May 1, 2005: Barcelona led Albacete 1-0 at home. Samuel Eto’o had given way to a diminutive wavy-haired 17-year-old.
Ronaldinho took possession close to the touchline. With his trademark pony-tail shaking wildly as he drew six Albacete players, the Brazilian masterfully stroked an outrageous flick above the defence into the path of Messi. The substitute exquisitely chipped goalkeeper Raúl Valbuena only for the referee to incorrectly disallow the score. Messi looked like a bewildered child but his fellow South-American smiled at the magic he’d witnessed and helped to weave.
Just a minute later, Ronaldinho received the football on the opposite flank and perfected an almost identical pass for Messi to arch a super finish to score his first goal on the way to becoming arguably the greatest player the game has known.
It was a changing of the guard in some ways. Ronaldinho was mid-way through his footballing journey across some of Europe’s greatest cities, Paris, Barcelona, and Milan. Messi was opening the first page on the story that would re-define the history books. Before the Argentine’s twinkle toes lit up La Liga, it was the samba soles of the toothed one who captivated the Camp Nou.
Messi is rightly revered for the childish abandon with which he plays the game. He may have broken the mould but it was Ronaldinho who cast it. In the blaugrana shirt, the Brazilian danced with a football as if he were a barefoot kid in the city of Port Alegre. Twice named the world’s best player, in 2004 and 2005, the plaudits and acclaim of the tens of thousands in the Catalan cathedral barely fazed him. Each flick, dribble, or pass, whether executed or rarely mis-hit, was greeted with a grin while opponents were helped to their feet, offered a handshake, and one of the greatest exponents of the ‘jogo bonito’ carried on.
Barcelona fans would scarcely believe the man who took up Ronaldinho’s crown would go on to such mesmerising heights. The heir apparent to countryman Diego Armando Maradona, Messi’s stats continue to amaze us. He is Barcelona’s record scorer with 672 goals winning 10 La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues and seven Copa del Reys, as well as being awarded the Ballon d’Or a record six times.
With Ronaldinho watching on in his homeland, it would have been a fitting setting for his successor to become a World Cup-winning captain in 2014 in Brazil. It wasn’t to be as Germany triumphed against Argentina in the final. Four years later, La Albiceleste were knocked out by eventual winners France to end his World Cup dream. Now, fresh from Argentina’s Copa America win, and with a new club chapter about to begin, 34-year-old Messi may yet get that chance.