Messi, mesmeric, messianic

It began with a contract signed on a serviette. Now Barça dance to Lionel flair
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The Independent Football

A few hours before his Barcelona team beat Chelsea 2-1 last Wednesday, inflicting only a third home defeat in 56 European ties, the club's vice-president, Ferran Soriano, told a group of sports business students at London's Birkbeck College: "If you have the best players, then on a long enough timescale, you win. You can discover a talent at 12 years old, and so we compete for kids 12 and 13 years old."

Lionel Messi, the most accom-plished performer at Stamford Bridge that evening, joined the club when he was 13, albeit in unusual circumstances. Barely 4ft 9in tall because his bones were not growing properly, he went to Spain from his native Argentina in search of growth hormone treatment, which was successful enough to allow already obvious ability to flourish. The Barça scout Carlos Rexach, a hero of the Johann Cruyff era, was dispatched to watch the young prodigy, and has since reported: "I snapped him up in half a minute. The first contract was signed on a serviette."

In his first game as a junior Messi scored five goals, and went on to record 35 in 30 matches, playing essentially as a striker. At 16 he was given a first-team friendly against Porto, probably earning an entry in the opposing coach Jose Mourinho's laptop, which would certainly have been updated last summer; after nine games for Barcelona's first team, entitling him to a Spanish title medal, he was named player of the tournament at the World Youth Cup, scoring seven goals for the victorious Argentina side, including two penalties in the final against Nigeria.

Such precociousness - he was still two years under age for the tournament - comes at an often painful price, as Asier Del Horno's crude challenges were to emphasise on Wednesday. Last August Messi made his senior debut for Argentina against Hungary in Budapest as a substitute in the 64th minute. In the 66th he was sent off, reacting with an elbow to one of the many fouls that young talent eventually learns to endure. The consequent suspension kept him out of the friendly with England in Geneva, which may prove to be to Argentina's advantage should the teams meet again at the World Cup. Frank Lampard, John Terry and Joe Cole will have to be relied upon for first-hand experience of attempting to combat the sprite with the magical left foot; briefly in Cole's case, after Del Horno's two assaults in the space of 30 seconds brought the Spaniard's dismissal and a furious Cole's substitution.

As Barcelona also realigned their forces during the thrilling second half, Messi - striking the bar and then flattened in the penalty area by Terry - remained wide on the right, where he could also find a berth this summer for his country, whose coach, Jose Pekerman, said following Messi's full international debut in the World Cup qualifying tie against Peru: "He's phenomenal, a jewel. Let's hope we can look after him and avoid the problems which can happen. It looks as if we have found someone who is going to give us a lot of happiness." And give opponents much grief.

Chelsea's Hernan Crespo has now experienced both emotions at his young compatriot's hands. "Messi is a promise that's turning into reality," the Argentinian striker said. If the reality occasionally includes a theatrical roll or two to ensure that the referee has noticed nasty intent in a defender's challenge, that is the sort of survival technique that gifted performers have learnt to employ in violent times.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst, like many of Messi's team-mates, has grown accustomed to seeing the physical embodiment of that violence on the player's legs, describing the marks there on Wednesday as "amazing". Forced to make way for Silvinho in the second half because of mild concussion after stopping a Lampard free-kick, Van Bronckhorst was sufficiently recovered to offer a realistic assessment of Barcelona's prospects in the second leg. "If you win 2-1 away from home people will make you favourites. We couldn't dream of this scenario so we're very happy with that. Chelsea can be dangerous away from home but we are able to win the tie."

The Dutchman, who played his part in Arsenal's Double-winning season of 2001-02, had been equally pleased to see his former club defeat Barça's despised rivals Real Madrid the previous night: "They played very well, defended really strong and the goal from Thierry was amazing. I'm very happy for them, because the last couple of months things haven't been going their way. At the moment Chelsea is the strongest team [in England], Arsenal is changing the team a lot, a lot of young players are coming in and I think Arsenal will be more dominant maybe next season or the season after. The players they have are early twenties and can only become better. It would be nice to play them because that means we have both got through, but first we have to take care of Chelsea."

As Chelsea's players sloped from the muddy Stamford Bridge pitch, the Tannoy had played "Tubthumping" ("I get knocked down but I get up again"). If intended to convey a message to the home side and their dispirited supporters, it also held special significance for the slender little figure with bruised legs and the No 30 on the back of his day-glo Barça shirt. Jose can thump his tub as much as he likes, but in the long term, as the man in the lecture theatre said, if you have the best players, you win.

REPLAY 1979: El Diego has the world at his feet

Diego Maradona swapped shirts with Franz Beckenbauer at the age of 18. Then he scored his first goal for Argentina, against Scotland at Hampden Park.

He scored for the world champions against the Rest of the World, then led his country to victory in the Youth World Cup in Japan, netting in the final as Argentina beat USSR 3-1.

"That team was, by a long way, the best I have been a part of in my career. I've never had so much fun on the pitch," he said.

"El Diego" succeeded in getting all the players excused military service. For his club side Argentinos Juniors, he was top scorer in both the Metropolitano and Nacional Championships, and was voted footballer of the year. By now sponsored by Coca-Cola, he told his father to stop working.

Andrew Tong