End of an era? Part 2: Lionel Messi

24th August 2005. Frank Rijkaard’s FC Barcelona side was playing Fabio Capello’s formidable Juventus side, who were the current Serie A champions, in the Joan Gamper trophy. The match boasted big names of football world then. Ronaldinho, Ibrahimovic, Deco, Del Piero and many more. But despite the presence of all the big names on both the team sheets, it was a relatively unknown 18 year old teenager who grabbed all the attention during the match. He was making solo runs, mazy dribbles, shots on goal against the playing calibre of Fabio Cannavoro (only defender with Ballon D’Or) and Patrick Viera. He was uncatchable. The big names first tried to catch him on the run. When they failed in doing so time and again, they resorted to fouling him and hacking him in fear of getting owned by this extraordinary talent. The opposite team manager, Fabio Capello was so stunned by the performances of this young 18 year old kid that he approached Frank Rijkaard during the match and asked if he could sign or get the young 18 year old on loan for Juventus. Rijkaard just gave Capello an awkward look and a little shrug of his shoulder, saying he’s not for sale.

“In my entire life I have never seen a player of such quality and personality at such a young age, particularly wearing the ‘heavy’ shirt of one of the world’s great clubs… Before a game, you can plan for everything. But he can produce a move that no-one expects and change the game in an instant.”

– Fabio Capello after the match on the 18 year old

The match ended 2-2 at full time and Juventus won 4-2 on penalties. But it was not the result that mattered that night. It was the discovery of a player with extraordinary talents and who’d go on to win 4 Ballon D’Or by the time he was just 25. The world had discovered Lionel Messi.

Messi Joan Gamper trophy

Messi against Juventus in Joan Gamper trophy 2005

There are various childhood stories available about how Messi was the third of four kids in his family, suffering from a growth hormone deficiency, for which he had to take regular medication and syringes, all the while carrying on with his dream of becoming a footballer when he grows up. His performances for his local club, Newell’s Old Boys grabbed the attention of FC Barcelona scouts and they immediately sent for the club officials.

“When you saw him you would think: this kid can’t play ball. He’s a dwarf, he’s too fragile, too small. But immediately you’d realise that he was born different, that he was a phenomenon and that he was going to be something impressive.”

—Newell’s Old Boys youth coach Adrián Coria shares his first impression of the 12-year-old Messi.

Since no other club in Argentina was willing to pay for young Leo’s expensive medication, FC Barcelona came forward and offered to take care of all of it for free if Messi joins them in their famed La Masia. Leo’s family had no other option but to say yes to the offer. And thus the journey of a raw unpolished diamond to a polished astonishing diamond began.

Messi joins Barcelona

Messi joins FC Barcelona

Messi joined FC Barcelona as a 13 year old and soon he was living his dream. During those days there was no one who would come to La Masia from so far away. Messi was an exception. All the kids at La Masia would talk about him and his extra ordinary talents, and that’s when Messi had not even kicked a ball yet. But soon they saw him in action in practice and juvenile matches, and they were proved right about him. Messi quickly got promoted to Barcelona’s Cadete B team and never had this team beat the fierce local rival, Espanyol’s Cadete A team in the new millennium. But one day it all changed. Messi’s Cadete B team went there and put three goals past their local rivals. The difference was this 14 year old Wonderkid. He was the shining jewel of this almost unbeatable team. This is where Messi began forming a formidable bond with his future club mates Cesc Febregas and Gerard Pique. However Cesc left for Arsenal and Pique went to Manchester United. But Messi kept going at Barcelona, jumping from an age category to another as he had out grown every age category. He was the best player in each team he had played in. The coaches at La Masia were so mesmerised by his talents that they made him play along with children above his age category. There were murmurs all around with the coaches and other players about this young talented Wonderkid who’d make his opponent players like they’re just practice cones lying all around the ground. Soon the gossips about Messi’s talent reached the ears of then head coach of the senior team, Frank Rijkaard, and he came to see Messi in one of his practice sessions. From what he saw impressed him so much that he immediately took Messi under his wings and gave him a senior team debut against Porto when Messi was just 16 years old and by the next year he was already a full fledged member of the first squad.

Messi debut

Messi Barcelona debut against FC Porto in a friendly

Ronaldinho in his prime was playing for Barcelona during those days but when he saw a young Messi dancing rings around the experienced defenders and making them look like fools, he knew something was different about this guy. He also took Messi under his wings and formed a special bond with him.

Messi and Ronaldinho

Messi after scoring his first Barcelona goal assisted by Ronaldinho himself

2008 was an important year in FC Barcelona history. The club President Joan Laporta was trying to bring in talents from the La Masia to the first team and build a project around them. He appointed Pep Guardiola, the youth team manager and one of the club’s great player from past, for the task. There were criticism all around on his appointment as he had no previous managerial experience of any first team of any club. More criticism followed as Pep sold Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho, two of the club’s mainstays, to make Messi the main man in attack and built the team structure around him. It proved to be masterstroke as the core talents from La Masia came together and formed an almost unbeatable FC Barcelona team which was playing football on a different level than other clubs. The club had an able leader and defender in Carlos Puyol leading the team, Gerard Pique forming a solid defensive partnership with him, Xavi and Iniesta in process of becoming the best midfield duo of their time and the club had its crowning jewel leading the attack; Lionel Messi. This formidable team won all the six trophies at stake in 2008-09 season (Champions League, La Liga, Copa del Rey, Spanish Super Cup, European Super Cup, Club World Cup) of Pep Guardiola’s first full year in charge and made it the most successful year in the club’s history. The club then managed to repeat the Treble in 2011.

Barcelona champions league 2011

FC Barcelona after their Champions League win in 2011 against Manchester United

FC Barcelona was basically showing all the other clubs how to play football in its pure form. And Messi was unstoppable in this team. He was the best among these best. He kept going from strength to strength and kept breaking and setting records. The most famous one being the highest goalscorer in a single Eurpopean season with 79 goals in 60 club games and highest goalscorer in a year with 91 goals in 69 official games for both club and country in the same year of 2012. He broke the 40 year old record of Gerd Muller of 85 goals in a year in doing so. These are some numbers a striker can only dream of achieving and he achieved these without playing as a full forward all the time. Instead it was mostly from a “false 9” position Pep Guardiola invented for Messi to operate. The opposite teams had no clue how to stop this unstoppable force of nature.

“This Barca will be remembered as Messi’s Barca. He’s well above anything else I’ve ever seen. He’s an alien.”

– Messi’s former team-mate Carles Puyol

Messi never was all about goals. He was way more than that. Very rarely it happens during a match when a player makes the spectators rise on their feet with ecstasy as they watch the player run past one defender then another towards the goal. It’s something a player might conjure up doing when he’s absolutely at peak of his playing career. It’s not a normal sight for a spectator to watch such an incredible run every other match. But Messi made the abnormal look normal in his every match. He’d conjure these kind of moments of geniuses in a single match that could be an entire career of highlights for other football players.

“The other day I saw one of his games. He was running with the ball at a hundred per cent full speed, I don’t know how many touches he took, maybe five or six, but the ball was glued to his foot. It’s practically impossible.”

– Real Madrid legend Raul

“Once they said they can only stop me with a pistol. Today you need a machine gun to stop Messi.”

– Hristo Stoichkov

Messi made many fans and followers with his incredible playing style. Even the legends of past are in awe of Messi. He joined the league of great Argentine players of the past such as Alfredo di Stefano, Diego Maradona and maybe even surpassed them.

“I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi. Messi is a genius.”

– Diego Maradona

“I have played against Platini, Maradona, Cruyff and played with George Best — a lot of big names, but none of them has been able to do what Messi does. Two years ago I said that the best player I played against was Maradona and the best player I have played with was Bestie. But I can now say I have never seen a player as good as Messi. He’s in a league of his own.”

– Former Tottenham star Gerry Armstrong

“They tell me that all men are equal in God’s eyes, this player makes you seriously think about those words.”

– Football commentator Ray Hudson

Messi’s glittering career saw him dominating the world for 13 consistent years and running on top level since his debut. A top player may remain on top for some 3-4 years max. But Messi defies this logic and he kept outperforming, kept surpassing himself year after year. In recent years since his age reached the mark of 30, Messi was told as finished after a bad season in comparison to his previous standards but he comes back stronger each season. He always finds that motivation to keep going even in the age when other players start thinking of immediate future and retirement plans. He always comes back hungry for more trophies every season. And this hunger propels Barcelona forward. Early years had the magic trio of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi for world domination. Then Xavi left, then Iniesta started getting less and less play time. But Messi kept going despite all that. He still managed to get the best out of himself while playing with below average players in Barcelona.

“Messi is the best player ever. And this is said by someone who has seen Maradona and Pele play.”

– AC Milan chief Adriano Galliani

However he still had one small glitch in his playing career. A medal with the Argentina senior national team. Messi won the U-20 World Cup for Argentina in 2005 and was rightly awarded the best player of the tournament. He then led Argentina to Olympics Gold medal in 2008. After his inclusion in the national team, Messi and Argentina reached the Copa America final for 3 times and the World Cup final in 2014, Brazil. But luck was never on his side as these finals were defined by near misses and missed glorious opportunities as Argentina ended up on losing side every time. Argentina national team and particularly Messi had to face a lot of criticism even from their own country people as they kept reaching these finals but failed to overcome the last hurdle. But the people forget that these players are in much more pain with every loss they faced in the final. One day, after the Copa America loss in 2016 against Chile and the third successive loss in the final of an international tournament, Messi decided enough is enough and made a decision to retire from the national team.

Messi Golden ball

A dejected Messi won the Golden Ball but lost the World Cup

Messi after Copa America loss

A forlorn Messi after Copa America loss to Chile in 2016

It is then when Argentinean people realized his true value. Argentinean people came out on the streets in thousands, pleading Messi to reverse his decision and come back to the national team. Messi heard their pleas and reversed his decision to retire and came back to help a disorganized Argentina team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It required a last match heroics from Messi to do so. Heroes show themselves when they are needed. His hattrick against Ecuador in the last qualifying match will forever be remembered as the day when Messi saved Argentina from the humiliation of not even qualifying for the World Cup. But even after qualification, this team was never expected to do well in Russia. And rightly so Argentina drew it’s first match against Iceland who were playing their first World Cup match and had a humiliating loss in the second match against Croatia. Again the call for a miracle required in the third match against Nigeria if Argentina were to qualify for the knockouts. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Messi ran past a hapless Nigerian defender and scored a stunning goal to again instill hope and determination in his team and Argentina came out winners and qualified for knockouts thanks to a late winner by Marcos Rojo. But a daunting task of facing a young, fast and incredible French team came with the qualification. On the D-day every player in Argentina tried their best, played arguably their best game in the World Cup but the speed of Kylian Mbappe, another rising star, was too much for Argentinean defense as he scored 2 goals to help France defeat Argentina by 4-3 in the knockout. That was the last time we saw Messi in the World Cup 2018. And by the time next World Cup happens, Messi will be 35 years old and probably past his peak. He may yet play that World Cup or decide against it. We don’t know yet. All we can hope now is to enjoy this little genius for whatever time is left to enjoy watch him play. There were never any words left to describe this little genius when he plays.

“If he is so good, how can you express that? The superlatives ran out ages ago. On these pages, swearing has been tried. Or perhaps a symbol, something to signify that we have gone beyond words now.”

– Football writer Sid Lowe

But as his former manager aptly puts it,

“Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him. Just watch him.”

– Pep Guardiola

You are right Pep. This World Cup may bring the end of an era to the domination of footballing stage by the two eternal rivals, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. But they’ll always be regarded as the footballing greats which they always deserve to be.

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