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Before becoming the best player of all time, Lionel Andrés Messi Cuccittini passed through FC Barcelona's youth teams until he made the step up to Barça B, the penultimate step before moving up to the first team. Coming from Argentina, the 12-year-old boy from Rosario who played for Newell’s had caught the attention of FC Barcelona. His physical smallness contrasted with his enormous ability to dribble past rivals incessantly, quickly, cheekily and almost never losing the ball. He was real nightmare for his opponent, and it was no surprise that the coaches advanced him year after year.
Although his beginnings at the club weren't easy at all, Leo was clear that he wanted to succeed at all costs at FC Barcelona. He moved from Argentina with a clear objective and wasn't going to baulk at the first setback that presented itself. First, he had to be patient and wait for his transfer to be concluded so that he could play in official games and, although he trained with Rodolfo Borrell's U14 side, in the end he debuted with U14B. He had to do so at that precise moment, to enable him to play in the youth categories across Catalonia, since he was a non-community minor. If he didn't do so, he wouldn't have been able to play any official match with FC Barcelona until he was 18 years old.
His official debut
At last, on April 7, 2001, he played in his first official game in the youth teams and would quickly show what he was capable of. Wearing the No.9, he scored in the win at Amposta (0-3). After seven days everything went wrong again. It was Messi's second game in a Barça shirt, with Tortosa as the opponent. Although Barça won 5-1, Messi was quickly taken off due to a fractured fibula.
Messi scored 89 goals in 97 official matches in the Barça youth teams.
The injury his his confidence hard, but looked after in Barcelona by his father, Jorge Messi, and also by the club, Leo made it clear that his dream was to succeed at Barça. After a few months of recovery and watching his team-mates from the stands and on crutches, Leo overcame the injury and began training with U14A in the following season. He quickly went up to Tito Vilanova's U16B side, Tito taking over the team in January 2002 after replacing Albert Benaiges. Although Messi still had to wait a few months to play official matches due to bureaucratic issues... he had the necessary patience and in the end he was able to play 10 official matches, scoring nine goals. He was a machine.
Dazzling for U14A team
The following season was very special. Alex Garcia, the then U14A coach, was the only youth coach who enjoyed Messi for an entire season. In 31 games, Messi amazed the coaches, players, opponents and fans. He scored 38 goals, of which there were four hat-tricks, one four-goal haul and nine braces. The stats speaks for themselves. It wasn't just the goals, however, but how he scored them and, above all, how he played. Messi has always been Messi. That team won the league and the Catalunya Cup, and in the final, Messi gave another showing of his greatness.
The Argentine had broken his cheekbone and to play that final he would have to do so with a protective mask; the same one that Carles Puyol wore, then in the first team, and who had suffered the same injury. Messi put it on and after seven minutes told the coach that he was taking it off because he couldn't breathe well. Before the 45th minute he had already scored two goals and the result was 3-0 against Espanyol. Indescribable. That final ended 4-1, with Barça lifting the title.
Puyol, con una máscara protectora como la que lució Messi.
The year of five teams
In that season Leo debuted with U19B in the preseason of August 2003, and no one had yet been able to play on four different teams in the same season.
That preseason caught the attention of the U19A coach, then Juan Carlos Pérez Rojo, who took him on matchday 2 of the Youth Honor League to make his debut against Hercules. Messi didn't score, but he played a good game that ended in a 3-0 victory. Leo stayed in the U19A side, scoring goals against Nástic de Tarragona in a 0-7 win, and two weeks later, a hat-trick in an 8-1 victory against Granollers.
The Argentine's rapid rise was such that it even caught the attention of the first team, which needed youth players to play in a friendly against Porto at the opening of the Estadio Do Dragao. It was November 16, 2003 and Leo Messi debuted with the first team at 16 years 145 days.
His progression continued and he quickly debuted with Barça C, then led by Pep Boada. It was on November 29, 2003 and Barça C beat Europa 2-1, with Leo playing all 90 minutes. He didn't score in the first game for Barça C, nor in the second, in which he played 90 minutes in the victory against Vilassar de Mar (2-1). But in the third, he took it upon himself to be himself. He scored a spectacular hat-trick against Gramanet B to ensure all three points in a great match that Barça C were losing 2-1 in the 88th minute. Two goals from the Argentine in two minutes, (89 and 90), gave Barça the victory (2-3).
After 11 games with Barça C, the opportunity came to play for Barça B, then led by Pere Gratacós. It was on March 6, 2004 and he played all 90 minutes in the 1-0 victory against Mataró at the Miniestadi. In that final stretch of the season Messi played six games with Barça B, while alternating games with U19A, Barça C and even U19B.
League champion with U19B
Leo was ready to play with U19B for the last three games in the league. The derby arrived and if Espanyol won, they would be champions. With Messi in charge, Barça won 1-3 at home and not only deprived Espanyol of winning the league, but also led the Catalans to the title after a 7-0 win against Mercantil the following week, and a 0-1 victory against Lleida on the last day.
“If he had played for Barça B in the morning, then he would go to the U19s in the afternoon, and if he had played with the U19s, he would go to Barça B. They were all his teams and he had friends in all the dressing rooms. What he wanted was to compete, play, learn, improve and excel every day. He is a born winner,” recalled Pere Gratacós, a former Barça B coach who coached Messi during the 2003/04 and 2004/05 seasons.
If in the morning he had played for Barça B, he would go to watch the U19s. If he had played for the U19s, he would go to watch Barça B“ Pere Gratacós
In total he played 37 official matches in the 2003/04 season with U19B, U19A, Barça C and Barça B, plus a friendly with the first team, and scored a total of 35 goals. He ended the season playing the youth Copa del Rey, and although the team failed to qualify for the final after losing to Osasuna, they had a great tournament and Messi was excellent. Four goals against Sevilla and a double against Osasuna in the first leg of the semifinals were two of his memorable performances. Before the end of that season, Leo also debuted with the U20 team in Argentina, with which he played two games and scored three goals.
Alternating with Barça B and the first team
In 2004/05, Messi became a Barça B player, and that season the Argentine alternated training and games with those of the first team. Frank Rijkaard had already laid eyes on him, and therefore his goal of playing for the first team was getting closer. Leo played 17 games with the reserve side, in which he scored six goals, and nine games with the first team. He debuted at Espanyol in Montjuïc, and on the last day of the league season at Camp Nou, on May 1, 2005, he scored his first Barça goal. The first of the more than 600 to come.
“He was very fast physically, but also mentally. When he made a decision, the opponent hadn't even thought about it," said Gratacós while explaining two important moments with Barça B: "There are two games in which Messi left the Mini fans speechless. In the derby against Espanyol we won 2-0, Leo gave an exhibition and scored a goal, and on the last day of 2004/05, when we beat Osasuna 4-0, Messi was unplayable. He was subbed in the 87th minute so that the Mini could applaud him and give him a standing ovation. He deserved to say goodbye to the Mini like that."
Star of the U20 World Cup and brilliant in the Gamper
His projection was such that in the summer of 2005 he was the star of the U20 World Cup that was played in the Netherlands. The world was amazed with the performances of the Argentine who ended up with six goals. He scored in the group stage, in the second round against Colombia, in the quarterfinals against Spain, in the semifinals against Brazil, and also in the final: a double to beat Nigeria. An U20 World Champion and the Golden Boot for the championship for the star of Rosario.
After that stellar performance came the 2005 Gamper against Juventus and Messi's brilliant performance at Camp Nou will go down in history. The world stood up and took notice and, from that moment, Messi would remain in the first team. From there, the story is known. More than 600 goals, 34 titles, six Golden Boots and six Ballon's d'Or. Captain and legend of FC Barcelona, and the best player of all time.
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