Football has become all too accustomed to extraordinary moments from Lionel Messi. His catalogue of greatest hits is almost endless, with each who have watched him across the last two decades possessing a favourite, or several, from a career like no other.
Messi’s genius has been such that it has become routine. The sport has been spoiled with magical moments, ones which induce astonishment, leave jaws dropped and heads scratched. Fans applaud, amazed and open-mouthed. Did he really just do that?
Messi’s precocious talent was hardly kept in hushed tones at Barcelona, who had made substantial effort to ensure the Rosario resident had the best possible chance of fulfilling his potential. It was a show of faith that saw the Spanish side earn a staggering return on their time and investment.
Messi became Barcelona’s then-youngest debutant and goalscorer when breaking into the senior side, his integration aided by the presence of Ronaldinho – then regarded the world’s finest footballer – who welcomed him into the fold with open arms and that infectious buck-toothed grin.
Ronaldinho needed little more than a training session alongside his protégé to realise the timid but talented teenager was set for a long future in the game. Even on the early evidence, the Ballon d’Or winner was convinced that Messi would surpass even his own illustrious achievements.
It was Ronaldinho who starred when Messi was afforded his first real taste of Spain’s biggest rivalry, El Clásico. After an awe-inspiring performance against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, the Brazilian departed to a standing ovation from the home support. Appreciation from the club’s greatest rivals is the ultimate acclaim and not often forthcoming.
Messi had formed part of Ronaldinho’s supporting cast on that famous night, but the following season stepped from the shadows to become Barcelona’s leading man. On the biggest occasion, Messi came of age.
El Clásico, the rivalry between Spain’s superpowers, is more than just a game. An eternal battle for power. Political tensions serving as a backdrop. Teams who often resemble a red carpet for football’s finest. It is unmissable action.
On March 10, 2007, Real Madrid arrived in Catalonia knowing this was a Clásico the club could not lose. Fourth in the table and chasing a pack above them that contained Barcelona in second, Ruud van Nistelrooy’s fifth-minute goal settled the early nerves of the capital club.
Their lead lasted just six minutes, in what proved a frantic start to the contest. Messi brought the sides level, as he collected Samuel Eto’o’s pass and rolled a calm finish beyond Iker Casillas. 1-1 and a first Clásico goal for the 19-year-old.
If the visitor’s lead had been short-lived, then Barcelona’s time level was even more so.
Guti’s check back inside tempted a dangled leg from Oleguer, whose misjudgement resulted in a penalty just moments after Messi’s equaliser. Van Nistelrooy made no mistake to score his second from the spot and 14th goal of the La Liga season, as Victor Valdes guessed wrong in goal.
Back came Barcelona, with Messi at the heart of their search for a second equaliser. The teenager was becoming increasingly involved, his forays forward sparking trepidation amongst Real’s rearguard. Before the half-hour the leveller came, as loose ball broke invitingly to Messi.
Ronaldinho’s effort was parried out in the direction of Messi, who lashed home left-footed into the roof of the net. A trio of retreating white shirts and Casillas’ despairing dive were made redundant, their defensive formation on the goal-line given no chance given the quality of Messi’s strike.
There was still time for more drama before the half was done, as Barcelona were reduced to ten on the stroke of half-time. A second yellow card was shown to Oleguer for a foul on Fernando Gago and the referee’s decision re-swung the pendulum of momentum back to Madrid.
As the half-time whistle blew, the Catalan cauldron that is Camp Nou paused for breath. The two great rivals had traded punches with spite and each needed to bite down on the gum-shield to come through another 45 minutes of enthralling action.
If the second period slowed in pace, it still provided enough twist for this to be a Clásico to remember. With a man advantage Real Madrid pressed forward, with Van Nistelrooy denied his hat-trick as Victor Valdes thrice thwarted the forward.
The breakthrough – at that point appearing decisive – eventually came 17 minutes from time. Guti’s in-swinging free-kick was helped on by the head of Sergio Ramos, whose looping effort left Valdes rooted to the spot.
Madrid ahead, again, and in charge.
But this was not to be another famous night for the all-white shirts of the Spanish capital. This evening belonged to one man, adorned in Catalan red and blue and about to make himself a truly worldwide name.
As the game entered stoppage time, Messi had the final word on a classic contest. Drifting infield in search of involvement, Ronaldinho fired a pass into the Argentine’s feet. His first touch spun him away from a first defender, before his second and third manoeuvred past the outstretched leg of Iván Helguera. His fourth was precise and perfect, lashed across Casillas to seal a first ever hat-trick and Barcelona a point.
— LaLiga English (@LaLigaEN) March 11, 2020
Fabio Capello’s charges were floored and pandemonium ensued inside Camp Nou, as thousands rose to celebrate the arrival of Messi. This was no longer just the next great hope but a superstar for the here and now, able to bend the biggest games to his will.
For those inside the ground, this felt like a once-in-a-lifetime performance and for mere mortals that might have been the case. Little did we know at that stage that this would be the first of many from Messi, a footballer who has made the impossible his norm.