Lionel Messi was just a timid and tiny 13-year-old boy when Barcelona scout Carles ‘Charly’ Rexach first saw him play.
And though little Leo appeared outwardly human, even then he seemed to have feet forged in a different galaxy.
On Wednesday night, Chelsea failed to find a way to tame those alien limbs as he twice fired through the legs of Thibaut Courtois to help Barca to a 3-0 win after their 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Messi now has a chance of lifting his fifth Champions League trophy, following his eight La Liga titles and five Copa del Reys.
Oh, and there’s his five Ballon d’Or trophies. His 600 goals for club and country. His £500,000 weekly salary.
Messi’s career is defined by numbers much bigger than the 10 he wears on his back.
But the boy who made his debut for Barcelona Under-14B team 17 years ago last Wednesday was, Charly tells SunSport, simply built this way.
He said: “I was in Argentina when they first told me about this lad called Messi.
Lionel Messi records and honours
- Barcelona club record 539 goals
- Most Ballon d’Ors (five, shared with Cristiano Ronaldo)
- All-time La Liga top scorer with 373 goals
- Most El Clasico goals with 26
- Argentina’s all-time top scorer with 61
- Second most goals in the Champions League with 98
- La Liga best player a record six times
- Has won La Liga eight times
- Winner of the Copa del Rey five times
- Champions League winner four times
- Club World Cup winner three times
- Olympic Gold medallist in 2008
“But I thought they were talking about a boy who was maybe 18 or 20. I thought, since I’m in Argentina, I’ll take a look at him.
“But of course, when they told me that the lad was 12 years old, I was a little surprised.”
A decision was taken to fly the prodigy to Barcelona for a fortnight instead so that coaches and doctors and club officials could see if he actually was as good as people claimed. But it was, ultimately, Rexach’s call whether or not to sign him.
And Charly, now 71, knew best.
Just like Messi, Rexach is woven into the very fabric of Barcelona and has been at the club himself since he was 11, playing at all levels before going on to become former manager Johan Cruyff’s right-hand man. He also took charge of the first team on three separate occasions.
When Messi arrived in Barcelona, some on Barça’s coaching staff were worried he was way too small for his age due to a medical condition that required expensive growth hormone treatment.
Plus, signing a non-European teenager was a bureaucratic nightmare. His father even needed a job in Spain for his son to qualify.
Little Leo had to be truly exceptional or it just wasn’t worth the bother.
There are plenty of gifted youngsters who never make the grade.
A game was organised for Charly to make the final decision, with coaches pitting Messi against kids older and far bigger than the little magician to prove the point.
“I got there at five o’clock and I looked and I walked about a little bit, I looked again.
“Football is a team game, right? But this kid could play all on his own, he took the ball and beat other players and scored a goal.
“He had abnormal ability. All instinct. He was born to play football.
“So when I got back to the bench I said ‘we have to sign him! That kid is from another galaxy’.
“Physically he was very small – a tiny little thing – but when you saw him play, he was something else. The same as he is now.”
Then came the famous incident with the napkin.
Messi’s father Jorge was fast losing patience with the club’s paper shufflers who, when he went day after day to see what was happening, had simply failed to type up any kind of contract.
So he met Charly for lunch at the Pompeia tennis club on Montjuic, a hill overlooking the city where the stadia for the 1992 Olympics sit.
Rexach said: “His dad, logically, got a little angry. He told me that he was going to leave because he felt they were fighting him.
“I gave him my word that we were going to sign his boy and as proof I would sign a piece of paper.
“So I asked the waiter and he brought me … a napkin!
“So I wrote that, as the technical director of the Football Club Barcelona, I was committed to signing Leo Messi and I signed the napkin.”
And the rest, as they say, is football history.
The signing of possibly the best player ever on a disposable paper towel. But a rough road still lay ahead for little Leo before he could carve out that future.
Messi was now a 13 year-old boy who was way beyond being merely shy – little Leo was effectively mute. And he was living on another continent far from his close knit family and friends. A fat needle was jabbed into a leg every day to push growth hormones into his blood stream.
Plus, as an underage foreigner, he wasn’t even allowed to play competitively. It could have gone horribly wrong.
Rexach added: “When people hear Messi’s story it seems like a fairy tale.
“Yet to get there he really had to suffer. But this suffering made him stronger.
“It would be very easy for me to say that I knew what he’d become. But no. What I saw was that Messi was a boy that, if nothing happened to him – if he didn’t go crazy or decide not to play football anymore or get badly hurt – he would surely become a player of the highest level.
“But the football played by Barcelona has been perfect for him too. Hunger has come together with the desire to eat. And of course, it is natural that this combination over the years has become explosive.
“If you add Messi with Barcelona and Barcelona with Messi, then this is the result.”
Messi is no longer a teenager, he is 30-years-old with a World Cup to play this summer and, for some, to join Pele and Maradona at that top table – he has to lift that ugly gold lump.
Charly scoffs at the very notion, believing there is too much luck involved in a cup competition held over a short period.
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He added: “A league, the Champions League, these are much more difficult to win.
“I think sometimes too much importance is given to the World Cup. But for Messi winning a World Cup would be the icing on the cake.”