Watching Lionel Messi – The Athletic


World Cup win or not, Lionel Messi is, it seems, quite good at football.

Many people have gone to matches just to watch him, others have come up against him and pulled their hair out trying to stop him.

He became the best in the world at the three things you can do with the ball at your feet: dribbling, passing, shooting. He convinced the world to play without a recognised striker at a time when he was breaking goalscoring records.

This piece is a celebration of Messi the footballer, of those times when he left us (and some guest writers) breathless.

This is Watching Messi.

Andoni Zubizarreta, former Barcelona and Spain goalkeeper and sporting director 
I am going to pick two moments. The first is after a game against Arsenal, the second leg in the Champions League (2009-10, quarter-finals), when Leo had scored four goals and we had gone through in the tie. In the moment, he left the pitch with the ball under his arm, like a boy leaving the school playground. Leo the player, on the pitch, is a competitor. But when he leaves the pitch, he turns into that boy bringing his ball home.

The other is at the Ciutat Esportiva (training ground). We passed a group of kids aged 10 or 12, who began to call out to Leo and ask him for autographs. We told them that he had to go to training, but Leo said, no, no, not a problem, went over to them, signed the autographs and talked to them for a few minutes. I am not saying he was just like them, but they were like him when he first arrived at Barcelona.

Alan Shearer, former England captain and Athletic columnist
My favourite Messi moment has to be at the Lusail Stadium the other night. To be a witness in the ground, to feel that rocking atmosphere, to be groping for the words to describe his genius on the radio… Ah man, it was very special and I can still feel the buzz of it.

Put it in context. Messi is 35. He was playing in the semi-final of a World Cup with a nation’s pressure loaded onto his shoulders and the pressure of millions more willing him to either succeed or fail. And he was up against arguably the best defender of the tournament in Croatia’s Josko Gvardiol.

Messi looks towards his fans against Croatia (Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

To deliver in the way he did took the breath away: converting a penalty under such crushing weight; setting up Julian Alvarez with that beautiful, balletic move. Just as impressive was his endurance, that knowledge of when to run and when to conserve energy, playing the full game. There was no way he was going to be taken off. Spellbinding, mesmerising Messi.

Mauricio Pochettino, Messi’s former manager at PSG
Everyone will say Messi’s best performance was with Barcelona, but I think his best performances are right now. To be 35 and playing the way he is playing, the way he is enjoying his game in the World Cup, if I had to pick one period I would pick now. I agree with Alan that this week against Croatia, the action for the third goal, to set up Alvarez, was amazing. Only a genius like Messi can do this.

I chose Croatia because it was a really emotional occasion, in a World Cup semi-final. Knowing that maybe it could be his last few games playing for the national team in a World Cup. We can all find different games because he has been amazing for almost 20 years now, but for me it’s the last one. To be able to play in the way he is playing, to be the leader Argentina needs, for me that is a massive step for him. Not just the performance, in the way that we expect now, but the leadership that everyone is trying to get from him, too.

Xabier Etxeita, former Athletic Bilbao defender 
I suffered Messi many times, but my memory is the Copa del Rey final of 2015 in Camp Nou. It was one of the best Barca teams in history, not just Messi, they had Neymar, too, so many great players. We studied them very closely and we were most worried about Messi; we knew he was the only player who could put us out of shape. We decided before the game in a meeting with (coach) Ernesto Valverde that our left-back (Mikel Balenziaga) would man-mark him for the whole game and we practised all week how to stop him.

The game was the same as always — Barcelona controlled the ball but they were not really causing us much bother. We were doing very good defensive work, we had studied them very closely. Until Messi picked up the ball and went away from three of our players with such ease. Our best defensive midfielders tried to stop Leo, even trying to foul him, but it was impossible to knock him to the ground.

Messi celebrates his incredible goal (Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images)

I was playing with (Aymeric) Laporte, so I was the right-sided centre-back and was more worried about a possible pass to Luis Suarez, who was behind me. I did not want to move too much, as (Messi) would be able to chip the ball in behind for Suarez. Then, while he was still outside the box, I came over to try to block, thinking he would go for the far post. And I did it well as I had that shot covered. But he had the ability, right in the last second, to decide to shoot at the near post and hit it hard. It was a golazo. It left us all with that feeling that we had done everything a football team could do to stop him, but even still we were unable to. There was just nothing more we could have done.

Rafa Benitez, former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Inter Milan manager
On the way to our second Champions League final for Liverpool, we played against Messi’s Barcelona over two legs in 2007. At that point, Messi was still young and playing as a right-winger. Up front in the second game was Samuel Eto’o, with Messi on one side and Ronaldinho on the other, so Barca’s forward line was made up of three top, top players.

Messi was always looking to come inside, so we took the decision to put Alvaro Arbeloa, our right-back, on the left, allowing him to be more reactive when Messi moved. At the same time, we used a holding midfielder to protect Alvaro a little bit. Analysing his movement was our way of trying to control Messi and we won the away game 2-1 and then went through on away goals.

By the time Barcelona beat Manchester United in the Champions League final four years later, Messi had more freedom and so handling him became far more difficult. That match at Wembley stands out for me because he played as a false nine, with David Villa stationed on the right between United’s left centre-back and Patrice Evra, the left-back.

That gave Barcelona superiority in the middle, effectively giving them an extra player. And it created a dilemma for Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand, the centre-halves, because they knew if they followed Messi it would leave a big gap behind and if they left him he would receive the ball in space, which is always dangerous.

The Messi we see at this World Cup has adapted. In the past, it was about pace, ability and his finishing, which has always been exceptional. Now he has a little less pace, but he compensates with greater experience. He knows when to use his energy but he is still so good at holding the ball close to his feet, changing direction, moving it from one side to another and, when he’s in the box, inviting penalties. And, of course, he can be lethal from set pieces. Messi’s vision has adapted with his talent. That’s what makes him so special.

Roberto Carlos, former Brazil international
One of the most important players in the whole of football. He should never stop. I broke my finger playing against Messi. It’s very difficult to mark him.

Dwayne De Rosario, former Canada international
Messi continues to show it doesn’t matter your size, it just matters how good your football brain is.

I can’t tell you one special moment because there are so many to count. I can remember the first time he came on for Barca and he chipped the keeper from a pass from Ronaldinho and finished it. It was pretty ballsy for a young player to do that for his first goal, but I think it was a quick flash of the brilliance to come.


Kevin Kilbane, former Republic of Ireland international
The night I kept football’s greatest player quiet – that’s my claim to fame, kind of. As the years have gone by and the more trophies he’s won, my story gets better and better. Oh yeah, I played directly against Messi and he didn’t score, didn’t cause me or my team-mates too much damage and was hooked after 58 minutes. Not bad, eh? Not bad at all.

The truth? Well, I was substituted a minute earlier and this chronic back pain I have now was probably set off by all the twisting and turning he did that night, with me desperately sticking my backside out to stop him getting away.

I doubt that Argentina’s friendly international against Ireland in August 2010 will feature near the top of Messi’s golden moments, but they were prestige opponents for our first game at the Aviva Stadium.

There was an outrageous rumour going around that the Football Association of Ireland had been paid to stop us kicking Messi. If they were, we certainly didn’t see a penny of it! I was 33 and playing left-back, never the best in the world. I’d always say to the winger playing in front of me: “Leave me one-on-one, don’t worry about coming back, I’ll deal with it.”

Kilbane tries to stay with Messi (Photo: PETER MUHLY/AFP via Getty Images)

Against Messi, I quickly realised that tactic wasn’t going to work. The reality hit me very early that I was playing against a superstar, someone very special, although one of the first times he got the ball he produced a move which was straight out of the Kilbane playbook; he overhit it and knocked it out.

The next time he got it, he dropped his shoulder as if he was going to knock the ball with his left foot down the line and immediately did that signature move where he flicks it over your outstretched right boot and then skips away from you and is immediately on the inside. That move fizzled out.

The next time Messi got it, he did the same kind of thing, only he flicked the ball through my legs. I got myself in the way, blocked his run and gave away a free kick.

Truth be told, he was flitting in and out of the game and probably wasn’t in the mood or, more accurately, didn’t need to be in the mood. After he got away from me, he checked back and circulated the ball.

I’d put Messi in the same bracket as Johan Cruyff, George Best, Pele, Diego Maradona, Eusebio, players who could do everything on the pitch.

Luckily for him, he didn’t come up against me more often. It’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Tim Cahill, former Australia international
My favourite memory of watching Messi is seeing his growth at this World Cup. This isn’t the strongest Argentinian team. I think this will be a great story for Messi because it’s not been easy for them. Even the result they had against Australia (2-1 win in the last 16) — how difficult we made it for them — and Croatia dominated large parts of the semi-final. In the end, Croatia got hit on the transition and Argentina scored three goals, which flattered them but I suppose this is football and that’s why we love it. With Messi, there are too many memories to think of but everyone wishes he can finish with a World Cup medal.

Dermot Corrigan, The Athletic’s La Liga writer
The Estadio Vicente Calderon was a tremendous place to watch football, especially on dark nights when Atletico were going well and facing a big rival.

The old concrete bowl was especially noisy for Barcelona’s visit in February 2012, with the recently arrived Diego Simeone having already instilled a new edge and spirit in the team and its fans. It was fantastically exciting for someone in their first season covering La Liga professionally.

Messi quickly settled into the occasion, bursting through three defenders and chipping past Thibaut Courtois, only for the referee to see a handball. He disagreed with that decision and was further annoyed by Atletico’s players taking turns to kick him. He kept getting up and running at them again and soon set up the opener for Dani Alves. Radamel Falcao equalised and Simeone’s players tried to hang on  for a point.

With eight minutes left, Barca were awarded a free kick out near the left touchline. Only one person in the stadium thought it possible to score from there, but Messi curled the ball with tremendous power into the far top corner. It was a phenomenal piece of skill, but what stayed with me was his competitive streak. The result did not matter that much, as Madrid had the title race sewn up and Pep Guardiola’s final season as Barca coach was more or less over already, but Messi needed to win the game, and he did.

Nick Miller, The Athletic football writer
I have seen Messi play in the flesh only once. My dad had somehow acquired tickets to El Clasico towards the end of the 2011-12 season. What an occasion this would be, to not only see a historic and spicy rivalry between two giants of the game, but also finally see in person the pint-sized genius who had been dazzling me on the TV screen for years.

Well, reader, he was rubbish. This game was about a week before Pep Guardiola jacked it in at Barca, two years of being needled and harangued and incessantly mithered by Jose Mourinho having taken its toll; he was done, knackered and in need of a sabbatical. That sense permeated his team, not least their anonymous No 10, who did all of the casual walking around the pitch he does now but without any of the flashes of brilliance that make him the greatest.

Seeing Messi play badly was like visiting the Sagrada Familia in heavy fog, or watching Radiohead and the speakers blow out: a letdown, but you know there’s brilliance behind the disappointment.

Raphael Honigstein, The Athletic’s Bundesliga writer
Jose Mourinho described Messi as “possibly the biggest talent at his age in world football” on the eve of the 18-year-old’s first game in England in February 2006. The caveat in the Chelsea manager’s appraisal wasn’t included as one of his mind games but reflected a degree of uncertainty. Nobody — perhaps Messi himself included — could yet be sure how otherworldly good at playing football this wiry little winger with a 1970s US high school haircut would turn out.

I had never seen the Argentinian play for 90 minutes before, whether in the flesh or on television, and remember going to the game curious to see if the hype coming from Spain was justified. But he wasn’t supposed to be the main attraction of the most acrimonious rivalry in football at the time.

After Barcelona had dumped Chelsea out of the Champions League at the same stage 12 months earlier, Mourinho had alleged a conspiracy between Frank Rijkaard and referee Anders Frisk, been branded “an enemy of football” by UEFA and banned for two games. The rematch was fraught with talk of revenge — and Catalan suspicions that the groundskeeper in west London had deliberately neglected looking after the pitch to the point of it looking like a potato field after harvesting.

Asier del Horno clatters into Messi (Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Messi didn’t mind. Playing on the right, he tormented both Arjen Robben and Asier Del Horno until the latter lost his head and clattered into the teenager near the corner flag. Mourinho accused Messi of play-acting (“Barcelona is a very cultured city. It’s a place where they understand all about the theatre”) but Del Horno’s 37th-minute sending-off was no great injustice.

Messi continued to run at Chelsea’s depleted defence with puppy-like enthusiasm and hit the bar with a curled shot, but he wasn’t involved in either goal as Barca won 2-1. It would take another couple of years or so before his greatness was universally recognised. But on that night on Fulham Road, one could at least glimpse it.

Amy Lawrence, The Athletic’s Arsenal writer
In the spring of 2009, Messi was the ripe old age of 21. He had already won La Liga (twice), the Champions League, and had become a global superstar. But 2008-09 was a significant leap — the season Messi made it crystal clear he was far beyond exceptional. New superlatives needed inventing really. Messceptional or something.

He rocked up at Stamford Bridge for a Champions League semi-final that became infamous. It was the one when Andres Iniesta scored breathtakingly late, Chelsea went bananas and cried scandal, and the referee, Tom Henning Ovrebo, later received death threats.

Everybody there had an extra eye on Messi, to check out this next best player in the world, this kid with an unpretentious scruffy haircut who had supernatural talent, in the flesh. He tantalised. He darted and drifted and dribbled. He made Ashley Cole look off the pace. To change the course of the season he popped up on the left of the penalty box, drew three defenders, then slipped a perfect assist for Iniesta. No stopping this boy.

Barcelona won the treble, Messi won his first Ballon D’Or, and on and on he went in his own miraculous way right up to this Sunday’s last shot at the World Cup final.

Iain Macintosh, The Athletic’s managing editor of audio
I’ve had many strange jobs in my life, but nothing quite like my role at the now-defunct football website In a world before Twitter, it was marketed as the home of exclusive footballer diaries, but all the money was made by our merchandise wing, Dave, who arranged shirt signings with footballers.

It was 2006 and there was this kid at Barcelona who was supposed to be a bit decent, so I was sent over with a suitcase full of shirts, two sharpies and a box of cash. I met Lionel Messi and his dad in a hotel room. They looked identical. Our Mr Fixit took Mr Messi away and I sat for three hours with Messi Jnr, holding 300 Barca shirts taut so that he could scrawl his signature on them.

I don’t speak Spanish and he didn’t speak English, so it was a strange sort of afternoon. For a time, we played that universal language game of simply taking it in turns to name footballers we admired. I dropped a couple of Southend players in there to see if he was taking it seriously or just being polite. I can tell you that Lionel Messi is either extremely polite or Brett Angell was a much bigger name in Rosario than I thought.

Michael Cox, football writer at The Athletic
The first time I saw Messi was for a fairly unremarkable 2-1 Barcelona home win over Getafe in 2010-11, although I most clearly remember being desperately worried that he wouldn’t play, having picked up a knock against Sevilla the previous weekend. Thankfully he did. He was astonishingly good at the small things. In particular, I was fascinated by his ability to be sprinting his little legs off at full pelt and then suddenly stop. It was like he had ABS brakes. I’d never really considered this a football attribute before, so immediately it made you look at the game in a different way.

Since then, he’s scored so many goals over the years by knowing precisely when to stop running, helping him to find space for cut-backs. On that day against Getafe, he was the best player on the pitch by miles but received 7/10 for his performance in Mundo Deportivo the next day. Clearly, those who watched him every week were accustomed to it.

Messi in action against Getafe (Photo: Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)

It took me seven times seeing him live for him to score, which seems statistically improbable. That doesn’t even include the time I convinced five friends to go to Spain and see Malaga v Barcelona, mainly for him. Malaga, in financial ruin and about to be relegated, sensed one last La Liga payday and jacked up ticket prices, so the cheapest was €120. We reluctantly paid it, only for Messi to withdraw the day before because his wife was about to give birth.

Felipe Cardenas, soccer writer at The Athletic
As soon as I had settled into my media tribune seat at Doha’s monstrous Lusail Stadium, I was immediately fixated by Messi, who was, unsurprisingly, walking — barely jogging as kick-off approached.

His lack of interest felt stress-induced, though. Argentina and Mexico were set to square off in a crucial Group C match. A loss to Mexico would knock Argentina out of the World Cup after two games. The Mexicans were salivating at the prospect of eliminating one of the tournament favourites.

After a shock loss to Saudi Arabia four days prior, Argentina were under immense pressure to beat Mexico. While his team-mates sprinted around cones, Messi, stone-faced, struggled to break a sweat.

Messi was neutralised by Mexico’s defensive tactics in the first half, but he came out in inspired form after the break. He pushed Argentina deeper into Mexico’s territory.

Then in the 64th minute, and this seemed to occur quite suddenly, Messi controlled a pass from Angel Di Maria 25 yards away from Mexico’s goal and fired a low spinning shot past Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa. Never had I heard a stadium louder than in that moment.

Messi, uncharacteristically, celebrated like a man possessed. He sprinted toward the most rabid section of Argentina’s supporters’ section in a rage. It was absolute bedlam.

Messi pumped both of his fists towards the Argentina fans behind the goal. They bowed down to him by giving Messi a “we’re not worthy” type of gesture.

Messi bows towards his supporters (Photo: Shaun Botterill – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

JJ Bull, Tifo analyst
I saw Messi play for the first time in real life in 2014 at West Ham’s old Upton Park ground in a friendly between Argentina and Croatia. I had absolutely no money at the time so the free ticket I’d wangled through work was extra valuable to me. Looking back now, it is genuinely priceless.

I had never witnessed anything like it in a stadium before. Messi wasn’t even that good but every time he got the ball you could feel electricity spark through the air and between everyone watching — it felt almost religious. The match report shows that all he really did was score a penalty, but I have been daydreaming about that game and the way it made me feel for eight years.

Oliver Kay, football writer at The Athletic
Just occasionally you are reminded that Messi is fallible. One such day was Argentina’s World Cup quarter-final against Germany in Cape Town in 2010. My recollection is that, in a calamitous 4-0 defeat, he was the one Argentina player who kept going to the bitter end, still full of ideas and creative spark.

But what I remember above all is standing in the mixed zone where, in theory, the players stop to be interviewed on their way out of the stadium. Messi took a long, long time to emerge and when he did he looked haunted. I was right on the barrier, only a yard from him, and as he walked past there was nothing in his eyes except a strong hint of trauma.

Afterwards, it emerged that he had been wailing and howling uncontrollably in the dressing room, almost convulsing. Walking past me that day, he looked like a child, a helpless child. It gave me just the smallest hint of the pressure he must be under when he plays for Argentina at the World Cup — and how it must feel on those occasions when his supernatural abilities don’t quite manifest themselves on the biggest stage.

Ben Mee, Brentford defender
The one that stands out is the Champions League final against Manchester United at Wembley in 2011. I’d just finished my loan at Leicester City and was at my parents’ house watching it.

He absolutely gave them the runaround that night, scoring the second goal in a 3-1 win. The way he played that night, playing in that incredible team and running the game, got me looking for him in future games.

Daniel Taylor, football writer at The Athletic
As a kid, we had a holiday in Italy, straight after the 1986 World Cup, and my dad took me to see Napoli in a pre-season match along the coast. I was Maradona-obsessed at that age.

But Maradona didn’t play. Bloody hell! It turned out he was still on leave after the World Cup. And, daft as it might sound, it didn’t really spoil the day. His presence was everywhere. I can still remember the Maradona banners, the wigs, the lookalikes in those Mars-sponsored shirts. It was so vibrant, colourful, mesmerising.

And then I grew up and there has been only Messi who really compares. You wonder sometimes whether he is just visiting this planet.

Barcelona 1 Manchester City 0, is my favourite, from Camp Nou in 2015. James Milner is sliding in. Messi slips past with the nutmeg of all nutmegs. He might as well have patted Milner on the head as he went by. Milner is on his knees. Then the camera pans to the crowd and there is Pep Guardiola rubbing his eyes in disbelief.

He was the manager of Bayern Munich at the time, but he had come back to Barca for the night. He was on Messi-watch, just like the rest of us. And he was laughing. Not just laughing, the bloke was guffawing. His shoulders were heaving. That’s Messi, it’s magic in his feet.

Simon Johnson, The Athletic’s Chelsea writer
Of all the feats Chelsea have achieved in their history, preventing Messi from scoring against them for 12 years should be a candidate for their honours board.

I was a witness to this bizarre struggle over 730 Champions League minutes. No matter how hard he tried in eight games between Chelsea and Barcelona, Messi couldn’t find the back of the net. Even the inconsistent Jose Bosingwa kept him quiet at Camp Nou in 2009 playing out of position at left-back.

Messi played a key role for all the wrong reasons in the 2012 semi-final. He lost possession in the build-up to Didier Drogba’s winning goal at Stamford Bridge and struck the crossbar with a penalty in the return leg.

His torment came to an end at the ninth time of asking in the 75th minute of a round of 16 fixture in 2018. After finding the bottom corner with his left foot, Messi’s passionate celebrations betrayed just how delighted he was that his frustration against Chelsea was finally over.

Jack Pitt-Brooke, football writer at The Athletic
This World Cup will always be seen as Messi’s finest and rightly so. Then there was 2014, when he got Argentina to the final despite clearly carrying an injury he had picked up at Barcelona. But between the two of them, there was 2018 in Russia. This was a terrible Argentina team, to be honest, a mess of average players and muddled thinking. But at the heart of it was a peak-age Messi, still able to do everything he wanted on the pitch.

And it was in Russia that Messi scored my favourite goal of his. Saint Petersburg was the best of all the 2018 stadiums and it was here, against Nigeria, that Messi delivered this simple clinical masterpiece. Running onto a long pass from Ever Banega, Messi did not even break stride but took the ball down, controlled it on his thigh, then struck it right-footed into the goal. It was all here: imagination, technical perfection, instant grace. It left you with that ultimate Messi question: how could something so impossibly difficult be made to look so easy?

Ed Malyon, head of The Athletic studios
It’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always this way.

Once a quiet, shaggy-haired teenager, Messi had left his homeland as a child and was initially viewed with something approaching suspicion by the public back home.

While he made his international debut in 2005 and would become the youngest player to represent and score for Argentina at a World Cup the next year, he was left on the bench for the entire 120 minutes as the Albiceleste were knocked out on penalties by hosts Germany in the quarter-finals.

Gradually, he began to feature more for his country, but there was an insular scepticism that remained. “Messi is Catalan” they would say and he was criticised for not singing the national anthem before games.

As the goals began to flow he was celebrated, but in a country where passion and football are not only intertwined but synonymous, whenever the team failed you would see blame laid at the feet of the wonderkid with a Spanish passport. Did he care? Is he really one of us?

Which brings us to a sunny September day at the Estadio Monumental in 2010. Two hundred years on from the May Revolution that resulted in Argentina’s independence from Spain, they played a friendly against the very same team to celebrate the bicentennial.

This wasn’t just any team though, Spain were the rampant world champions having just strangled everyone in their path en route to glory in South Africa. And Messi tore them to pieces. And the public, for so long sceptical and cynical and wary and critical, were suddenly joyous. They stood on their feet, opened their lungs and for the first time on Argentine soil, that familiar droning chant rose to the sky: “Meeeesssssiiiii, Meeeeeessssiiiiii, Meeeesssssiiiii, Meeeeeessssiiiiii.”

It had taken a few years, but finally, everyone knew. They had fallen in love.

Messi is put under pressure by Zinha, Gerardo Torrado and Gonzalo Pineda of Mexico during the World Cup in 2006 (Photo: Clive Mason/Getty Images)

Carl Anka, football writer at The Athletic
I have never seen Messi live.

I thought I was going to last season, when the “phantom” Champions League last-16 draw pitted PSG against Manchester United. Then UEFA realised their error and put the team I cover against Atletico Madrid.

The United fan opinion on Messi has been a strange one. You spend the 2007-09 period convinced Messi cannot be the best player in the world because A Certain Portuguese Player is plying his trade at Old Trafford instead. You keep pointing to the semi-final in 2008, where he was largely kept quiet, as proof Messi isn’t all that. His weak foot isn’t as good. He hasn’t got the shooting from long range, or the heading ability to be the world’s greatest.

Then it happens: the 2009 Champions League final in Rome. You tell yourself United would have won it if Darren Fletcher wasn’t suspended.

When Messi is your opponent he turns you into a liar. You have to deny what he is in order to pretend you have a chance.

You never quite get over Messi’s header for the second goal in that game. Edwin van der Sar’s shocked face before Messi wheels away holding his blue boot is seared in your memory. The 2011 final doesn’t hurt as much because it becomes apparent just how much better Messi is compared to everyone else at that point.

I am fast running out of time to watch him now. He’s only a Eurostar away. I really should get a move on…

Adam Jones, The Athletic audio operations
It was April 2017 and I was on my own, tasked with writing a first-hand account of a neutral fan’s first El Clasico experience. I’d seen a fresh-faced Messi play nine years before in a 6-0 battering of Almeria, but this was him in full freak mode at the Bernabeu. Despite spending most of the first half with a makeshift bandage in his mouth after being bloodied by Marcelo’s elbow, he scored a slaloming equaliser just before the break. Sergio Ramos continued the coordinated Real Madrid assault in the second half, jumping in two-footed to halt a Messi counter-attack and duly receiving his customary marching orders.

Then came the moment I still bore all my friends about. James Rodriguez had equalised to make it 2-2 and with just seconds of injury time remaining, Messi, as he always does, found a tiny pocket of space that nobody else saw coming to sweep home Barca’s winner with virtually the last kick of the game.

You could hear a pin drop.

Messi proceeded to remove his shirt, goading the home support by deliberately displaying his name to create one of the most iconic images in all of sport. And I was there — right in front of him — doing my best Kevin McCallister from Home Alone impression as I tried to digest what I’d just witnessed.

Mark Carey, data writer at The Athletic
Strictly speaking, we were all there for Andres Iniesta.

Barcelona had already won La Liga and the Copa del Rey by the time the final game of the 2017-18 league season against Real Sociedad came around and the match was going to be their captain’s final outing at Camp Nou.

In truth, we’d actually flown to Barcelona specifically to watch Messi. To say you have seen him live is something you can tell future generations. He’s a magician, he’s other-worldly, he’s… on the bench?

We waited 67 minutes until Messi entered the pitch, although the rumble from the fans began early in the second half with the customary screams of “Messi! Messi! Meeessssiii!”

The game finished a fairly mundane 1-0 to Barca, but something changed in the stadium whenever Messi picked up the ball. Every fan had got their wish.

Sam Lee, The Athletic’s Manchester City writer
I’ve been lucky enough to see so many Messi games that I can’t remember them all — I think about how lucky I am quite a lot.

The first that stands out is the Champions League final in 2011 at Wembley. I went down to London for the game, had a few drinks and, as a result, ended up in the Barcelona section and finding a spare seat to watch one of the best collective and individual performances of all time. United were level at half-time, but in the 54th minute Messi slammed in from outside the box to give Barca the lead they deserved. Being surrounded by their fans made it all the more special.

The other moment is the 2016 Copa America final in New Jersey. He had put in some special performances along the way and looked set to right some wrongs after Argentina lost the World Cup final in 2014 and the Copa final in 2015. But he missed in the shootout, Chile won and, dejected, Messi told reporters that he was retiring from international football. He’s changed that history now by winning the Copa in 2021, but I sincerely hope Argentina win the World Cup on Sunday to complete the collection.

Caoimhe O’Neill, Liverpool writer at The Athletic
After a decade of adoring him from afar, I got to see him in real life at Camp Nou. It was on Valentine’s Day in 2016. Barcelona won 6-1 against Celta Vigo. Messi put on the perfect show. He scored a free-kick and then assisted Luis Suarez with a casual scooped pass like he was serving ice cream. Then he coasted through the defence before setting up Neymar. To complete his hat-trick of assists, he passed his penalty to Suarez. I had never seen anything like it.

Pol Ballus, football writer at The Athletic
I was 12 when Messi made his Barcelona debut. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of being a regular at the Camp Nou for a couple of seasons, as well as travelling and watching some of his games abroad.

I can’t count the number of Messi masterclasses I’ve witnessed live.

Contemplating Messi became, to Barca fans, an act as routine as checking into the office, having a coffee after lunch, hugging your mum every time you’re back home. The execution of an inevitable event.

During the World Cup I tried to remember the last day Messi was not inevitable for me. He probably already was, but I didn’t know. For me it was 2009, after Guardiola’s Barcelona outclassed Real Madrid in a 2-6 win at the Bernabeu.

I was watching the game at home, where all my family gathered for El Clasico, and jumped so hard off my seat after Messi’s first goal — Barcelona;s third that night — I smashed the back of my head into the corner of a cupboard.

A horrific clatter and the general shock did not hold my celebration back — I did not even realise blood was sliding down the right side of my face.

My mum spent the rest of the game healing a wound that was just harmless — nothing could hurt while Messi danced around Fernando Gago and Lassana Diarra in Real Madrid’s double pivot. The display was astonishing. He was undetectable until he got the ball, and then it was too late. Fabio Cannavaro and Gabriel Heinze were two more toys in his hands.

Messi scored a brace and gave an assist. Barcelona unofficially won the title and the false nine was born.

I spent a whole week in high school with a massive bulge in the back of my head, a consequence of my effusive celebration. This last month of football made me remember that moment.

When I was 12 I thought Messi, just like my youth, would never end. It was all a trick, but just like Diarra, Gago, Heinze and Cannavaro in 2009, I’d find out too late.


Additional Reading 

Lionel Messi vs Kylian Mbappe in the race for the Golden Boot: World Cup top goalscorers history

(Top image: Sam Richardson using Getty Images)


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