Even in the helter-skelter, high-pressure world of elite football, I guess there will be a couple of quiet moments for several of Manchester City’s key men to reflect on “discovering” Lionel Messi before battle recommences on Tuesday night.
I know there will be for Pablo Zabaleta, whether he plays or not. From executives via technical staff to players, the majority of City’s key men have seen Messi begin, grow and then demolish. He’s demolished City with regularity too, meaning there will be a mix of affection and apprehension around the blue half of Manchester before a Champions League group match that has become vital for Pep Guardiola’s team to win.
Last week, I spent a wonderful hour with the Argentinian defender for my Big Interview podcast while he recalled for me the utter shock of discovering, out of the blue, that his country had a genius in their ranks.
It was summer 2005 and Argentina were jousting for the World Youth Championship: a U-20 World Cup. Two years earlier, the Albiceleste had suffered the ultimate humiliation, losing in the semifinal game at the hands of their oldest, bitterest rivals, Brazil. (The Brazil of Dani Alves and Fernandinho, by coincidence.)
The task in this particular youth World Cup, held in Holland, was to win at all costs. “Zaba” scored in the quarterfinal to help beat a really strong Spain side (starring David Silva) but because a future Pep Guardiola favourite, current Bayern Munich full-back Rafinha, scored in extra time against Germany in the corresponding half of the draw, it was an Argentina vs. Brazil semifinal. Again.
“I said to the players before this game, because I was their captain, ‘I cannot get beaten twice by Brazil at the same stage of such an important tournament,” Zabaleta told me. The difference, this time, was Messi. Completely unknown to either the Argentinian public or his soon-to-be teammates in the U-20 squad, this kid was just 16 when the squad assembled. It was a personal gamble by coach Francisco Ferarro.
“‘Pancho’ Ferarro was talking about him, saying ‘we are looking to play this young lad who’s grown up in the Barcelona Academy. We’d like to have him with us because he’s supposed to be good,'” Zabaleta explains.
“It was fantastic because we didn’t know Messi. Nobody knew Messi at that time because he’d grown up in Barcelona. We knew each other from the Argentinian academies or days spent with the national youth teams. So it was fantastic the first time we met Leo. He was so quiet in the dressing room. He sat down, not talking to anyone — [he was] so thin, so small. But then he started to talk on the pitch…”
Zabaleta laughs out loud here — spontaneously. “It’s because I remember exactly like it was yesterday. It’s one of those moments in your life that has a massive impact.”
From the outset of both the 2005 tournament and this tense semifinal, things were different. The wonder kid — who not long before had turned down overtures from the Spanish FA, via their youth development coordinator Gines Melendez and Barça coach Alex Garcia, to use his “residence” claim so he could play for Spain — ended as the competition’s Golden Boot and Best Player. Against Brazil, he scored a goal that was immensely phenomenal in power and trajectory — one that a guy who had turned 17 just four days before shouldn’t really have been capable of.
Once the defending champions equalised, it was Messi who danced down the left wing, held off a robust penalty area shoulder-barge from centre-back Edcarlos and cut the ball back for Zabaleta to stab in a left-footed effort off Fabio Santos.
The winner. Against Brazil. In the 93rd minute. Joy unconfined.
It’s in the aftermath of that win that the man who this week celebrated his 56th birthday, Diego Maradona, phoned the Argentina team hotel, demands to speak to little Messi and pleads with him to take personal responsibility for winning the final. Presto. Messi scores both goals in the final to defeat Nigeria and Argentina were world champions. On the 26th anniversary of Maradona’s generation doing the same thing, in Tokyo. It seemed significant.
“I don’t like it when all the fuss is centred on me,” said Messi, still just a kid at the time. “All I hope is that this now earns me more playing time with Barça. That would be the best.” Of course, these were the days before Messi, Zabaleta and Kun Agüero, all of whom triumphed together in Holland that summer, became multimillionaires. Money was tight.
“Winning a tournament like that is at least one month, so far away from our country, no chance to have your family close to you — that’s a test,” Zaba recalled for me. “It was so funny because Wi-Fi internet was the main thing for everyone. We didn’t have laptops and we needed to buy a €10 card for one hour on the internet. So for us to spend €10? Converted to pesos, it was too much, too expensive. We wanted to be connected to your family but we had to buy one card between four or five of us and share it. We’d get about 10 minutes each.”
That, of course, was about to change. Txiki Begiristain was then the director of football at the Camp Nou and had been staunchly in favour of Messi’s prompt promotion to the first team. During that world-title summer for the footballing prodigy, Begiristain did some of the most valuable, most far-sighted work the Catalan club has ever seen.
Messi’s first professional contract had come slightly more than a year earlier, his first-team debut less than 12 months previously. But by now the Messi phenomenon was accelerating so quickly that Barça needed a safety belt. The man who’s now in charge of City’s football development tied Messi to a new three-year deal, with better wages but also with a €150m buyout clause. The bullet points were all agreed upon on his 17th birthday, Jun. 24. It was signed in August.
No sooner had the ink dried when Begiristain, reading the coming months and years like a modern Nostradamus, already had another, hugely improved deal pushed through the Camp Nou board. Messi’s buyout clause stayed at €150m, his salary rose to just under €1m per year, and the club tied him to a remarkable nine-year deal.
When it was announced, Begiristain said “We could have waited a few months to do this, perhaps until after the 2006 World Cup, but we wanted to make Leo, who has a spectacular future ahead of him, feel at ease and confident in us.”
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