Words: James Bird
Images: Matt Sellers, Getty, and Barcelona
“We had dinner, and his dad was angry because of all the faff we were going through. And I said to him, ‘Look, I’m the technical director of FC Barcelona; if I say we’re going to sign him, that’s what we’re going to do. So relax, don’t get worked up.’”
This man is talking with his hands, I think, as the man talking with his hands tells his stories. The things he’s saying with his mouth are in Spanish, but I understand a word or two every now and again. Diminuto. Got it. Magnifico. Yep. Argentina. Sure. Things like that are what I understand from his mouth, and the hands are filling in some of the gaps.
“At this point, his dad wasn’t really listening, so I caught the waiter’s eye and asked him to bring me a pen and paper. He said they didn’t have any paper, only napkins.”
That’s the napkin, I think, as he pretends to write something down.
“So, I took the napkin… and wrote down ‘as FC Barcelona technical director, I agree to sign, and so on. So his dad’s mind was put at ease, and I became all hard-headed and went to the club to thrash out the details.”
The man telling me the stories with his hands is 75-year-old Carles Rexach. Carles Rexach played for Barcelona, and only Barcelona, 450 times. He was Barcelona’s youth team manager between ‘84 and ‘87, assistant to Johan Cruyff throughout the Dream Team years, and both interim and permanent manager during and after.
But in 2000, he did something that changed the world. Found someone whose legs told the stories he was telling with his hands.
“He disorientated everyone.”
Lionel Messi has been disorientating the world for a long time now, but back in those early years, a very select group of people were shaken up by this apparently mute and fragile speck of dust from Rosario. His name started as a legend in La Masia, bouncing around the changing rooms and being passed from prospect to parent. A name that tripped off the tongues of fans and parents at youth games and through stories swapped over dinner. A player who made other players reevaluate how they would interpret and interact with the game they knew best.
This is the story of a boy called Lionel.
We’re sat in a room at the very prestigious Real Club de Tenis Barcelona in a very smart part of town. The water is sparkling, and the windows are massive. There are surrealist and modernist and contemporary posters advertising tennis tournaments on the walls. Outside, the punch of rubber on strings echoes around the terracotta clay courts. As Carles continues to talk with his hands to me and his voice to our Spanish interpreter Alberto, his eyes start to tell stories too. They flicker back to the year 2000 when he heard about a boy they called La Pulga, The Flea, from an Argentinian friend.
Carles was in charge of scouting for the first team at this point, not the youth team, and essentially said, “Bring him over, but he better be fucking good.”
He wouldn’t have long to find out.
Messi arrived while Carles was in Australia for the Olympics, and the coaches back in Barcelona were telling him things about the boy. “I was like, ‘So what about this kid?’ Some said, ‘I’d sign him because he’s a technically gifted guy.’ Others said, ‘It’s as if God has come to Spain.’ While others would say, ‘Don’t sign him; the kid is too small.’ and ‘He can’t play serious football here.’ So what happened was that I said, ‘I’ll decide whether he stays or not.’”
On his return, Carles organised a game for 5pm at Barcelona’s training camp for Lionel to play against lads older than him. It was October 2nd 2000, and the match was set up to see “how the poor lad does”. When the game kicked off, Carles walked in by the corner flag and had to walk around one half of the pitch, around the back of the goal, and then back up the other side of the pitch to sit on the bench.
“As soon as I reached the bench, I said, ‘Sign this guy; he’s the best here.’” Carles says, still talking with wise hands.
“He was doing amazing things. The kind of things that you could show people who know nothing about football, and they would tell you he was the best too. Nowadays, sport is all about schools, places that teach you to control the ball with both feet, shooting techniques, but what Messi did was so natural; he was self-taught. What he did was so persistent, so quick, so brave. If he was tackled or a defender roughed him up, he’d be able to stand his ground. Complete. I couldn’t believe he existed.”
This tiny thing did exist, but it was complicated. Carles wanted to sign him straight away, but with Messi only 13 years old, there were difficulties with regulations and bureaucracy. The story of his signing is well-versed: Messi waiting for something to be promised, Real Madrid, AC Milan, Atlético Madrid all coming sniffing, Club President Joan Gaspart asking if the whole thing was really worth the aggravation. Carles remembers telling him that if he did go through with it, he’d have the honour of signing Barça’s best ever player. That the only way it wouldn’t work out is if he gets injured, goes mad, or decides he doesn’t want to play football.
On 15th February 2001, the Messis left Argentina to move to Barcelona, and Lionel cried and slept the whole way. And you would, wouldn’t you? He wasn’t just moving house; he was attempting to make it in a new country. Embedding somewhere new is always difficult, especially when the competition for places is so hot that, really, you’re all vying for each other’s spot. And Messi had lots up against him: he was foreign and couldn’t play in the Infantiles official games, he was tiny and being injected with growth hormones, he couldn’t speak Catalan, and at first was so quiet in the changing rooms that his teammates thought he was mute. It’s an element in the development of Lionel Messi that isn’t spoken about much: the guts and mud and blood and teeth it took for him to get through those first days, months, and years at Barcelona.
“So the thing is, between this, his father and mother who’d be coming and going from Argentina, this guy was on his own here,” Carles tells us as the light coming through the floor to ceiling windows starts to dip. “And you know, when it gets to 7 or 8pm and night falls, I’ve seen many kids cry because their dad is in Málaga or Zaragoza, and look, he would’ve gone through these moments. Having seen how things have gone in his career, it’s a real fairy tale. A kid coming here, starting out and then a meteoric rise to becoming the best player in the world. In order to make it that far, you've got to suffer as well.”
Messi was inducted into the Spanish Football Federation in February 2002, a full year after signing his Barcelona contract, and during his first full season was top scorer in the “Baby Dream Team” that included new best mates Cesc Fàbregas and Gerard Piqué. That first season included a treble that included the Partido de la Mascara—the Final of the Mask. After breaking his cheekbone the week before, Messi had to wear a plastic mask for protection during the match, and after getting annoyed with not being able to see properly, took it off, scored two goals in 10 minutes, and won the game for the Cadetes.
Before we leave the air-conditioned tennis club for the heat of the streets, I ask Carles to explain what it was like to watch Messi before he became the Messi we know.
“Sometimes when you watch a player like Messi, you consider that after all the training sessions us coaches do, teaching them the groundwork of the game, you realise this guy Messi doesn't follow a script. He does everything his own way, and people go along to see him because he doesn't follow the script. Do you understand? He surprises you.”
The Flea was all set to move from La Masia to disorientate and surprise a world of men. But for the kids in the years below him, he was a god. We’ll let one of them explain.
We’re stood outside an apartment block on a big road near the centre of Barcelona. It’s dark but warm, autumn air with big huffs of summer breath still lingering.
“Hi mate, it’s us from MUNDIAL.”
“Wicked man, come up the stairs.”
The three of us cram into the lift inside the type of Barcelona apartment block you might be familiar with. Spanish engineer Ildefons Cerdà’s proposals for the extension and redevelopment of the city in the mid-19th century paid great attention to things like fresh air, green space, and proximity to amenities. Those aerial shots of Barcelona’s octagonal living spaces patterned across the horizon are his work: big streets for transport, curved corners to provide better air circulation, orientated in a NW-SE direction so that windows get enough natural light each day. We can’t work the lift. We walk up the stairs.
A man answers the doors in a pair of football shorts, a Snoopy T-shirt, and some Boston Birkenstocks. A cat with three legs runs out.
“Alright lads, come in, come in. Oi Hankey, get back here. Hankey’s my best friend, man.”
Hankey gets back there, and we walk in with him.
“It’s really nice to see you, mate,” I say. “Thanks for having us.”
Hector Bellerín closes the door behind us, and we catch our breath from climbing the stairs.
Growing up in a small town about an hour away from the centre of Barcelona, Hector started playing for the ‘Barcelona School’ when he was just seven years old. Every weekend, 200 kids would be split into ten teams and play against each other with Barcelona coaches in charge. Imagine what that looked like. The kick-ups. The rondos. The goals. When players turned eight, and if they were good enough, they were inducted into La Masia.
“It's so, so, so special. You probably don't realise until you get older how special it is,” he tells us while sat around a table in the lounge part of his flat. Open plan, big windows, a normal but impeccably-done place to live. Art on the walls, lights on the floor, someone cooking something that smells delicious in the kitchen. It’s completely different to where you expect top-tier professional footballers to live, but probably exactly where you’d like to think Hector Bellerín lives. “In my area and the towns around, I was the only guy that played for Barça. And, you know, it’s what all the kids want to do.”
Built in 1702, La Masia de Can Planes was a Catalunyan farmhouse that was initially used as the club’s headquarters. Camp Nou’s concrete amphitheatre was built next to it in 1959, and in 1979 it was where young players at the club from outside Barcelona were housed. La Masia is a mythical place. An alternative world that exists within the one you live in that only very special people get to see. It’s the sublime and magical realism wrapped into one place. It’s football. The name La Masia does to adults what Hogwarts did to kids reading the first Harry Potter books, staying awake with eyes and ears open under the duvet waiting for an owl to tap at the window or a letter to drop on the mat at the front door. La Masia makes magic happen, and Hector was there for seven years.
“You’re not really trained to play football there. You’re trained all the way to play for Barcelona. I think things have changed a lot now; it’s more physical, kids are starting to go to the gym earlier, for example, but when I was there, they almost didn't teach you to defend until you were around twelve ‘cause it was all about having ball possession. But I think it's probably the best training that a kid can get in the world.”
“I also remember that everyone had to be the same. You could not have long hair. You could not dye your hair. Your shirt had to be tucked in. You had to wear black boots. It kinda avoids the ability for self-expression, which I personally don’t know how good and bad that can be. But it meant that you were constantly the same as the guy next to you. Doesn’t matter if they’re the one that scores the goals, if they play more than you, whatever.”
To stand out in a place where everyone is told that they’re an important part of a thing that’s bigger than them is difficult to do without pissing everyone else off. Sure, you can change the length of your school tie and turn up your trousers, but you’re still part of a wider ecosystem that is telling you you’re a part of a more important whole.
When Hector first joined the club, Lionel Messi was 16 years old and about to show his La Masia teammates, Futbol Club de Barcelona, and the whole world that he couldn’t fit anywhere. If there was a box to be put in, he’d find a way out. Napkin in his back pocket, owl tapping at the window, hair growing longer despite what he’d been told. A myth. An alternative world existing within ours. A piece of visceral magic realism.
“There was a football programme on Barça TV called Promesas. Promises. A highlights show that would screen the games from the academy,” Hector says, scratching at a tattoo of his shirt number on his right thigh. “Obviously, we’d watch it because we wanted to see ourselves in those games. They’d start with the younger kids, and then at the end of the show it would be the older ones. And that’s when I started to see him.”
Hector would go home on Monday nights in the same big cab with the same driver and other La Masia players who lived en route who’d be dropped off one by one by one. After getting home at around 11pm, Hector and his family would gather around the television and watch him play, then the older kids, and then the magic would start.
But when Hector was ten and Messi made his debut, it all started to make sense.
“Messi was amazing from the beginning. But at that time, you need to think there were massive players like Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o too. I personally never thought that he would become what he became. Second year, again, a bit better, then better and better, then to a point that he just became unstoppable.”
Messi’s impact on the other players in La Masia becomes tangible when Hector speaks about it. This was a tiny kid brought across from the other side of the world—a project. And for the kids in the academy, it showed that they had a chance too.
“It was very interesting to see because he very organically became the best player in the world. So that also gave you the faith somehow that okay, I'm not that good now, but you know, I can see that I can keep improving. It made us think that in five, six years time, I could be in that position, and I'm gonna have the chance to do that.”
When you watch Messi, what do you see? What do you think about? How would you describe him to someone who had never watched football before? Does it look like he’s in a film? And then, assuming you’re not a professional footballer, think about how that translates to them. Now take it a level further: what does someone who was formed in the same environment as Messi think when they watch Messi? An environment where you’re taught that you’re all equal, that you’re all the same, that whoever scores the goals is the same as whoever makes the scalpel-drafted first-time pass just in front of the player’s run.
“I think he’s in The Matrix,” says Hector animatedly as we get to the end of the conversation. “For me, it feels like at any time, in any game, he could decide whether he wanted to win or not. The way he runs past players, the way he’d be one v one against a goalkeeper and know where the goalkeeper was going to move before the goalie did. He could see a goalie diving one way but could still go that way and know he was going to score.”
Hector pauses. Looks off into the distance like you do when you really wanna get things right.
“I feel like he was either going slower than everyone else or seeing what was going to happen before it did. From the outside, people don’t realise how quick you have to make those decisions, how tiny the margins are. And when you see someone that makes that seem so easy, the admiration from me is over the top. I feel like when Messi has the ball, he can run past players with a feeling that he actually has more time than he has.”
We thank Hector for his time, shake hands, give Hankey a cautious belly rub and head into the night. We need to speak to some fans. We need to know what they saw.
We can see them as we turn the corner and walk across the wide road surrounding Camp Nou. Three generations of them huddled and proud at the top of the stairs. Cars are beeping, and fans are already huffing prematch drinks and food. We greet the three men and walk into the Head office of Barcelona’s Penyes, the global supporters’ clubs that stretch out across all five continents.
Inside, offices with metal blinds and cushioned chairs give the impression of an 80s community centre. But this place holds the keys to the community that makes Barcelona what it is today, and these men are proud of it.
“People were like, ‘Look, we’ve got this Argentine kid in the youth team who has a God-like touch,’” Salvador Balsells tells me. Salvador is wearing a signed Messi Barcelona top over his chequered shirt and has been a season ticket holder and soci for 60 years.
Before the 15,000 seater Mini Estadi that used to sit opposite Camp Nou was pulled down for redevelopment, fans old and young would go and watch the youth teams play at the weekend. The rumours about Messi would get whipped up in the wind and passed around the food in bars and down the rows of faces in the ground. You should’ve seen this dribble on Sunday. There was a thing he did that I still can’t work out now. He’s so, so small; I just don’t know how he does it. Tapas plates of information being shared. The rumours would grow as the boys would grow.
“We all discovered him together. It was just a case of parking the car in the field and watching the game. There used to be 20,000 people here every Sunday watching Barça Atlètic play. It was already clear, you know. I came here every Saturday or Sunday whenever the game was, and I miss it a lot. You quickly realise if a player is good or bad, you know. I reckon he's the best player ever.”
Salvador has the face of a person who has watched a lot of football. You know what I mean. How Sunday League coaches are even staring down at the ground when they walk to the office in the morning. How you crane your neck to look for balls when you walk the dog. The crease lines on his face are from the near-misses, and the upturned mouth is of someone who knows the release of a last-minute winner. You can see the players he’s watched with the way his eyes light up as he lines up the projector and the slides go click click click. There’s Ronaldo slaloming through against Compostela. There’s Cruyff, elegant, gliding, hair billowing in the wind. There’s Di Stéfano scoring one, two, three, four, ten, fifteen, eighteen goals against them. Click click click. He’s seen them all.
“Look, I’ve seen some great players. Puskás, Pelé, Maradona, but I’ve never seen anyone do what he did. He’s the player who I’ve enjoyed watching more than any other. And he’s made me cry because what he did was so emotional. I’ve said to my children that when I die, they need to play Barça’s anthem at my funeral. Barcelona’s anthem will see me out.”
Marc Lanau had seen Messi play for Barça B, too. A younger soci. 40 years old. Only five years older than Messi. He remembers how it felt to see the tiny boy slaloming his way to the first team.
“As a young fan, you’re like, ‘I’m so envious of people who watched Kubala and Cruyff. Then a player like Messi comes through who you’ve been able to watch playing for many years. It’s a privilege many people haven’t had. You really value it because you’ll say to your mates, ‘Damn, it’s like a dream watching someone like Messi.’”
The evolution of the wonderkid is a unifying experience. Whether you’re reading about an exciting youth team player on the forums, watching them on grainy highlights footage in the lounge with your family, parking the car on Sunday afternoons to watch them in friendlies in the rain or casting two wise eyes on them—it feels very much the same. So few make it through; there are documentaries and books and podcasts and stories passed down and down about the ones who didn’t. But then the ones that do, if you saw them, if you told your friends about them, if you told your club to sign them, woosh.
The first team was changing. When Messi arrived, the manager was Lorenzo Serra Ferrer (followed by Carles the season after) and wearing the blaugrana of the first team were players like Frank de Boer, Pep Guardiola, and Rivaldo. By the time Messi was edging towards training with the big boys, Frank Rijkaard was in charge of the players, and Ronaldinho was in charge of the ball. It was a new generation, a clean start, a breakaway from what season ticket holder Marc Rosell Ricat describes as “La Travesia del Desierto: The Crossing of the Desert. No titles. No wins. Very boring. It was all a bit difficult.”
The passage of time regarding his debuts is confusing because of when and what games he was allowed to play in. There was a debut in a Porto friendly in late 2003, another appearance in the league the following October and ones in the Champions League peppered around. But in May 2005, during a league game against Albacete, Messi and Ronaldinho combined to do the thing that Carles was showing me with his legs.
This is the Lionel with the hair longer at the back than at the front. Nike Tiempos on. Shorts still too big. With three minutes to go in the game, Ronaldinho collects the ball on the right-hand side of the box, 30 yards out. He takes on one, brushes off another, ladles out a quick stepover and then scoops the ball up over the Albacete backline to a scampering Messi near the penalty spot. With the keeper rushing out, Messi chips the ball over him, sees it bounce into the back of the net, looks across, and watches the linesman put his flag up.
Einstein said that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” But the definition of genius is doing the same thing over and over and getting different results.
Three minutes pass by. Added time. Messi holds the ball up 25 yards out and plays it back to Ronaldinho. They’re going to try it again. He darts, holds his run, Ronaldinho scoops the ball over, Messi waits for the ball to bounce once and then *dink* lobs the keeper. As Messi runs over to the corner of Camp Nou, arms shaking to the sides, hair rolling over his eyes, Ronaldinho follows, turns, offers him his back, and carries him on his shoulders in front of the stadium’s walls of faces. A thing so small in front of something so big. Everything was going to be different from now on.
Carles Rexach always plays down the role he had in Lionel Messi being the Lionel Messi you know today, but you can see the pride in his face. He’s invited four of us to his tennis club, really, to discuss a player who makes his eyes twinkle and his hands talk.
He remembers watching him at Old Trafford in a Champions League game against one of the Alex Ferguson teams he tormented and bumping into his mother and father.
“They were watching the game, and he scored a few goals. So when the game ends, his mum says, ‘Mr Rexach, I’ll always be grateful because you signed my son, and we can live comfortably thanks to him.’ I replied: ‘Don't thank me. If he'd not been good, I wouldn't have signed him and he wouldn't be here. So thank him because he's the one who's done everything.’”
The first question we asked Carles Rexach was pretty short, but he spoke without pause for 30 minutes. He didn’t need to warm up, or be pushed, or cajoled. He wasn’t just giving us memories of facts; these were his feelings about the game that has been his life and how watching and delivering Lionel Messi to the world encapsulates everything about the game he loves.
“I always say that anyone can see how good Messi is,” Carles leans in and says. “I’d say the same thing to a Martian: ‘Come and watch him and you'll see what I mean, and I'll keep my mouth shut.’ There are still people who say to me now, ‘Hey, I’ve seen the second coming of Messi’, and I’ll say, ‘Come off it, I don’t believe it.’”
“To find one Messi, you need some luck, and to find another, you need a miracle.”
This piece was part of our Issue 22 cover feature 'Portraits of the Artists as Young Men' where we travelled the world to tell the stories of five footballers—Messi, Ronaldo, Haaland, Maradona, and—Rooney in an early chapter of their career.
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