Fault! The file name is not specified. Messi is just one destination, and his journey to Barcelona officially began 20 years ago, on the 14th day of the Messi festival. December. David Ramos/Getty Pictures
The 14th. In the presence of [Josep Maria] Minguella and Horacio [Gaggioli] in Barcelona on December 1, 2000, Carles Rexac, sports director of FC Barcelona, agreed to sign the player Lionel Messi under his own responsibility and without prejudice to any special advice, provided that we respect the amounts agreed.
The words above, written on a napkin after a tennis match in Barcelona, went down in football history. They were drawn up in haste by Rexac, Barca’s sports director at the time, to assure Jorge Messi that the Catalan club was planning to sign a contract with his son. Rexach drew the briefcase, as did agents Minghella and Hajioli as witnesses.
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Messi’s father began to worry about his son’s future because Barca clearly hesitated to close the deal. Behind the scenes at Camp Nou there was a debate about the merits of signing a contract with a 13-year-old, but a few minutes after Rexach saw him at an audition in Barcelona in September 2000, he was convinced they had to play. When the prospect of Messi’s move to another location arose, with the threat of signing Real and Atletico in Madrid, Rexach took control to calm the family’s nerves.
Twenty years later Messi has scored more than 600 goals for Barca and Xavier Hernandez’ record of 767 games is fast approaching. (It is also not equal to Pele’s record for the number of goals scored for a club). He has also been named six times best player in the world, and many consider him to be the best player of all time.
In honor of the 20th. On the anniversary of the signing of the napkin, ESPN spoke with three signatories: Rexach, Minghella and Hagioli, as well as Barca president Joan Gaspart at the time, talked about the events that have led to a moment of improvisation that will change the fate of the club for the next two decades.
Reports by Sam Marsden, Jordy Blanco and Moises Llorenc
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Ale Moreno’s 1-0 victory over Levante clearly shows that Barcelona did not score a single goal.
Opening of Messi
Messi joined his home team, Newell’s Old Boys, in 1994 at the age of 6, and videos of his incredible skills at that age have since gone viral. However, the news then spread less quickly and he remained relatively unknown outside Rosario. As he got older, there were rumors, but the fact that Messi had been diagnosed with growth hormone syndrome – and that he needed treatment to help his body grow and develop properly – frightened clubs in Argentina, including River Plate. The treatment was expensive for a teenager with no guarantee of success. It was a price they could not afford or did not want to play, and Messi needed a club that was willing to pay for the treatment.
Messi’s luck returned in 1998 when the Argentine agent Gaggioli, who has lived in Barcelona for many years, received a phone call from two of Rosario’s contacts – Fabiana Soldini and Martin Montero. Two years later, with the help of Minguella – an agent who had worked with Barca in the past on numerous matters, including the signing of Diego Maradona – and Rexach, Gaggioli managed to bring the Messi family to Barcelona.
Hagioli: It all started in 1998 when two of my friends, Soldini and Montero, who had a football school in Rosario, told me about this child. Massey was 11 when I first got a call to talk about him. My idea was to wait until he was 12 or 13, because he was very young then. They never hid that he would need injections [to promote growth]. They kept sending me this video over and over.
As soon as the situation improved, I organized a meeting in Buenos Aires and Juan Mateo came from Porto Alegre. We talked about getting a video for Minghella to test the test in Barcelona. Messi’s family told Soldini and Montero that they wanted a big club and a place where the family could live together. It was Barcelona because [I was there], but it could have been a club in Madrid at that time, because I had an offer to move and it was never accepted.
I saw Lionel’s video in February 2000, and I knew this guy was damn good. There was a chance to work in Madrid and I would have offered it to Real Madrid or Atletico, but in the end I stayed in Barcelona and Rexach accepted the offer for a trial period.
Minghella: One of the people I trust most in the world of football has always been Juan Mateo. He was the one who called me on the phone, happy that he found exceptional talent in Rosario, who played in Newell’s youth team, and how he always went straight to the opposition goal after receiving the ball. Technology wasn’t what it is now. Now you can connect anywhere in the world and see everything in no time, but I had to ask them to record some videos and send them to my house.
When I saw the tape, I couldn’t believe it. He was a very small player, but with exceptional talent, with the ball stuck to his leg and straight on goal.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Messi, represented in a series in Barcelona in 2003. Thanks to the famous signature on a napkin, the Spanish giants have won the trust and signature of one of the best players of all time. Marcelo Boeri/ El Grafiko/Getty Pictures
Rexach: Hagioli told me about Messi in Montevideo, Uruguay. I was in Brazil to watch the players and in Montevideo, on the way back to Barcelona, he told me to change my plans and go to Rosario to see the phenomenon. When I asked him about his age and situation and he told me he was 13, my first reaction was not to rush me… …but his enthusiasm when he talked about him brought me back. So I made a decision that could have been criticized at the time: I proposed to Horacio to organize a trip to Barcelona for the child and his parents, so we can see him for a few weeks.
Personally I didn’t know anything about Messi until one afternoon – I don’t know the exact date – I saw him in a field near the Mini Estadi. A competition was organized with some boys from the youth teams. When Messi arrived in Barcelona, I made it clear that the child would go to court, but I had to leave – to Australia, I think – and I didn’t know until I got back. Later I found out that he had played several games, but no one had dared to make a decision.
What I will never forget is that it took me 15 minutes for the three or four minute walk on the field, because I was amazed and excited when I looked at him and saw what he was doing with the ball, his movements, his falls and his vision. I knew it was him, and no one told me, because he was the smallest in the field, and I saw something very unusual in him. I got on the couch, sat down and told the two coaches who were there: Draw. Don’t even think about it. And if anyone asks, tell them it’s my decision.
Hagioli: When I first saw him, I didn’t realize how small he was. From the 16th to the 30th. He arrived in Barcelona in September for the trial. Jorge Massey, Soldini and I watched the test games together. I noticed Lionel. He hit the ball like nobody else. There was some guts, but Lionel was quick to drive it out. It was a great experience and Rexach said he was already convinced the club had to sign it.
Gas Pard: I didn’t know who Messi was. It would be easy to say I was in love from day one, but I wasn’t. Rexach told me about Leo. He deserves all the credit. He came to me and told me that we must not let this extraordinary child, who came from Argentina, escape. He said he didn’t look like he’d ever seen before. And if Rexah’s athletic director says so… Not only did I give him permission, I pushed him.
And I say it again, without knowing anything about Leo.
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Ale Moreno hopes that the high standards of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo will not stand in their way in the future.
Risk of loss Messi
Despite Rexach’s conviction that Barca Messi should sign, the club took its time after the September trial. There were doubts about investing in someone so young. Messi and his family were between Barcelona and Buenos Aires, and finally, without news of Barca, they started to worry.
As Christmas approached, those who had helped Messi to Spain began to think of taking him to other clubs. Reference was made to Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid.
Hagioli: Rexach had already decided [to sign], as had the late Joan Lakueva, who eventually paid to start hormone treatment, but the club never did. They said it was crazy to draw Massey. Things didn’t go well in Barcelona and the club was about to go bankrupt. Montero came in November to try to solve the problems, but he failed. Then Montero called me and told me to talk to Rexack and said we couldn’t keep up. And he told me that if we didn’t sign, Messi would go to court, with Real Madrid or Atletico.
Rexach: I don’t know if other teams were interested back then, I don’t think so. We had a kid here at the club that’s different than anything we’ve ever seen before. It was, I don’t know, a gift, a unique opportunity and a risk. They told me at the club: Look, Charlie, he’s 13, and we don’t know what could happen in the future… They didn’t want to risk such a small child. But I knew we had to sign it so he wouldn’t go anywhere and regret it.
Minghella: River Plate tried to convince him for a few days, but eventually decided not to sign. That’s why the player’s father didn’t have to think about it when the opportunity arose to go to Barcelona.
Part of the research was playing with children of Messi’s age and the [next age group] team. It was agreed after we talked to Rexach about taking a child to Barcelona. The best they could do was watch him. Charly trusted the president and is a legend of Barca, so there was no one better than him to render [Messi] over and over again.
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Sergino Dest is of the opinion that Barcelona has come to his mind again pending a visit to Cadiz.
Rexach reacted as soon as he saw him playing. A few minutes later he said it had to be signed, that it was unique. Quimet Rife and several former Barca players who worked at the academy at the time also participated in the game. Messi was different from the others, which confirms what we saw in the videos that Juan Mateo sent me from Argentina: He’s always strived for a goal.
Gas Pard: I didn’t know anything about the lawsuit, and I didn’t even consult with anyone after talking to Rexack. I told you, it was his decision… Well, the last word should have been from me as president, of course, but that’s thanks to Charlie.
Messi’s signing session came just months after the departure of [Luis] Figu, who has been a hard nut for the club and has given him his own book. Everything that happened in August, I would have wished for no one, and as you can imagine, Messi was not a priority for the club at that time.
I remember that the logistical circumstances were different because my father, Jorge, wanted Leo to live in an apartment with him and not at La Masia with the other children from the academy. For once Rexach has told me that it is possible, that we can’t be fooled by small problems and that we have to do it.
In mid-December, Massey’s father, Jorge, was very nervous. The lack of news from Barcelona made him believe they didn’t want his son to sign. Feeling that the club was in danger of missing a punctual player, Rexach intervened to prevent Messi from going anywhere.
Rexach: Jorge thought [Barca] would slow down. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know exactly what it was like, but when I met Jorge, I realized he didn’t know anything. I think he [Barca] didn’t seem familiar and desperate, so one night I met Minguella and Horacio at the tennis club in Pompeii, and when I talked to Jorge on the phone, he told me we’d leave if we didn’t find out soon. I have to go back to Buenos Aires, and I don’t see anything happening. Then, standing up, I’ve decided everything.
What’s the towel for? Because it was all I had. I saw that the only way to relax Jorge was to sign something, to give him proof, so I asked the waiter for a napkin and wrote: The 14th. Minghella and Horacio in Barcelona on 31 December 2000, Carles Rexac, sports director of FC Barcelona, agrees to sign the player Lionel Messi under his own responsibility and without prejudice to any particular advice, provided that we respect the amounts agreed.
I told Jorge that I have my signature and that there are witnesses that I take direct responsibility with my name, there is nothing more to discuss and tolerate for a few days, because Leo can already consider himself a Barca player.
Minghella: We met at the Pompey Tennis Club in Montjuic, Barcelona. After the tennis match we had a chat. Horatio was there, too. We’ve come to the conclusion that something must be done. He was a genius at Rexach, not a newspaper at the tennis club, he took a napkin, wrote down a contract and we all signed it.
Immediately afterwards I spoke with Jorge Messi, who was with Leo at the Plaza Hotel in the city, to confirm that one of the president’s men had signed the document and that the child had come to stay here. The messengers were desperate for Barca’s silence, but at that moment everything was clear.
Hagioli: From what my lawyers told me, the briefcase was a legal document and it changed everyone’s life. Today it is kept in a bank in Andorra – it is a historical document and must be preserved. However, it should be noted that since the publication of this document, Barca has sent a letter inviting his family to come to Barcelona. Joan Lacueva sent a letter with 10 lines in which he said that the whole family had to go to Catalonia in February 2001.
Gas Pard: The towel was a moral way to let Jorge know there was nothing to be afraid of. Officially it meant nothing, but we had to wait until Paco Closa [Barca’s former vice-president] signed the first contract.
Start and processing
The napkin was only the beginning of the end of the legend. It will take almost a month before Messi is officially signed as a Barca player. Due to registration problems it can only start in March.
After his 9th place in the match against Amposta. T-shirt, he scored a goal in his first official performance for the club. Soon everyone in the club realized the calibre of the player and soon other European heavyweights tried to attract him. However, Messi remained loyal to Barca and acknowledged that they had agreed to finance his hormone treatment.
Messi’s treatment consisted of injecting human growth hormone into his own legs every night. It was reported that the total cost of treatment was around EUR 1 000 per month, although neither the club nor Messi have confirmed these figures.
Fault! The file name is not specified. Messi also made history by winning six Golden Balls, a prize that is awarded each year to the best male and female soccer players. FRANCK FIFE/AFP via Getty Images
Rexach: For a while he didn’t make his debut because he was a foreigner and couldn’t play official matches until his father was registered in the country. I had to do the paperwork so he could play, but after the towel I relaxed, just like Jorge.
Minghella: A few small bureaucratic problems were solved in March, the month of the beginning. He was a foreigner and under the age of 18, so he had to have a permit. Despite the training with the U13 A team, when it would have been more normal to be with the U15 B team, he had to make his debut with the U13 B team.
Hagioli: Newell refused to pay for hormone treatments like those at River Plate. Lakueva paid for the first phase of the treatment, after which Barca took over. As soon as he started playing regularly [for Barcelona], all the major clubs called on him, including Juventus, Inter, Liverpool, Real Madrid, although Arsenal was most likely to sign him. We even had dinner with Arsen Wenger. Around the same time, Cecq Fabregas, a good friend of Massey’s, moved to the Arsenal.
Rexach: Hormone treatment? Look, I took responsibility for the signing. Everything else was a club. Of course it was an expense, but it wasn’t exaggerated and I wasn’t worried about it. I said he signed, and now you can take care of the rest by telling [the club] to take responsibility.
Gas Pard: Nothing special happened to the growth course, the hormones. Don’t pay attention to what people with bad intentions might say. The signature was approved with specific connotations [in terms of treatment], and from then on Messi had a normal daily life in the club. What I suspect is that another club wanted to join him for a while. You don’t have to tell me who. I think it’s obvious, of course.
I haven’t had a chance to appreciate Messi as president yet. I had no luck with him or with players like Andres Inesta, Victor Valdes, Javi and Carl Puyol, although some of them made their first-team debut. I was especially careful to keep Puyol and Javi in the club if they could walk and talk to [Louis] Van Gaal when he wanted to kick Valdes out. Caring for one’s own children and the football players at the academy is of fundamental importance to the club.
I’m sure Messis, Jorge and Leo’s relationship with Barca has always been close. They understood how happy Leo was, and their gratitude was very clear.