This week saw the 10 year anniversary of Lionel Messi’s signing with Barcelona and the signalling of the first steps which have taken him from obscurity to the upper echelons of the game, and placing him firmly in contention as one of the greatest players to ever kick a football.
Few footballers can claim to be more successful in their early years as a professional than Messi. Even less can claim to be as successful as Messi has been over the past five years. Blessed with a combination of athleticism, pace, balance, a magical first touch, an eye for goal, superb vision and remarkable dribbling ability has led Messi to be one of the most gifted and talented footballers of his generation.
Messi has pretty much won all that Spanish football has to offer. From his first-team debut as a plucky 17-year-old against Espanyol in October 2004, his first senior goal against Albacete in May 2005 to hoisting La Liga trophy over his head in 2009’s double-winning season as the league’s top goal scorer, equalling Barcelona legend Ronaldo’s club record of 34 league goals in a season set in 1997.
Messi’s career began in Argentina in 1995 with local team Newell’s Old Boy until he was spotted by the Catalan giants in 2000. Seizing the opportunity to play for one Europe’s elite Messi crossed the Atlantic to take his place in Barcelona’s under-14 teams and begin his meteoric rise to the very top of the footballing ladder.
Messi flew through the ranks at a pace previously unheard of and was making his debut first team appearance at just 16 during a friendly at the opening of Porto’s Dragao Stadium during the 04-05 season.
Due to a spate of injuries to the first team squad Messi became a regular feature of Barcelona’s match-day squads as the season progressed. Culminating in the aforementioned first goal against Espanyol on May 1 2005, making him the youngest goalscorer in the club’s history at 17 years 10 months and seven days old; a record that would be surpassed by current team-mate Bojan, by an assist from the man himself no less.
During that summer Messi was called up to represent his county at the U-20 World Cup, in which Argentina duly won. Messi won both the Golden Ball and The Golden Shoe at the tournament further establishing him as one of the world’s hottest talents.
The following league season (05-06) Messi continued to impress and improve, making 25 appearances and scoring eight goals. Messi made numerous stand-out appearances during the season, the most memorable among them being a 3-0 dubbing of rivals Real Madrid and in the Champion’s League against Chelsea. He unfortunately missed the latter part of the season due to injury but picked up a Champion’s League and La Liga in the process.
The 06-07 season saw Messi really come into his own, firmly stamping his name on the first team. Again, injured for three months at the start of the season, Messi marked his return to fitness with a hat-trick against Real Madrid in a thrilling 3-3 draw, all of goals being equalisers; with the last coming dramatically in the final minute of the game. By doing so Messi became the first player in 10 years since Ivan Zamorano to score a hat-trick in El Clasico.
Drawing parallels with the great Maradona, Messi scored one of the most spectacular individual goals in recent memory in the semi-final of the Spanish Cup against Getafe the same season.
Messi stunned and mesmerised the world by almost replicating Maradona’s ‘Goal of The Century’ against England in the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Rampaging down the right hand side of the pitch, Messi ran the same distance (62m) jinked past the same number of players (six, including the keeper) and coolly slotted home from an almost identical position and ran celebrating towards the corner flag; just like Maradona 21 years previously. Team-mate Deco dubbed it “The best goal I have seen in my life.” You can watch a comparison video here:
Astonishingly Messi went on to recreate another one of Maradona’s infamous goals, ‘The Hand of God’. During a match against Espanyol, Messi challenged the goalkeeper for the ball in the air, hitting his hand and going in the net. Despite being a clear handball the goal stood.
The 06/07 season ended trophy-less for Barcelona but Messi came second in the prestigious FIFA World Player of The Year. Another baron season followed (07/08) but yielded 16 goals and 10 assists for Messi and another runner-up place world player of the year.
The 08/09 season became the season in most people’s eyes Messi became the best footballer on the planet. Freed by Ronaldinho’s departure, Messi helped his team to a historic treble winning season, scoring in the finals of both the Champion’s League and the Copa del Rey. Having managing to stay injury-free all season, Messi weighed in with an extraordinary 38 goals in 51 games.
Having won everything in Spain and Europe, Messi’s brilliance was finally rewarded, winning both the Ballon d’Or and FIFA World Player of The Year defeating the likes of Christiano Ronaldo, Kaka and team-mates Iniesta and Xavi to the title.
On the back of such a successful season Barcelona failed to replicate the previous year’s magic, yet still managed to clinch another La Liga title, European Super Cup and World Club Cup.
In the current La Liga season Messi has continued to shine. Typified by his performance in the 5-0 thrashing of Real Madrid at the Nou Camp; despite not getting on the scoresheet Messi provided a master-class in creating opportunities for his team-mates and himself. The entire team were phenomenal, Messi and Xavi in particular; it was the type of performance that will be show again and again as benchmark of attacking, expansive football.
At the time of writing, Messi is sitting on 24 goals and 10 assists in all competitions, 17 of those goals coming in La Liga keeping up the fight with Ronaldo for the Pichichi Trophy (Top Goalscorer) with both players scoring one or two in almost every league game this season.
After all the praise Messi deserves there are still traits of him that are open to criticism.
Ernesto Vecchio, the man discovered Messi’s talent for the first time has said that Messi is no longer the humble soul he was before he left for Barcelona:
“It’s more than 10 years since the last time I spoke to him. Very unfortunate that someone could forget many things when they get successful. In 2006, I heard that he was in Rosario, Argentina. Then I came to his house, thought we could have a reunion together, but they told me that he wasn’t there. That was a lie. He was definitely afraid that I might have asked him for something. Money sure can change people.”
Messi also is often praised for his lack of diving and his ability to stay on his feet with some people highlighting his honesty as part of the season why they prefer him over rival ‘best players’ such as Christiano Ronaldo. Yet with that honesty, occasionally there is a nasty streak to Messi which often rears its head when things aren’t going his team’s way and he can be prone to the odd harsh tackle.
Occasionally Messi can also be guilty of doing too much and trying to finish moves himself rather than laying the ball off to a team-mate in a better position. This however is outweighed by the number of moves he does actually does finish as well as his high assist rate, but a criticism nonetheless.
Another criticism is that for him to be considered a truly great player he must win the World Cup and ply his trade outside of Spain, outside of his comfort zone. With England being the only real destination suitable with the decline of the Italian and German leagues over recent years.
His lack of professionalism has also had a light shone upon it due to his and other members of the Barcelona squad over the club’s pursuit of Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fabregas. He said:
“When a player wants to come and a club wants a player, a deal can always be reached. And I am still confident he will arrive this summer [and] there is nothing anybody can do to stop Cesc joining Barcelona if it be this summer or the next.”
Still despite his critics who mainly come due to his off-the-field antics there is no getting past what a phenomenal footballer Messi is. After a disappointing World Cup this summer in which he didn’t score, the 23-year-old should be on the war-path to prove to the world how good he really is, not that need reminding though.
For more from Brian, follow him on Twitter.