That night in Porto: Remembering Messi's Barcelona debut 15 years on
Fifteen years ago, FC Barcelona played a friendly that was supposed to be notable mainly for its venue. Instead, the occasion famously offered the first glimpse of La Blaugrana's most hyped and most precocious talent.
That Nov. 16, 2003 game against FC Porto marked the grand opening of the Portuguese club's Estadio do Dragao. It was packed to the rafters with some 52,000 supporters - still the stadium's attendance record - on hand for a visit from a Barca team that already boasted a wealth of talent, including new signing Ronaldinho.
At that point, the brilliant Brazilian was one of the greatest players on the planet. Two months before the friendly, he'd woven through Sevilla defenders before smashing home off the underside of the crossbar from fully 30 yards. It was the kind of truly remarkable goal only a generational talent could score. And remarkably, a player who'd eventually eclipse Ronaldinho's standards was part of the same squad, though few outside Barcelona's famed La Masia academy suspected it.
The 16-year-old got his chance with a little over 15 minutes of the Porto clash remaining. Wearing No. 14 on the back of his oversized shirt, former Newell's Old Boys youth star Lionel Messi trotted onto a pitch for Barca's senior side for the first time.
Messi had been a youth sensation at the club over the previous two years or so, rising meteorically through the academy teams. He was invited to train with the senior players during an international break in the autumn of 2003.
A first-team star of the time, Ludovic Giuly, recounted Messi's training debut at age 16: "He destroyed us all. ... They were kicking him all over the place to avoid being ridiculed by this kid, but he didn't say anything. He just got up and kept on playing. Every play he made was dangerous. It was incredible. He would dribble past four players and score a goal."
Handed an opportunity to showcase his abilities in a non-competitive environment against Porto, Messi created goalscoring chances and mimicked Ronaldinho's scintillating dribbling ability on a poor playing surface. (Problems with the turf would soon force the Portuguese club to move back to its old stadium for several months.)
"I was very happy but also I was very nervous due to what it all meant to be there and to come on and play the time I was given," Messi told Barca TV when asked what he felt as he waited to come onto the pitch. "When I got on, I just enjoyed the moment."
In a team featuring the likes of future club legend Xavi and future manager Luis Enrique, Messi's cameo was memorable, even if it wasn't flawless.
"I had a really good chance just up against the 'keeper and I didn't get hold of it," Messi recalled. "I remember after the game (Frank) Rijkaard came up to me and said: 'You missed a good chance.'"
He's unlikely to have heard that particular criticism very much in the years since. The reticent Rosarino has amassed a scarcely believable 566 goals and 33 trophies at Camp Nou since his senior bow, not to mention his five Ballon d'Or wins, the ultimate individual recognition.
Though he became a fixture of first-team training after the Porto appearance, it was another 11 months before Messi received his official, competitive senior debut, playing the final eight minutes of a Catalonian derby against Espanyol in October 2004.
That night 15 years ago on a subpar pitch in a brand-new stadium in Porto, however, set the wheels in motion. The ascendancy of the player who's arguably football's greatest-ever talent began with a quarter of an hour as a substitute.
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