Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium was two-thirds full for the Catalan derby between Espanyol and Barca when Lionel Messi made his debut a decade ago today.
The old stadium atop the hill of Montjuic was Espanyol’s home from 1993 to 2008. Their fans never did warm to playing in a stadium with an athletics track; only 34,000 attended their biggest game of the season.
Watchers of Barca’s junior and reserve teams already knew they had a potentially great player in their ranks, but every big club has a potentially great player in their ranks. Unlike the rest, though, Messi would become a great player, arguably the best the world has seen.
Barca were not a stable club a decade ago, though under the recently elected president, Joan Laporta, they saw an improvement in fortunes on and off the field.
Ronaldinho was the star, while Messi was slowly introduced into the first-team fold. He played a friendly game in Oporto in 2003.
“I was Messi’s captain when he made his debut in a friendly versus Portugal,” Barcelona manager Luis Enrique said.
“He was 16. He jumped categories. It’s not normal that a player does that, but it was right for him and Guardiola was right for him.
“Under Guardiola, Messi’s perception of the game really improved, his vision of the game improved.”
Guardiola became the manager in 2008. In October 2004, Dutch coach Frank Rijkaard was at the helm. While his team were champions, they were injury hit for the derby against Espanyol.
The B team, where Messi usually played, would have to do without him (they still won 3-1 away at Gramanet) as Rijkaard called up reserve players Damia (now at Middlesbrough), Ruben (now at Mallorca), Hidalgo (now in India), Pena (Valladolid) and Navarro (Sevilla) to the bench, along with Messi.
Deco scored the only goal of the derby after nine minutes and he was replaced by Messi, who was 17 years and three months of age, eight minutes from time.
It was insufficient time for the No 30 to be judged properly, but he saw plenty of action in a kit that appeared two sizes too big for him.
The Argentine played on the right of the forward three, his usual position for the first five seasons at Barca.
He gave the shirt to his mother, who had watched the game at home in Rosario, Argentina. The family had moved to Barcelona four years earlier but travelled back and forth.
They still do, though Messi and wife Antonella, plus their son Thiago, live just south of Barcelona by the beach.
Messi was shy, timid and hid behind a heavy fringe, though Ronaldinho took him under his wing and made him feel welcome in the dressing room.
Messi saw just 77 minutes of first-team action that season, though he did score his first goal towards the end of the season.
In the decade since, he has scored 361 times for Barca in 434 games, breaking the club record. Debate rages about whether he is the game’s greatest or whether Pele, Di Stefano, Johann Cruyff or Maradona deserve that subjective accolade.
But Messi is Barcelona’s greatest. In 2012, Messi overtook Cesar as the top scorer in Barca history. With 249 league goals, he is only two behind Telmo Zarra, the leading scorer in the history of Primera Liga – and he is only 27.
Messi has won 21 trophies in a Barcelona shirt, including three European Cups, six ligas and two world club championships.
He has also won four Ballons d’Or, three Pichichi awards for being the top scorer in Spain and numerous other individual honours. A Messi statue will be erected outside Camp Nou when it is redeveloped later this decade.
All that is missing is the World Cup and Copa America with Argentina. The shyness is not completely gone and he can go six months at a time without speaking to Barcelona’s official media channels. But he is far more comfortable in front of the cameras as he matures.
With injury and the disappointment of losing the World Cup final, 2014 has not been Messi’s best year, but he is enjoying fine form under his new coach.
“The trouble is that we’ve seen so much of Messi that we think he’s normal,” Enrique said. “I still can’t understand how a player has got to that level.”
He has been at that level for 10 years.
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