The videos of a boy kicking the ball along the mud-soaked pitches of Argentina, leaving all of those who cross him in his path. That young boy would soon become one of football’s prized possessions. He just didn’t know it yet.
At the age of four, Lionel Messi joined local club Grandoli, where he was coached by his father, though his earliest influence as a player came from his maternal grandmother, Celia, who accompanied him to training and matches.
Whilst his trademark celebration of pointing to the heavens is a tribute to his grandmother, who passed away shortly before his eleventh birthday.
Born in the heart of Rosario, it’s no surprise the town’s club Newell’s Old Boys were first on the scene to acquire this small, but magnificent talent. Messi joined the club when he was six. During the six years he played for Newell's, he scored almost 500 goals as a member of "The Machine of '87", the near-unbeatable youth side named for the year of their birth.
However, his future as a professional player was threatened when, at age 10, he was diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency. Treatment was needed; a treatment Newell’s agreed to pay towards, but later retracted on. River Plate was an option, but when Argentina’s economy crashed, they too, could not make the payments.
It left this young wizard’s career aspirations in tatters, until a slice of family luck.
As the Messi family had relatives in Catalonia, they sought to arrange a trial with Barcelona in September 2000. First team director Charly Rexach immediately wanted to sign him, but the board of directors hesitated.
Three months later, an ultimatum was handed to La Blaugrana: Sign him or miss out. Rexach, with no paper to hand, picked out a serviette and offered this young boy a contract.
In February 2001, the Messi family relocated to Barcelona. But not all was well in Messi’s early years in Catalonia. He rarely played with the youth teams due to a conflict between Barca and his hometown club Newell’s, and as a foreigner, he was only eligible for friendlies and the Catalan league.
It meant opportunities were very few. In fact, they were so few that Messi struggled to integrate with the rest of the team. Homesickness followed after his mother and siblings moved back to Argentina.
There was a light at the end of the tunnel. In early 2002, Messi was enrolled by the Spanish Football Federation after spending a year in Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy.
His growth hormone treatment was completed and paid for by the time he was 14 and now, the introvert slowly became the extrovert. He became close friends with teammates Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique – just three of the teenagers – who all became part of the club’s young “Baby Dream Team”.
During his first full season in the youth set-up, he was the top scorer with 36 goals in 30 games, winning the league and both the Spanish and Catalan cups.
It wasn’t long before the young boy, was now becoming a marked man for opponents or senior staff at Barcelona. During the 2003-04 season, his fourth with Barcelona, Messi rapidly progressed through the club's ranks, debuting for a record five teams in a single campaign.
At 16 years, four months, and 23 days old, Messi made his first-team debut when he came on in the 75th minute during a friendly against Jose Mourinho’s Porto on 16 November 2003.
His performance impressed the staff who immediately promoted him to training with the reserve and first-team squads. It is noted that during his first session with the first-team, star of the team at the time, Ronaldinho professed that this 16-year-old would become a better player than himself.
Ronaldinho would soon nurture this teenage sensation, even calling him his “little brother”.
Leo Messi at 17 years old vs Espanyol B is a video you need to see. 😳 pic.twitter.com/cET7XIF8H8— Tekkers (@TekkersMedia) April 6, 2020
Along his new responsibilities training with senior members of the squad, Messi, saved Barca’s C side from the relegation zone of the third division, scoring 10 goals including a hat-trick in Copa del Rey against Sevilla in which he was relentlessly man-marked by future nemesis, Sergio Ramos.
With senior figures dazzled by the star they had on their hands, there was caution. Manager Frank Rijkaard was keen but reluctant to throw Messi into the first-team squad until a request by the senior players to promote him in October 2004.
Messi made his league debut during the next match on 16 October, against Espanyol coming on in the 82nd minute. At 17 years, three months, and 22 days old, he was the youngest player to represent Barcelona in an official competition.
That same season he made his UEFA Champions League debut against Shakhtar Donetsk, and it wasn’t long before he had the first goal, of the mountain of goals, he would go on to score. 1 May 2005 against Albacete, assisted by his ‘big brother’ Ronaldinho. At the time – it made Messi the youngest goal-scorer in the club’s history.
The rest, they say, is history.