Lionel Messi's time with Barcelona started with the most pressurized tryout ever

TOKYO — As the sun broke over Friday morning here, the final weekend of the Summer Olympics in Japan, the lead story on one of the news stations had nothing to do with the massive sporting event that has taken over so much of this city.

Instead the focus was on Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona after the two sides failed to reach an agreement on a contract.

Perhaps only the biggest star of the world’s biggest sport could upstage the Olympics where the Olympics are actually occurring.

This was, of course, a historic, seismic, even shocking moment. Messi and Barca were synonymous for 17 seasons on the senior team, producing 672 goals, six Ballon d’Or awards, 34 major trophies and, as the newscast here proves, global fame and fandom on a nearly unparalleled level.

And it all began with what may have been the most pressure-packed and consequential tryout in any sport, ever.

Lionel Messi was 13 years old when, on September 16, 2000, he and his father Jorge traveled from their home in Rosario, Argentina, to Barcelona, Spain.

The trip was one of hope but also fear and desperation. Messi was a prodigy of a soccer player, tearing apart youth competition in Argentina. Yet his future was uncertain. Undersized for his age — he was dubbed “La Pulga” or “The Flea” for his small frame but darting style — doctors had diagnosed him with a rare growth hormone disorder.

They projected he would grow to only 4-foot-11.

Height isn’t a prerequisite in soccer, but that size would likely be prohibitive, even for someone with Messi’s skills. The good news was there were treatments available. The bad was it cost about $1,000 a month, too much for not just Messi’s family to afford but more than any professional club in Argentina was willing to gamble on a boy.

A fan wearing a jersey of Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi gestures as supporters gather in front of the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on August 5, 2021. - Lionel Messi will end his 20-year career with Barcelona after the Argentine superstar failed to reach agreement on a new deal with the club, the Spanish giants announced on August 5, 2021. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP) (Photo by PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)
A fan wearing a jersey of Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi gestures as supporters gather in front of the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona (PAU BARRENA/AFP via Getty Images)

A big European club might spend that money, though, if they were convinced that Lionel Messi was worth such a significant investment. Jorge got connected with a powerful agent, Josep Maria Minguella, who had been intrigued with scouting videos of not just Lionel playing back in Argentina, but juggling oranges and tennis balls hundreds of times in a row.

Minguella had never repped a 13-year-old, but this felt different. He convinced Barcelona, the storied powerhouse in Spain, to give Lionel consideration for their youth academy, La Masia, where top young talent lives and trains and, potentially, graduates to the main team.

This was the tryout. Yet it was more than a tryout.

Messi didn’t just have to convince the Barca coaches that he was as good as the other kids — all of them the top players his age in Spain. He didn’t just have to convince them he was better than they were even.

He had to convince them that he was so good, so uniquely valuable as a prospect, that the club would be willing to bring in a foreigner, get his father who would live in Barcelona an apartment, a work visa and a job and pay for Lionel’s expensive medication.

All that for a tiny 13-year-old when there was no guarantee if the treatments would even work.

The margin for error was as infinitesimal as the stakes were significant.

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 14 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 14 slideshow embed

Not making the team wasn’t an option. Each week that Messi went without the medicine decreased the chances of growing. Just going back to Argentina might mean his career would be significantly hampered, if not effectively over. And if word spread that Barca said no to him, what chances were there that he could get a similar tryout with another major club?

Lionel Messi’s entire career as one of the greatest players of all time might have hung on that single tryout as a nervous and homesick kid.

It was now or never. Literally.

When Messi stepped onto the pitch for the tryout, the other players scoffed. This tiny kid came all the way from Argentina?

“We saw how small he was, how skinny he was, we thought we were going to eat him,” Marc Pedraza, a player there that day, told Bleacher Report years later.

Then they started playing and Messi did the very things Messi would do for the next few decades in Barcelona, namely dribbling around, through and by everyone on the field. In the tryout scrimmage, he scored five goals.

“When he touched the ball, we saw that he was a phenomenon,” Pedraza said. “It was impossible to get the ball off him.”

The scouts and coaches couldn’t believe their eyes. Was he really 13? Was he really that good? Were their eyes deceiving them?

A second tryout was soon set up for the club’s technical director, Carles Rexach, one of the most accomplished and influential figures in global soccer and the man who could make the decision to allocate the resources and bring Lionel Messi to Barcelona.

The entire concept of this scouting session was absurd. This was like a seventh-grade quarterback — from another country no less — playing in front of Bill Belichick. Rexach was suspicious his coaches were playing a trick on him. He didn’t even show up until just as the scrimmage was starting.

Rexach arrived on the far side of the pitch. He needed to travel all the way around the field to arrive where the other scouts and coaches were gathered.

As he walked and watched though, his eyes nearly popped out of his head. This tiny kid was whipping through his entire youth academy team. The footwork. The ball control. The bursts of speed. The changes of direction. In decades of soccer, he’d never seen anything like The Flea.

By the time he arrived on the other side and joined the coaches, Rexach had watched Lionel Messi for just a couple minutes but a decision had been made. He’d seen enough and had a single message for the coaches.

The apartment? The medicine? The money? The work visa? The risk of risking it all on a 13-year-old from some small city in Argentina?

Stop the game, he told them.

“You can sign him,” Rexach said.

The greatest tryout performance in the most pressurized tryout ever would yield Lionel Messi medication that would allow him to grow to 5-foot-7 and in turn provide Barcelona a megastar of such accomplishment and importance that his leaving of the club, some 21 years later, was so consequential the sports world stopped when word of it broke.

Even here in the heart of the Olympics.

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