungary defender Vilmos Vanczak.
A few months later, the domestic season ended in glory for Barcelona as Rijkaard led his team to a Champions League final victory over Arsenal, but it was a bittersweet occasion for Messi as he watched from the sidelines, ruled out through injury.
Then, in the summer of 2006, the first of many World Cup heartaches ensued, with Messi controversially left on the bench as Argentina suffered a penalty shoot-out elimination in the quarter-final against hosts Germany.
Those early setbacks served to toughen Messi up, forcefully reminding him that professional football was anything but easy. Niggling injuries also regularly struck him down, with his still-developing body struggling to adapt to the gruelling demands of weekly competition.
Nevertheless, his star continued to rise, with the precocious teen lining up on the right of Barca’s attack to form a deadly attacking trio with Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o.
As if they were needed, two moments towards the end of the 2006/7 campaign further confirmed Messi’s peerless potential. Against Getafe in a cup tie at the Camp Nou, he produced a ’Maradona moment’ by reenacting his compatriot’s World Cup goal against England with eerie exactness, receiving the ball on the halfway line and dancing past two defenders, racing goalwards to leave two more opponents flailing in his wake, and then rounding the goalkeeper to tap home.
Even more significantly, 19 year-old Messi also made his first major impact upon the most famous footballing fixture of them all: El Clasico. His hat-trick against Real Madrid on 10 March 2007, including a ferociously struck last-gasp equaliser, showed that Messi was ready to excel in any occasion, on any stage.
He had well and truly arrived, and his time was now.
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