Commentary

Lionel Messi's rise to greatness

Updated: February 22, 2012, 3:13 PM ET
By Graham Hunter | Special to ESPN.com

BarcaGabriel Piko/ArgenPressIn 2000, as a Barca youth player, Lionel Messi (bottom left) suffered a serious cheekbone fracture. But that didn't stop him from playing in the Copa Catalunya final eight days later.

The following is an excerpt from Graham Hunter's new book "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World." It tells the story of a youth-team game that sums up Lionel Messi's determination. You've no doubt read about how he always wants to play every game and loathes the idea of sitting out a match to rest. As Hunter shows, Messi's desire has burned brightly all along, including during his days in Barcelona's youth system, La Masia.

The incident which best sums up Leo Messi's meteoric rise from the kid who Barcelona weren't sure they wanted in December 2000 to first-team debutant less than three years later is a match that has become known as the partido del mascara -- the face mask game.

He was playing for coach Alex Garcia's Cadete A side that season and the team went undefeated all year. "He was like the little brother of the team during the week, everyone wanted to look after him," remembers Garcia. "But come the weekends he didn't need any looking after. [Gerard] Pique, Cesc [Fabregas], Victor Vazquez and Messi stood out. They were extraordinary talents even then, with the football maturity of a 22-year-old despite only being 15 or 16. With respect to our rivals, this group of born winners competed all week so that they could treat the Sunday match like a training session, while the others all trained so that they could compete on match day.

"The only real problem was that they all wanted to be top scorer," says Garcia. "And, if a penalty was awarded, these four would all go forward to take it and argue amongst themselves until I had to take the decision for them and shout across from the touchline. Even then, nobody could compete with Messi. I think he scored close to 40 that season."

[+] EnlargeMessi/Ronaldinho
Lluis Gene/AFP/Getty ImagesThe arrival: May 2005, and a little Argentine kid comes off the bench against Albacete. It's immediately apparent that this is a special footballer as Ronaldinho sets up Lionel Messi for his debut senior goal.

Speaking from Tbilisi, where he now coaches, Garcia added to his memories of a gifted former pupil. "Leo was shy and introverted. Very sensitive and not a lad who enjoyed publicity. He was never the joker and was a good listener. In fact, you wouldn't have noticed him until you saw him on the pitch.

"I never imagined that he was going to turn into the best player in the world, but I could always see that he had something very special. Whenever I see him, he's exactly the same, still that 16-year-old boy I used to coach. He's a born winner, like the other guys of his generation, Pique, Cesc. There was just no other team who could match them."

Come the end of the season there was a league title decider with Espanyol. Barca won, but Messi collided with an opponent, was knocked unconscious and suffered a serious cheekbone fracture. He was taken to hospital immediately. Eight days later, Barca were to meet their city rivals again in the final of the Copa Catalunya for the Cadete age group. There should have been no chance of Messi making that game, but he begged to play.

"After he broke his cheekbone it seemed sure Messi wouldn't play in the final," admits Garcia. "Other players were beginning to worry: 'The final without Messi.'"

Carles Puyol had suffered a similar injury playing for the first team earlier that season and the face mask specialist who had prepared the protective plastic for "Puyi" still had the mask. Messi was allowed to play on the strict condition that he wore the mask and even then it was a tremendous risk. One more collision and he could suffer far greater damage.

Seven minutes into the first half of the final on Sunday, May 4, 2003, Messi trots over to the bench, claims he can't see properly because the face mask is making him sweat too much and throws it to Garcia and his assistants. All the rules, all the warnings are also tossed aside and, before he can be substituted, Messi has scored. Then he gets another. By half-time, Pique has made it 3-0 and coach Garcia manages to persuade Messi to be substituted for his own safety.

Barca win 4-1, despite Pique being sent off along with the Espanyol coach for a second-half falling out. It ends a season when that team wins every trophy, remaining unbeaten throughout, and in which Messi scores 40 times. The victorious final is also Messi's last game with Cesc Fabregas until winning the Supercopa at the Camp Nou seven years and some 40 million in transfer fees later.

Garcia recalled the risk-filled adventure. "Messi seemed happy to wear the mask during training and said to me, 'Honestly boss, there's no problem.' Typical Messi. But then, during the match, he came over to the bench and tossed it over to me, telling me that he couldn't see properly. I told him, 'No way, it's not safe!'

"'Let me play 20 minutes more,' he begged, 'and then you can replace me.'"

"In those 20 minutes the guy scored two goals," Garcia says. "There was always a risk that he would be badly injured without the mask, but even though he was only 16, we trusted him completely.

"His dad was very worried when he went on to play without the mask because he'd been present throughout the process and had attended the medical meeting, so he knew what was at stake. Thank God nothing went wrong. We were 3-0 up at half time when he came off, but I would have substituted him no matter what -- even if we were losing 3-0."

"I remember having to play the final wearing Puyol's old face mask because I had a facial fracture," Messi recalled years later. "Puyi hadn't seemed to mind wearing it, but the minute I touched the ball, I looked down and couldn't see a thing. I just turned around, took it off and threw it down on the bench."

This was a pivotal time for three players who would become superstars under Pep Guardiola. Fabregas, sensing a lack of opportunity at Barcelona, was about to defect to Arsenal, where he would spend the following eight years before returning to the Camp Nou for a heavy price. Pique would follow his trail to England a year later, for similar reasons and to a different destination, Manchester United, before returning in 2008. Messi, meanwhile, was already first among equals. Soon enough, he would have no peer in world football.

Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team. You can reach him on Twitter at twitter.com/BumperGraham.

Graham Hunter

ESPN.com freelance columnist
Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.