Barcelona haven't faced Juventus competitively since April 2003, but two years after that their special prodigy from Rosario was truly announcing his arrival - and a young Andy Murray, later to join FFT and be crowned the 2015 PPA New Consumer Journalist of the Year, was there to see it...
Wednesday 24 August 2005 was a relatively nondescript weekday in Catalonia. It was humid, the sort of summer’s evening where the heat clings to your skin and infects your clothes’ fibres.
I had arrived in Lleida – a provincial city about two-and-a-half hours inland from Barcelona – two days earlier to spend a year in Spain as part of my degree.
Keen to quickly sample some Catalan football culture, I traversed the city’s tightly woven streets to a bar just off Plaça Sant Joan and watch the prestige Gamper pre-season friendly between Barça and Juventus.
What I discovered on the small, wall-bracketed TV that night was something I’ll never forget. A tiny 18-year-old kid playing on the right wing was simply embarrassing Fabio Cannavaro, Patrick Vieira and Giorgio Chiellini. Wearing the No.30, every time he got the ball he ran with it.
With one Cruyff turn, he turned Cannavaro inside out. Mauro Camoranesi assaulted him with one chest-high tackle. A few minutes later, Emerson did likewise. He was unstoppable. I’d fallen in love. This kid was a genius. This kid was Lionel Messi. And this was his first Camp Nou start.
He wasn’t like any other footballer I’d ever seen. To do this to players, World Cup winners past and future remember, was stunning. Before watching Barcelona’s first Camp Nou league game a couple of weeks later, I headed straight for the club shop and bought one of only five ‘Messi 30’ shirts. It’s still my favourite football shirt, purely because I’d found the next big thing.
So had Cule fans everywhere. With 10 minutes to go, the Camp Nou started to sing, in exultant extasis, “Messi! Messi! Messi!” The following morning, Spanish daily El Pais proclaimed the arrival.
“Last night’s Gamper will go down in history as the crowning of a magisterial footballer who offered a recital,” they wrote. “[Coach Frank] Rijkaard will have a serious problem now, because it would be a crime were he not to find space for Messi in his team.”
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Fabio Capello, Juve’s coach that night, was just as stunned. “I’d never seen anything like it from a teenager,” he later recalled. “At the end of the game, I went up to Rijkaard and asked to loan him for the season, because they already had three non-EU players [Messi was due to receive his Spanish passport the following month]. He just laughed and said: ‘No chance.’”
Nearly 10 years on from that mesmerising debut, Messi will face Juve for a second time in Saturday’s Champions League final. The Old Lady can only hope that they deal with him a good deal better than that balmy night August night in 2005.