Thu, Jan 12, 2012 - Page 18 News List

Messi’s meteoric rise with Barca started on a napkin

AP, BARCELONA, SPAIN

Lionel Messi’s remarkable career with Barcelona began on a napkin.

It happened more than a decade ago, when the 13-year-old Messi, then just a scrawny little kid with plenty of talent, was hoping to earn a contract with Barcelona.

“It’s a napkin that myself and many colleagues believe has changed the history of Barcelona,” said Horacio Gaggioli, who helped broker the deal. “If it didn’t exist, Leo would have played for another team.”

In September 2000, Messi had his first tryout with Barcelona. Undersized, but dazzling as always with a ball at his feet, the Argentine teen impressed Barcelona club official Carles Rexach.

So when the time came a few months later to make a firm decision, the club’s technical secretary and past and future coach scribbled out an informal contract on the closest piece of paper he could find at Barcelona’s Pompeia Tennis Club. In it, Rexach reiterates Barcelona’s desire to meet the demands of Messi’s father, Jorge.

The small napkin reads: “In Barcelona, on the 14th of December of 2000 and in the presence of Josep Minguella and Horacio [Gaggioli], Carles Rexach, FCB technical secretary, it commits under his responsibility and despite some views against it to sign the player Lionel Messi, as long we stick to the amounts agreed upon.”

Messi’s exploits since turning professional have been amazing.

Still only 24, Messi has won soccer’s top individual prize, the Ballon d’Or, for a third consecutive time. He scored 53 goals last season and has 31 so far this season, leaving him only 25 goals short of Cesar Rodriguez’s club record.

Nicknamed “The Flea,” Messi has also won three Champions League titles, five La Liga titles, a pair of Club World Cup and European Super Cups, five Spanish Super Cups and one Copa del Rey since his club debut in 2004 — leading to comparisons to Pele, Diego Maradona and Alfredo Di Stefano, the game’s greatest players.

“They were different players and so was he. Players like him are very few, which is why we signed him so young — there was something different about him,” Rexach said. “The family asked us for a paper to confirm the deal, so they could be confident about his signing for Barcelona. I had nothing else to write on, so I used a napkin.”

The process to bring Messi to Barcelona started even earlier, though.

Gaggioli had been asked by contacts from Messi’s native Rosario to help broker a tryout with Barcelona because the family had decided to leave Newell’s Old Boys for the riches of Europe. Besides searching for a big European club, Jorge Messi was looking for a team that would also agree to pay for Messi’s growth hormone treatment.

River Plate had the chance to sign Messi before Barcelona came into the picture and Gaggioli said he will never forget the day he went to meet the Messis for the first time.

“I met them at the airport and when I saw Leo, I thought: ‘Where is this kid going to play?’” Gaggioli said. “He was so small and so skinny that the notion of him playing football seemed impossible.”

Despite his slight appearance, Messi was mesmerizing on the field. He had been a standout player for Newell’s youth teams — scoring handfuls of goals at a time — and he wowed Rexach and youth team coach Quimet Rife in his single tryout against older boys.

Still, convincing incoming president Joan Gaspart to commit to signing a 13-year-old nobody when he needed to hire a coach and sign players for a league run was proving difficult. Especially considering Messi’s weak physique, with the cost of treatment paramount to any deal after Newell’s stopped funding it.

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