Golden Goal: Stories of Soccer Legends

Golden Goal #1: Lionel Messi

Brandon Kelley

March 10th, 2007. Camp Nou. El Clasico.

Barcelona has run themselves ragged in the second half, playing down a man thanks to Oleguer's second yellow card—received just before half-time. Real Madrid took advantage in the 73rd minute—courtesy of Sergio Ramos—and are looking for three massive points to pull the team up to third place in La Liga—just two points behind Barcelona, three behind leaders Sevilla. The field is littered with some of soccer’s greatest stars: Ronaldinho. Ruud van Nistelrooy. Raul. Andres Iniesta. Iker Casillas.  

But it’s a diminutive, 19-year-old Argentine that steals the spotlight in the 91st minute, his long hair whipping behind him as he races past Real Madrid’s defense, then sizing up one of the game’s most dominant goalkeepers and driving a low shot with his left foot past his outstretched arms—and into the side netting. Barcelona gets their third goal. Lionel Messi scored them all.

(Spanish broadcast of Messi goal)

I’m Brandon Kelley, welcome to Golden Goal: soccer’s greatest stars and the moments that made them.

Even if you know nothing about soccer, you know Lionel Messi’s name. He’s won the most prestigious individual prize soccer has to offer—the Ballon d’Or—a record six times. He’s won every trophy imaginable with Barcelona. His face is plastered on billboards, video game covers, shoe ads, and Pepsi commercials. He’s one of the most internationally-recognized people to ever exist. But in 2007, he was just a scrawny teenager. Albeit a scrawny teenager with plenty of hype.

Messi emerged from La Masia, Barcelona’s famed youth academy, and was quickly dubbed the heir to Maradona—Argentina’s legendary attacker—after he made his professional debut for Barcelona at only 17 years old. And there were plenty of reasons to make the comparison to Maradona: both players were from Argentina, both were attack-minded midfielders, and both were impossibly quick while dribbling with the ball around other players. Oh, and both men were short. Like, really short.In fact, Messi’s short stature was key to his success. As was Human Growth Hormone. Probably not in the way you’re thinking, though. While we mostly associate players taking HGH with performance enhancing drug abuse and steroid scandals, Messi needed it just to be able to live a normal life. He was born with a natural growth hormone deficiency. By the age of 11, he was only four feet, two inches tall—a full six inches below the average height for his age. Without treatment, this hormone deficiency could have led to serious health issues. There was just one problem: those human growth hormone treatments were $900 each, a price Messi’s family couldn’t afford. Not only were these treatments necessary for Messi to live a normal life; they were necessary for him to pursue a soccer career. Despite his obvious talent, Argentine clubs like River Plate refused to sign Messi, because they didn’t want to pay for those treatments, either. Messi’s family took advantage of relatives living in Spain to arrange trial with Barcelona. Mesmerized, executive Carles Rexach immediately moved to sign the boy, despite his colleagues’ reservations about how incredibly small he was. Rexach agreed to pay for Messi’s growth hormone treatments, and wrote out Messi’s first contract—with his father in attendance—on a paper napkin. Messi was thirteen years old. He would go on to reach the lofty height of 5-foot-6, an inch taller than Maradona.

It didn’t take long for Messi to make waves in La Masia. Bolstered by prescribed medical treatments, Messi began to tear through the academy system in Barcelona. Three years after his contract was signed, Messi debuted for four different academy and reserve teams in the same season, progressing through Barcelona’s development system at an unprecedented rate. Soon enough, he was training with the first team, and there he proved to be just as freakishly quick and talented on the ball as he was playing against players his age.  

To hear Barcelona winger Ludovic Giuly tell it, that first training session with Messi was terrifying for the first team players. Not because they were afraid of hurting the little kid playing with them, but because they were scared of getting embarrassed by the phenom.

Throughout soccer’s history, there have been countless teenagers deemed to be the next big thing in the sport; children so preternaturally talented that they could not help but become superstars. Many of those players fail to live up to the hype, not developing the way their trajectories suggest, acquiring injuries, or running into the pitfalls that fame and wealth can bring. And when Messi tore his hamstring in 2006, it seemed to threaten the career of the precocious midfielder who had become a fixture in the Barcelona side. He was forced to miss Barcelona’s triumph over Arsenal in the Champions League—the most prestigious club trophy in the world; and, in the first half of the next season, he fractured his foot—forcing him into another extended injury lay-off. So, in March of 2007, Lionel Messi was a great prospect. Not a world-beater, but a very good player. Which brings us to El Clasico.

We have the best in the world, and we’ve got the next generation of Los Golaticos as well. Look out for the name of Lionel Messi, I think you’re gonna hear it by the World Cup. He’s 18 years of age, he’s been given his chance tonight.

Real Madrid and Barcelona both struggled somewhat during the 2006-2007 La Liga season. But both teams were still loaded with talent. Madrid’s attack was spear-headed by Ruud van Nistelrooy, a veteran who starred for Madrid, Manchester United, and the Netherlands throughout his career. The 30-year-old van Nistelrooy opened the scoring for Madrid just five minutes into the game, and scored their second just 8 minutes later. Both times, it was the teenager Messi who answered with two goals of his own.

Spanish announcement - Mesii, Messi, Messi!  

He was everywhere, flying up and down the right flank, buzzing past defenders and being as much of a nuisance as his nickname, “the flea,” suggested. And when Barcelona were reduced to ten men, down a goal and out of time in the second half, it was Messi, again, that they turned to. He found the ball just outside the box, scampering past his defender, and he hammered the ball into the far corner. The crowd roared. Messi pumped his fist and kissed his shirt, just before being mobbed by his teammates—some more than a decade older than him. On a field full of stars, against a team literally nicknamed “the Galacticos,” Messi’s brilliance shone brightest.

Still time for an equalizer for Barcelona. That’s what Messi has in mind...Messi takes everyone on...Messi’s got it!...This is the game that is going to be remembered as the Lionel Messi match...19 years of age, he gets a hat trick, not only a hat trick, he scores for 10-men Barcelona in extra time. You can’t write a script like this!

In a different world, we may never have seen Lionel Messi at all. Without Barcelona’s willingness to pay for his medical treatments, who’s to say Messi finds a professional team? If an Argentine club was willing to sign him as a boy, would he reach the same heights as quickly as he did without the tutelage he received at Barcelona? His story is littered with the “what-ifs” and turns of fate that make normal people into stars, and stars into legends. One thing is certain, however: on March 2007, Lionel Messi exploded. And soccer would never be the same.