Marti Riverola was 20 years old when he made his debut for Barcelona in December 2011. It was at the Camp Nou Stadium for a UEFA Champions League game against BATE Borisov. He wasn't nervous on the eve of the game because he wasn't sure if he'd play. It took him a long time to sleep after Barca's 4-0 win, though, as he was so high on adrenaline and flooded with messages of congratulations from family and friends.
It was peak Lionel Messi time. The Argentinian was in the middle of his most prolific scoring season, netting a record 50 goals in La Liga—though Real Madrid won the league—and tallying an incredible 91 goals in a calendar year. Riverola had not believed his luck when Barca coach Pep Guardiola called him up to train with Messi and Co. for the first team a couple of years earlier.
"At that stage, Messi was my idol, and he still is," Riverola says. "When you first meet him, it's like: Wow! I can't believe I'm meeting Messi. Then five minutes later, you have to calm down and train with him. You have to tackle him. You have to pass him the ball. You're just one more player in the training session. You can't be thinking, Wow, there's Messi over there."
Frank Rijkaard gave Maso his first-team debut against Athletic Bilbao in the old San Mames ground in 2006. He was part of the crop from Barcelona's most celebrated collection of youth academy footballers—those players at La Masia who were born in 1987 and known as "the generation of '87", which included Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique. Maso remembers the training sessions at La Masia were ferocious.
"The training matches at the academy were more competitive than the games," he says."Messi in training was very competitive. He always wanted to win. When he got on the ball, you could see he was different to everyone else, even alongside Pique and Cesc. He made things look easy, but whenever he touched the ball, something nearly always happened.
"Messi's personality was very unassuming, very straightforward. He was introverted, but once he got out onto the pitch, he came alive. He's always had a winner's mentality, and he was always thinking about football, football, football, how to be the best. It's what put him at a different level and why he continues to be superior year in, year out for the last 10, 12 years. He never lets up. He keeps breaking records, keeps scoring as many goals as the previous season. He's a beast."
One memory in particular stands out for Maso from those early years. It was a game for Barca's under-17 team against Espanyol in the 2003 final of the Catalonia Cup. Seven days earlier, Messi had fractured his cheekbone in a clash during a game. He was so desperate to play the final that he did so wearing a loose-fitting plastic face mask—which the club had made earlier in the season for a similar injury Carles Puyol suffered from a training collision with Frank de Boer.
"It showed you his competitiveness," Maso says. "Playing with a mask on in that Espanyol game wasn't common. I'd never seen it before, or I don't think I've seen it since. But that was Messi—he always showed up. He never shirks. He scored two goals in the game. He never gives a damn about anything else. All he only wants to do is play football."
Messi made his debut for Barcelona's first team several months later against FC Porto—when Jose Mourinho was the Portuguese club's manager—in a friendly organised to inaugurate Porto's new stadium. Jordi Gomez made his debut for Barca that night in November 2003, too, before spending several years playing in the English Premier League with Wigan Athletic and Sunderland.
Barcelona's squad was full of incredible players, including Puyol, Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez. (At the end of the season, Deco and Samuel Eto'o joined.) It was Ronaldinho, though, who was a class apart. The fact that Ronaldinho so visibly took the 16-year-old Messi under his wing was significant, Gomez says.
"When Messi started training with the first team, all the senior players could see that he was special," he says. "They helped him to be at his best. Ronaldinho was the star at that time. From the first moment, he took care of him. It was important for Messi that the big star of the team was on his side. Obviously Messi's quality was unbelievable, so I don't know if he needed [Ronaldinho's blessing], but it definitely helped him along.
"The thing about Messi, too, was that he played the same in training as he did in games. He had such talent. He was doing unbelievable things in training, but he made them look easy. And that's the most difficult thing—to bring those performances from training onto the pitch in big games. Some players can do it in training but can't in matches, and Messi has been doing that for years and years."
Ronaldinho's skill and exuberance lit up the Camp Nou during those early years of Messi's career. After years of disappointment and underachievement following the loss of Luis Figo to Real Madrid in 2000, Ronaldinho put Barca back on top and helped drive them to a UEFA Champions League title in 2005-06. Messi missed that final through injury. It wasn't long, however, before he took over Ronaldinho's role as the team's franchise player.
"The explosion of Ronaldinho changed everything in Barcelona's history," says Cristian Hidalgo, a midfielder who made his debut for Barcelona in 2006 during a Copa del Rey match. "Ronaldinho helped Barcelona to get ahead of Real Madrid.
"Messi wasn't a player who marvelled crowds like Ronaldinho—with his dribbling or his sombreros or his bicycle kicks. Messi did things that looked more simple but were very difficult to do. His ball control was amazing. He'd do nutmegs, but he didn't have to do flashy things with the ball—like Ronaldinho or other Brazilians do to hold on to the ball—because he always had the ball under control.
"The ambition Messi had was obvious. He always wanted more and more of the ball. Whether he was playing in the Camp Nou or in the second division with Barca B or with his friends on the street, he played the same way. His ambition wasn't unusual, but when you combined it with the talent he obviously had, it made him into an incredible player."
Damia made his La Liga debut for Barca a couple of weeks after Messi's first official start for Barcelona in the league in October 2004. As a footballer who played most of his career in defence, Damia remembers it was next to impossible to stop Messi in his tracks.
"He was playing as a winger in those days," Damia says. "He was so determined to run at the defender all the time. It was so, so difficult to defend against him. When he was young, defenders tried to take the ball from him—and that was a mistake.
"What happens—and it happens when you play against other great players—is that you tend to back off and give him space. Let him play a little bit with the ball instead of lunging in and trying to steal the ball because if you dive in, almost 100 times out of 100, he will have the instinct to avoid your tackle.
"So in those early days, he had a lot of impact in those one-on-one situations because defenders all the time wanted to take the ball from him. He was still only 18 or 19 years old. Later, defenders waited more and began to stand off him.
"Lately, too, he's been going further back the pitch in the positions he takes up. He's taking advantage of this extra space in front of him because he's one of the greatest providers of assists in the game as well as an incredible scorer."
Andreu Fontas, another Barcelona defender, played alongside Messi in the final of the 2011 FIFA Club World Cup—when Barca defeated a Santos team featuring Neymar Jr. 4-0 in Japan, with Messi scoring two goals. He says that it's important to defend as a group when confronted by Messi.
"It was impossible to defend against Messi in training," Fontas says. "Imagine what you see him doing in games, what he has been doing now for so many years. In training, he did all those amazing things he does in competitive games as well. He's the best player for me in history for sure. I was very young at the time. It was a hopeless task trying to stop him.
"I tried to stay close to him and not to give him space. The greatest defenders in the world have shown that it's almost impossible to close him down. It takes more than an individual marking him. It takes a team effort. The opposition team has to have a very strong defence and a very strong defensive mentality and be ready to cover him with more than one player, but then the worry is that you're leaving Messi's teammates free to score."
Riverola remembers what it was like to get praise from Messi when he did something well. It made him feel 10 feet tall, but he tried not to make too much of it. "You're shy," he says. "You think, Oh, thank you. That's it. You don't want to say anything more because it's Messi talking to you. You have to keep your cool and focus on the next ball."
Riverola also recalls the lash of Messi's tongue when he made a mistake. "Messi is like every player," he says. "When something doesn't work out, when you miss a chance, of course they scold you and say, 'You can do better.' Messi isn't different to any other player in that regard. He's ultracompetitive, but he's not overbearing.
"If you don't give him the ball—when he thinks you should—maybe he gets angry, but after a couple of seconds, he's back in the game and concentrating on the ball and everything is forgotten. He only wants the ball at his feet. He's like a child. When he doesn't have it, he always wants it: Give me, give me, give me. Once he has it again, there's no problem."
For several years, the media in Spain have identified "Messidependencia"—the overreliance by Barca on Messi—as a weakness. In a recent interview, Frankie de Jong, a marquee signing by the club from Ajax in the summer, acknowledged the first thing he does when he gets the ball is to look for Messi—he's so much better than everyone else on Barca's team.
"Messi intimidates some teammates, but not in the sense of, Wow, I'm playing with Messi; thinking Messi has to be involved in attacks as much as possible," Damia says. "Some players aren't suited well to Barcelona. They're not able to adapt to such a huge figure in the game. They know Messi is running toward goal to create a chance and he's the best finisher, so they tend to pass him the ball. Not because it's a rule but because he's like a magnet.
"Right throughout Messi's time at Barcelona, it's happened even with stars. You can see some average players suit the team well because they understand the role of Messi in the team, and some amazing players don't assimilate well because they can't fit their game around Messi.
"Zlatan Ibrahimovic is a great example. David Villa when he came struggled to adapt too. Eventually Villa made the jump and performed amazingly. Cristian Tello had a brilliant start at Barcelona, but he tends to go on solo runs all the time. It's the way he plays. It's not a criticism, but you could see he didn't connect with Messi. That was a problem for him to keep going at Barcelona.
"On the other hand, Jordi Alba is probably Messi's best teammate on the team now. You could find better left backs than Jordi Alba, but he's thrived at Barcelona because he's got a good connection with Messi."
Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz.