Lionel Messi has aged like fine wine, with the 35-year-old still being the heart of attack for Argentina in the ongoing FIFA World Cup in Qatar. He has contributed to all three goals in Qatar 2022 so far, scoring twice and assisting once.
When the football wizard started playing football, honing his skills at La Masia, the FC Barcelona academy, his quality was evident from the beginning, says former Barcelona youth team captain Marc Valiente.
“What I remember from that time was we used to play two touches – it was our style of game. We played one side to another as fast as we could, using one or two touches,” said Valiente.
“He touched the ball maybe six or eight times when we could manage just two touches [in the same time]. It was something that we had never experienced.
You could see that he was someone different. We never knew that he would become the best player ever but Leo, as a 14-year-old, was like that.”
Valiente was the captain of the youth team that comprised future superstars of the game – Cesc Fabregas, Gerard Pique and Messi. It was an era that gave rise to the Golden Age of Barcelona (also referred to as Blaugranas), which saw the side win the treble in 2015.
“When he came to our team, I think he was 13-14. It was not easy for him because he came all the way from Argentina,” said Valiente, who is currently playing in the Indian Super League with FC Goa.
“He couldn’t play the first season. It was not easy for him to get used to our play, but after that, he was not shy anymore, and you could see from the first minute that he was so different.”
Messi – making his senior debut for the Blaugranas in 2004 – played 778 games, scoring 672 goals and assisting 266 more until his exit last year.
He won 35 trophies – a club record –including 10 La Liga titles, seven Copa del Rey titles and four UEFA Champions Leagues with it before moving to Paris Saint-Germain.
Eyeing a memorable swansong
Argentina was shocked by Saudi Arabia with a 1-2 defeat in its World Cup opener when two late goals from Saleh Al-Shehri and Salem Al-Dawsari secured the Asian side’s first-ever win over the two-time World Champion.
But it was Messi and his phenomenal strike from outside the box that saw Argentina find its footing against Mexico, followed by an assurance goal by Enzo Fernandez.
“We knew that today we had to win, that another World Cup was starting for us, and we knew how to do it. We can’t give up now. We have all finals to play, we can’t go wrong,” said Messi, after the match.
“We knew that the response of the people was going to be like this, I think we fulfilled it, we have been together for a long time.”
Argentina, captained by Messi, will now face Poland – a team led by another lethal forward Robert Lewandowski in its last group-stage match – in a must-win game to make it to the final 16.
Get all the results for the FIFA World Cup 2022 here:Full list of all matches, scores, results, goalscorers
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With the 2022 edition of the FIFA World Cup most likely to be the last one for Messi, the little boy dribbling through the streets of Puerto Rico to Barcelona may look to finish his swansong with the golden trophy in his hands.