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In January 2006, Barcelona were on course to win La Liga for a second consecutive year. They had been virtually indomitable, losing just once in the first half of that season. In the same period, they enjoyed a stunning 14-match winning run, one that included a comprehensive 3-0 thrashing of Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu.
Ronaldinho, at the peak of his powers, was the inspiration behind that victory, scoring twice and leaving the field to an unprecedented standing ovation from the home crowd.
Unquestionably, the buck-toothed Brazilian genius was the world’s best footballer at the time. His audacity was breath-taking, his skill mesmerising. No defender could touch him. Yet, when FourFourTwo unveiled their cover for that month, Ronaldinho happily shared the spotlight with a graduate of the Barcelona youth academy.
Going even further, he said something rather portentous. “This,” he told the magazine with confidence, “is the best player in the world.” The player’s name was Lionel Messi.
The notion that some wafer-thin youngster from La Masia could successfully step into Ronaldinho’s shoes upon the playmaking supremo’s departure from Barcelona was unthinkable at that moment in football history. But then few truly knew how good Messi was, and how great he would become.
Within two years, Ronaldinho no longer graced the Camp Nou. And, within the decade, everyone would come to understand why he said what he said in January 2006.
In football, almost every talented prospect is ‘the next someone else'. It’s impossible to be left to grow at a natural pace; sooner or later the name of a past great will weigh heavily on gifted youngster’s shoulders. It’s not fair, and unsurprisingly it rarely leads anywhere. Almost every single ‘next Diego Maradona' failed. Indeed, Messi was the only one truly capable of bearing such a mantle.
As a boy, Messi wore the number 10 shirt with comfort. It looked a little baggy on him though, what with his small stature. At a young age he had been diagnosed with growth hormone deficiency, and it wasn’t until he joined Barcelona’s youth system that he would receive the required treatment.
On the pitch, he stood out, but off it he was almost unnoticeable. Physically, he couldn’t have been further from imposing, and he let his feet do the talking. “He…spoke soft, quiet Argentinian so you could hardly hear him,” Cesc Fàbregas said of the young Messi. “In fact, he hardly spoke at all. He was a noodle.”
By the age of 17, the noodle was challenging, and beating players twice his size. Physical proportion meant nothing, in fact it was rendered utterly void in the face of Messi’s impeccably precise dribbling. By 2005/06, he was playing regularly for Barcelona.
By 2006/07, he was scoring regularly for the Blaugrana. His progress was rapid, his concentration to the cause steadfast. He played with a childlike enthusiasm, always wanting the ball.
In the summer of 2008, at the age of 21 and with three full seasons of first-team football behind him, Messi was handed Barcelona’s number 10 shirt. Ronaldinho had left, and he was named the heir to a substantial throne.
The task of creating, imagining, influencing, assisting and scoring was now his responsibility. Pep Guardiola was appointed Barcelona head coach that same summer, and football was about to witness something special.
Messi and Guardiola’s first season together produced scintillating results. The Argentine scored 38 goals in all competitions, almost twice as many as his previous best, as his name entered the lexicon of the world football fan. No longer was he Barcelona’s, or La Liga’s, secret. But more was to come courtesy of a late-night phone call on Friday, May 9, 2009.
Guardiola had been studying Real Madrid, Barcelona’s next opponents, and came across a tactical curiosity — Real’s midfielders pressed intensively, but their centre-backs remained deep. Believing he could exploit the space between the two lines, Guardiola invited Messi to his office, where he informed the player of a new role for the game ahead.
The next day, Messi moved infield from his usual right wing berth, operating as a false nine. He scored twice and set up another as Barcelona trounced their fiercest rivals 6-2 away from home. The title race was effectively over, and a new era had begun.
Barcelona won the Treble that year, sealing the success with a consummate 2-0 win over Manchester United in the Champions League final. Up against the individual skill and athleticism of the English side, the finesse and refined possession game of Guardiola’s side was too much. To rub salt in the wounds, Messi did the only thing many felt he couldn’t do: he scored a header.
A second straight league title was secured in 2010, and a third followed in 2011. Once again, Messi and Barcelona met Manchester United in the Champions League final. And, once again, they won with ease, triumphing 3-1. The diminutive genius from Rosario scored the second that night, his 53rd goal in 55 appearances that season.
Just when it seemed his goals tally couldn’t accelerate any further, he upped it considerably in 2011/12. In what proved to be Guardiola’s last season as Barcelona boss, Messi sent the manager off with 73 goals in 60 appearances.
At that stage, the conversation around his ability changed. No longer was there a debate over whether he was the best in the world, hard as Cristiano Ronaldo tried to mount a concerted challenge. Instead, fans began to argue that Messi was the best player of all time. From any country. In any position.
In the half-decade since, Messi, the timid “noodle” from Argentina, has surpassed his country’s icons in the eyes of many. That in itself is quite the achievement when taking into account his legendary predecessors include Maradona and Alfredo Di Stéfano. And, while wearing Barcelona’s illustrious number 10 shirt, he has scored at a rate of one goal per game over the last five years.
Some hold on to the criticism that he has never quite achieved the same brilliance while wearing Argentina’s colours. That may be true, but Argentina haven’t hit the same heights internationally as Barcelona have at club level.
Nonetheless, 63 goals in 123 games – that’s almost one goal every two games – isn’t a bad record. And Messi once again, when called upon stepped up and made himself the hero La Albiceleste needed him to be.
Faced with the prospect of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, it was the little noodle that took his country on his shoulders and carried them to a 3-1 victory over Ecuador in Quito.
Going 1-0 down within the first minute, Argentina were up against the wall. Within 20 minutes, two flashes of his unstoppable left foot gave the away side the lead. He'd seal the result within the last half an hour, chipping the keeper from outside the area.
In truth, it should be no surprise, Messi has been pivotal to his country’s greatest recent moments, including their run to the finals of the 2014 World Cup, and the Copa América in 2015 and 2016.
Nobody saw it coming, even when Ronaldinho made that big call back in January 2006, but Messi, the small, quiet, football obsessive at home on the pitch, has confirmed his status as the greatest number 10 ever to play the beautiful game.
Perhaps the clearest indication of this is that, even as the original continues to play at the highest level, the world has already started to predict who could be ‘the next Messi'.