Monday 25 January 2016, 09:18

The kid who was signed on a napkin

“When I saw him at the airport, I said to myself: ‘This kid’s too small to play football.’ I thought they’d tricked me.” When the kid started kicking a ball, however, any doubts about his ability were quickly dispelled.

Now, over 15 years later, the diminutive genius in question is the proud owner of five FIFA Ballons d’Or, while the man recalling the very first day he set eyes on him is the proud owner of a napkin, a very valuable napkin, one that changed the history of FC Barcelona.

That man is Horacio Gaggioli, a football agent long based in Spain, who had heard great things from his Argentinian partners of a very talented boy from Rosario by the name of Lionel Messi. The kid was only 11 when those reports started coming through, which was too young by Gaggioli’s reckoning.

Two years later, however, and he was ready to cross the Atlantic, as Gaggioli explained in an interview with “The family wanted him to try out with a European team, in whichever city I was living in so that he’d have a contact there. At the time I was about to go and work for a company in Madrid and I asked them to hold on so I could sort out my future and see where he could have his trial. If I ended up going to the capital, we’d have a try-out with Real Madrid or Atletico.”

As it turned out, Gaggioli did not go to Madrid, and when Messi arrived that September he trained for a couple of weeks with Barcelona. “After the trials they returned to Argentina and I had meetings with the club,” explained the agent. “They liked the look of him but some of the coaches weren’t that convinced. Time went by and in December the parents said they had to find out if Barcelona were interested or not, so that they could look for alternatives.”

Their ultimatum had the desired effect. Carles Rexach, the club’s director of football at the time, watched the youngster in a youth match. His decision to leave after just ten minutes caused concern among Messi’s family and representatives, though the fact was he had already seen enough to make his mind up.

Quickly convening a meeting with them, and with nothing else to hand, Rexach took hold of a napkin and wrote the following on it: “In Barcelona, on 14 December 2000 and the presence of Messrs Minguella and Horacio (Gaggioli), Carles Rexach, Director of Football of F.C.B., hereby agrees, under his responsibility and regardless of any dissenting opinions, to sign the player Lionel Messi, provided that we keep to the amounts agreed upon.”

I can’t even tell you how many I get. I always ask for proof, but I still haven’t seen anything like him.

And there were dissenting opinions, voiced by some who felt the club had more pressing needs than a teenager who would solve nothing in the short term. Then there were those who said his frail physique did not point to a bright future.

“I have to say, my first impression was the wrong one,” said one expert on youth football, who has seen many a hugely gifted youngster fall by the wayside. “Leo was very small, very thin and he had his problems. Barça weren’t sure because they didn’t know how it might turn out. Football is very complex and it’s difficult to get it right with a boy of that age.”

“You can spot a 15-year-old with a promising future, but you can’t be 100 percent sure,” he added. “There are lots of factors that can then influence their sporting development and things can go wrong at any moment. There are some players with a huge amount of talent who never make it because they start to go out, go clubbing, etc. There are a whole host of things that are not compatible with football.

“The ones who make it do so because they make a huge sacrifice, as do their families. Messi made that sacrifice, a massive one, and he was very disciplined. His life was football, football and football, and that’s why he’s reached the top.”

It was another two months after Rexach scribbled out that unusual contract before Messi arrived at La Masia, Barça’s fabled training academy, and even then the problems were not over, with the kid from Rosario being unable to play for six months due to his transfer being delayed.

“It was hell for him,” explained Gaggioli, who would work with the player for another five years. “He really suffered because all he could do was train and play the odd friendly. It was really tough. Leo has the perfect mental approach to football, though, and he knew how to deal with it all.”

As time has shown, the move proved to be a fortunate one for Barcelona and for the player too, as his then agent added: “I’ve always said that Leo was very lucky to land up at a great school of football. It was very important for his professional and personal development.”

“Messi has always kept himself to himself but he was fortunate enough to end up with a group of really nice kids who helped him a lot, like Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas, Toni Calvo and Marc Valiente. He had some amazing kids around him. The poked fun at him because he was very shy, but they looked after him. He only spoke with his feet, but that was more than enough.”

Even today, Gaggioli receives hundreds of emails from people claiming to have spotted the “next Messi”. “I can’t even tell you how many I get,” he revealed. “I don’t like saying no to anyone because you never know. I always ask for proof, but I still haven’t seen anything like him.”