“We are a nation of 200 million Germans,” wrote Brazilian journalist Fernando Duarte, days before the 2014 World Cup final. ‘Brasil, decime que se siente, tener en casa a tu papá’ (Brazil, tell me how it feels, to have the daddy in your house) the Argentines had sung, for weeks on end. They were in the final and Brazil was nowhere to be seen. It was the dream for them; the nightmare for Verde-Amarela.
It wasn’t just Argentina either, it was Lionel Messi too, the eternal rival’s boy wonder. A man whose existence ensures that Brazil lurk in the shadows of their neighbours, with no modern-day Pelé of their own to contest him. They respect his ability, but Messi winning a World Cup would only add to their misery.
Before the little maestro had established his grip on world football, it looked like Ronaldinho was going to be the man to lead Brazil and South America into a new era of footballing greats. He was voted the World Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005 and possessed a style in which the world had become enamoured with. For Ronnie, however, staying at the top was not a desire that burned inside him. The journey there was what he had revelled in.
At the height of his powers, a 16-year-old Argentine was beginning to emerge in the background at Barcelona. Those who knew of him knew he was a sensation, but the players were largely unaware of him. As far as they were concerned, he was just the one of the kids who makes up the numbers during pre-season every year.
In November 2003, Lionel Messi was summoned to join the first team for a friendly away at Porto. Photographers and journalists had packed into El Prat Airport the day before, but not in the departures lounge. They were in arrivals, waiting on the return of Ronaldinho from international duty with Brazil. A floppy-haired Argentine had merely plodded through the back of the set like an extra in a TV show, accompanied by a couple of equally nervous youth players.
Ronaldinho and Messi lived at contrasting ends of the football stratosphere. The former was a €30 million buy from Paris Saint-Germain, and a man who incoming president Joan Laporta had handpicked to pioneer a footballing revolution in Catalunya. The latter was a reticent youngster, 10,000 kilometres from home, doing what he had always known, and hoping things would somehow work out.
Their realities weren’t the only thing completely opposed either. Ronaldinho was a brash Brazilian who, for all of his marvels, didn’t like to play by the rules. At times, it appeared as if having the ball at his feet was the real prize to him. Not three points, not trophies, not legacies. He loved the game, but the regiment of a professional footballer never quite gripped his fancy. Towing the line of work and play remained a peripheral battle throughout his career.
If Ronaldinho was the brash Brazilian, then Messi was the apprehensive Argentine. Rival nationalities, they shared a familiar infatuation with the ball, but their similarities ended right about there.
“We thought he was a mute. He said nothing to us for the first month,” Gerard Piqué once joked. Even to this day, Messi can get through a 90-minute football match without as much as a few words.
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For those who knew of his talents, there was little doubt that ‘The Flea’ would make it into the first team at Barcelona. Despite making his debut and impressing against Porto in 2003, Messi persisted to float around the club for nearly a year, with no direction. Frank Rijkaard and his assistant Henk ten Cate knew as good as anyone else what a staggering prospect he was, but the door of opportunity remained closed to him, without anyone really knowing why.
“I sometimes didn’t understand why I hadn’t been called into the squad,” Messi reflected in an interview with Barça TV in 2013. “Now I look at it dispassionately, and I realise that Rijkaard brought me along very well, without any rush.”
His promise was so immense that any notion of bedding him in barely occurred to most. They believed Messi would be an instant sensation, and a worthy addition to their extremely encouraging new project led by Joan Laporta. Even Ronaldinho himself was on board on the bandwagon.
As the story goes – according to Guillem Balague’s book Messi – following the Argentine’s first training session with the senior team, Ronaldinho immediately called his close friend and journalist, Cristina Cubero. “I’ve just finished training with someone who is going to be better than me,” he said, despite Cubero’s scepticism. As a master of the ball himself, merely observing this youngster manipulate the ball had been enough to convince him. Ronaldinho made a conscious decision that day.
Like Messi, he had been a young man thrown into the abyss of European football once upon a time. But more than that, he knew what life was like as the anomaly. Famous writer and poet, Oscar Wilde, once said: “Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.” Messi was not yet his friend, but Ronnie already knew inside that he wasn’t ordinary. His personality suggested it … the ball refuted it. Genius will forever recognise genius, and thus he extended a hand.
Messi would be adopted into Ronaldinho’s pack at Barcelona. A place at their training ground table, where the likes of Deco, Sylvinho, Edmílson and Thiago Motta would sit, was always reserved for him. It was clever by Ronaldinho.
He never expected Messi to chime in with the conversation, or be the life of the gathering. It was about the symbolism and the integration. He could be entirely himself, yet sink unconsciously deeper into normality at one of the world’s biggest clubs. “He just sat, looked, laughed shyly. He picked everything up very quickly,” recounted Sylvinho.
Gatherings with the senior guys were frequent away from football, too. The group of Brazilians would go out for dinner together at least once a month, and Messi soon became a regular. The jibes about his Argentine roots were pertinent, but all part of the fun. Again, he didn’t say much or get too involved, but Ronaldinho wanted to show him about life off the field and Messi was always happy to get the call.
Of course, Ronnie’s focus wasn’t on becoming a babysitter to the youngster. He had responsibilities of his own – enormous ones at that. But their synchronicity in all walks of life was starting to become undeniable, and in the summer of 2005, the ears of a city perked noticeably.
After a mixed debut season in charge of the club, Frank Rijkaard was on the verge of guiding Barcelona to their first trophy win since 1999. In round 34 of the campaign at home to Albacete, with the score at a tender 1-0, Messi was called upon in the 88th minute. The Camp Nou was tense. Barça couldn’t afford to drop any silly points, and that possibility existed with just the one-goal cushion. That was until Messi and Ronaldinho combined.
Within a minute, Ronaldinho ghosted past the Albacete defence to set up Messi, who dinked a nonchalant effort into the net to make it 2-0. At least until the linesman’s flag went up. Goalkeeper Raúl Valbuena ruffled Messi’s hair as if to say ‘not this time kid’. His next action was to pick the ball out of the net; victim one of an eventual footballing massacre.
Same combination, same result. Eight-thousand fans roared. Messi did too, as he set off towards the corner flag in celebration, only to dart back in the direction of Ronaldinho. The Brazilian picked him up onto his back and paraded him in front of the main stand. ‘Welcome to your new world’, it meant.
The season after scooping that much-needed title, Messi was hit by bureaucratic problems that threatened to halt his arrival on the scene. Barcelona were already at their limit of foreign players (Ronaldinho, Rafael Márquez and Samuel Eto’o), while the Spanish Federation argued that Messi resided among them.
He missed six league games at the start of the campaign because of the hold-up, until the club acquired Messi Spanish nationality in September 2005. While sidelined from the league, he was unusually still allowed to play in Europe under the guise of UEFA. And so he did, where he and Ronaldinho continued to blossom in spite of what had been going on.
By November, the pair had played starring roles in Barcelona’s 3-0 destruction of Real Madrid at the Bernabéu. So good were they that the home fans gave them a standing ovation – Ronaldinho, in particular. He was the best player in the world by this point, and Messi was becoming one hell of a support act.
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The Catalans not only secured a consecutive league title that season, but they became European champions for the first time since 1992. Messi missed the final through injury, despite his best efforts to prove his health. He broke down in tears when ten Cate told him he wouldn’t be involved.
While the team celebrated their triumph in Paris, Messi sat alone in the dressing room. Ronaldinho, Motta and Deco went to find him shortly after, Champions League trophy in tow. His cheeky grin instantly returned.
Life was good at the top – or so it seemed. Ronaldinho was the best player in the world and he played for the best team in the world. Unfortunately, that’s when things began to unravel. He had been wrapped up in Barça’s return to supremacy in previous seasons – but now they were there, a false sense of security enveloped him.
His off-field antics began to take a toll on his performances. Long nights of ill-advised partying resulted in him missing training sessions regularly. And when he did turn up, a trip to see the massage therapist was his choice of work. Barcelona won nothing in the 2007/08 season. For all of his good work in restoring the club, Rijkaard was a goner. Pep Guardiola came in and told them he didn’t think Ronaldinho could continue. With bated breath and a heavy heart, Joan Laporta soon visited the Brazilian at his house to deliver the news. He would be sold to AC Milan.
Immediately after informing Ronaldinho of the club’s decision, Laporta headed to the Messi residence to let him know what was happening. “The number 10 shirt is all yours,” Laporta told the disenchanted youngster. But despite the impasse, Messi recognised the decision as well – he knew a new chapter of his story had to be written. Ronaldinho would not be there forever. It was time to move on.
The youngster had already begun to seriously threaten to surpass Ronaldinho as Barça’s star the previous year, but in Guardiola’s first season, he had no choice. The board and incoming manager had made brave decisions, while a heavy burden lay on young Messi’s shoulders. It would take some poignant words from Guardiola to convince him of his project, especially considering he’d just dumped his best pal.
When it was all said and done, he had scored 38 goals for his new manager. Even more extraordinarily, they were treble winners. Ronaldinho’s departure had forced a scintillating player to become a goal-scoring monster too. Just as Guardiola had requested, Messi became the focal point of the team, and simultaneously set in motion a career which may one day be remembered as the greatest ever.
Ronaldinho was long gone by the time Messi secured his fifth Ballon d’Or award in 2015, but his influence on the Argentine will never fade. Messi had shadowed him at the peak of his abilities; when the Camp Nou had roared his name.
“I’ve always said that from the first moment I came into the changing rooms, Ronaldinho and all the other Brazilians – Deco, Sylvinho and Motta – accepted me and made things easier for me. But especially him [Ronaldinho], because he was the star of the team. I learned a lot at his side,” Messi told Barça TV in 2013. “I’m grateful for the way he treated me from the first moment; he was a great help because I had never been in such an environment. And with me being the way I am, well, it made everything much easier.”
La Masia continues to offer the most encyclopaedic football education in the game to this day, but there was no manual for being the conductor of a city where football doesn’t sleep. For all of his vices towards the end, Ronaldinho benefited Messi in ways we probably won’t ever be able to quantify, nor do justice to.
By Jamie Kemp @jamiemkemp