On October 16, 2004, Lionel Messi—at just 17 years and 114 days old—ran on to the pitch at Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium to make his La Liga debut for the Blaugrana as a substitute for Deco against Espanyol.
He made an eight-minute cameo, the first major step toward a stellar career that would see the waif from Rosario with an iron will and a golden touch overcome every obstacle put in front of him to become, arguably, the greatest player in the game.
Barcelona legend Xavi—no slouch himself on the greatness front—speaks for many when he says: “Messi is on a level above all others; those who do not see that are blind.”
For the young, reserved Leo, his debut was justification for the efforts made since he first arrived in a strange town in a new country, on a different continent, four years and 28 days earlier.
“Be careful with him, he’s very small, don’t break him,” Rodolfo Borrell, Leo’s first coach at Barcelona, told the other players, with eyes particularly focused on Gerard Pique.
Borrell was fully aware that in this bear pit, it was every boy for himself, and the young Leo only just made it up to Pique's mountain-man waist.
“We thought he was mute,” Pique would tell me later. ”He was short, he hardly said a word and no one could have imagined what was going to happen.”
In fact, Messi was so shy that he would arrive before the rest of the youngsters so he could get changed in private and, if they were already there, he would change outside.
The other players would mock him as he bandaged his ankles, a custom learnt from his days in Argentina where the practise is carried out to prevent sprains.
“He had longish hair and spoke soft, quiet Argentinian so you could hardly hear him. In fact he hardly spoke at all. He was a noodle. We thought this bloke is a waste of space,” said another of his then-team-mates, Cesc Fabregas.
It would not be long before they would discover that Leo preferred to do his talking on the pitch. “How can we be careful?” said Pique to the amusement of all gathered. “We can’t even get close to him.”
But the battles Leo faced on the pitch were as nothing to those he, and his family, encountered off it. For a long period of time, he was prevented from playing at the level he should have been because he lacked the necessary permission from the federation.
Leo and his family sought solace in the Argentinian community and restaurants of Barcelona and Castelldefels, which would provide them with those reminders of where they were from, what they’d left behind and what they so desperately missed.
He had only come to Barcelona because the clubs in his own country had been either unwilling or unable to finance the injections he needed twice a day to replace the growth hormone missing from his body.
His talent was so obvious that the season he made his debut for the first team saw him play for no fewer than five different sides in the Barcelona set-up, namely the Youth B, Youth A, Barcelona C, Barcelona B and then the first team.
Even before his debut against Espanyol, Leo was called up into the first-team squad two years and nine months after the family’s first uncertain trip to Barcelona for a friendly match to commemorate the opening of the new Estadio do Dragao in Porto.
With 15 minutes of the match remaining and wearing the No. 14 shirt of Johan Cruyff, Leo Messi made his first appearance for the first team.
His father, Jorge Messi, remembers it well, saying: "The truth is that we did cry. For us, this was a dream come true, because we never believed that he would make his debut on that day.
"When he came on, we wept. I believe it was a reward, the reward for the sacrifices he had made."
But everything has a price. They would not be the last tears—both in joy and sadness—to be shed by a family proud of everything achieved by the mercurial superstar, but ripped apart as they struggled, ultimately unsuccessfully, to settle in the city where Leo would go on to triumph.
*All quotes and information sourced first-hand