From then to now
On Saturday October 16, 2004, a talented 17-year-old by the name of Lionel Messi made his competitive debut for Barcelona.
The diminutive winger was introduced in the 82nd minute of the Blaugrana’s 1-0 defeat of city rivals Espanyol in La Liga, and has gone on to establish himself as the greatest player in football history since. But what became of his colleagues that afternoon?
GK: Victor Valdes
Valdes became Barcelona’s first-choice goalkeeper in 2003/04 and would eventually leave the club having played 535 times and won 11 major trophies. The Catalan featured only twice during a year-long spell at Manchester United, before seeing out his career at Middlesbrough in 2016/17.
After acquiring his coaching licence, Valdes took charge of amateur side ED Moratalaz in 2018, paving the way for a return to Barcelona as a youth coach. However, an almighty fall-out with academy director Patrick Kluivert led to his hasty exit only months into the job.
RB: Juliano Belletti
Barcelona signed Belletti in 2004 after two excellent seasons for Villarreal, and the Brazilian spent the 2004/05 campaign as his new side’s first-choice right-back. He was sold to Chelsea in 2007 and then played 13 games for Fluminense at the turn of the decade, but was forced to retire in 2011 due to an Achilles tendon injury.
Belletti now works as a global ambassador for Barcelona, but he returned to Stamford Bridge to play for a Chelsea Legends side in a charity match earlier this year.
CB: Carles Puyol
A one-club man who made his Barcelona debut in 1999 and final outing for the club in 2014, Puyol won six La Liga titles and three Champions Leagues during his successful 15-year spell as a Blaugrana centre-back.
Appointed as assistant to director of football Andoni Zubizarreta soon after hanging up his boots, Puyol left the role a few months later and rejected a chance to return to the Camp Nou as sporting director in September 2019.
The least well-known member of Barcelona’s matchday squad for this derby with Espanyol, Oleguer partnered Carles Puyol at centre-back and helped Frank Rijkaard’s men record a clean sheet.
The defender spend three years at Ajax after leaving Barcelona in 2008, and these days is better renowned for his political activity: Oleguer, who rejected a Spain call-up at the start of the country’s golden era, is a fierce advocate for Catalan independence.
LB: Giovanni van Bronckhorst
Van Bronckhorst was a Barça player for four seasons from 2003-07, having made his loan spell from Arsenal permanent in the summer of 2004 for a cut-price €2 million. He helped them win the Liga title in that campaign, scoring four goals along the way.
The Dutchman returned to Feyenoord one year after tasting Champions League glory, and eventually joined the club's coaching staff in 2011. In 2015 he was promoted from his role as assistant, and in 2016/17 helped the club win their first Eredivisie title for 18 years.
Van Bronckhorst stepped down at the end of the 2018/19 campaign, and the most recent reports say that he's accepted a non-specific role at Manchester City to hone his coaching skills. A Pep replacement in the making?
Deco scored the only goal of the game against Espanyol, before making way for Messi in the closing stages. The playmaker had only joined Barcelona in summer 2004 and would spend four years at the club, before turning out for Chelsea and Fluminense in the latter part of his career.
Deco retired in August 2013, announcing his decision a day before he turned 36. He has worked in punditry and held various brand ambassador roles since then, as well as founding a football school in Brazil.
CM: Rafael Marquez
A versatile player who could excel in the centre of the park or at the back, Marquez was deployed as a holding midfielder for this trip to Espanyol. The Mexican spent seven years at the Camp Nou, eventually departing for the New York Red Bulls in 2010 and going on to represent Leon, Hellas Verona and Atlas.
He brought the curtain down on an extraordinary international career at last summer’s World Cup, with his final appearance as a professional coming in the last-16 loss to Brazil – one year after being among 22 people sanctioned under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act for alleged ties to a drug trafficking organisation.
He's now 40 years old and currently working as Atlas’ sporting president back home.
Xavi played 45 times in all competitions for Barcelona in 2004/05, but wasn’t yet the influential icon he would become. The midfield metronome defined an era and proved to the world that engine-room operators needn't always be powerful, well-built physical specimens.
The four-time Champions League winner wound down his playing career with Qatari outfit Al Sadd, who he now leads from the dugout. It’s surely a question of when rather than if Xavi becomes Barcelona manager.
RW: Samuel Eto’o
Eto’o’s five seasons at Barcelona brought 130 goals in 199 games, not to mention three La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues. This was one of his first outings for the Blaugrana having joined from Mallorca in summer 2004, and he went on to win plenty more at Inter after leaving the Camp Nou.
The Cameroonian played in Russia, England, Italy, Turkey and Qatar before officially announcing his retirement in September 2019.
Barcelona would soon become Messi’s team, but in the mid-2000s it belonged to Ronaldinho. Voted the FIFA World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005, the Brazilian magician was ultimately sold by the La Liga giants in 2008 because Pep Guardiola feared his off-field activities would negatively influence a youthful Messi.
Ronaldinho went on to represent Milan, Flamengo, Atletico Mineiro, Queretaro and Fluminense, before belatedly hanging up his boots in 2018. He still regularly turns out in charity matches and is employed as an ambassador by Barcelona.
ST: Henrik Larsson
Larsson will always hold the distinction of coming on in a Champions League final and setting up both of the goals that won Barcelona the trophy against Arsenal in 2006 – a fine way to prove to the world that he could indeed adapt his talents to the highest level.
The striker had joined Barça as a Celtic icon in 2004, but played only 12 league matches in an injury-ravaged first season. He'd already announced his return to Sweden midway through 2005/06, but made sure he ended his stint at the Camp Nou in the most memorable way.
Larsson retired (officially) at Helsingborg in 2009, via a loan spell at Manchester United, and went straight into management in his homeland. He left Helsingborg for the second time as manager in 2019 and was most recently linked with the vacancy at Southend.
Sub: Andres Iniesta
After 16 years in the Barcelona first team, Iniesta bade farewell to the Camp Nou in 2018. He departed as one of the club’s most important ever players, having helped the Catalan club to 19 major trophies since his own debut in 2002.
Iniesta turns 36 next May but is still turning out regularly for Japanese outfit Vissel Kobe, with whom he is contracted until 2021.
Sub: Lionel Messi
Fifteen years on from his debut for the club, it's impossible to separate Messi and the modern-day Barcelona. The Argentine has won 10 La Liga titles, six Copas del Rey and four Champions Leagues since his maiden appearance in October 2004, scoring 604 goals in 692 club appearances and arguably becoming the greatest footballer the world has ever seen.
Now 32, Messi remains as important to the Blaugrana cause as ever. Success has continually eluded him at international level, but the forward will be desperate to win a fifth Champions League before hanging up his boots.
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