The name of Lionel Messi has only ever been associated with the highest echelons of European and international football. From a mere teenager right up to the battle-hardened 32-year old we see today, the Argentine wizard has constantly dazzled for club and country.
We all know that the day of his departure from the Camp Nou stadium is now looming closer than ever, meaning that there is never a bad moment to recall some of Messi’s greatest personal moments.
1. The beginning of greatness
Messi made seven appearances in 2004/05 after a long-overdue promotion from the reserves. He was granted enough playing time to net his first Barcelona goal towards the end of that campaign, and it was a sublime effort, illustrating clearly what was to come.
Albacete were the victims as he read Ronaldinho’s body to perfection, timing his run to beat the offside trap as the Brazilian lobbed him through after an instinctive one-two. One touch to take him past the defender was all it took, and with his left boot, Messi half-volleyed the ball over the stranded Raúl Valbuena.
2. In the footsteps of Diego
In the twelve months after netting his first senior goal for Barcelona, Messi won another La Liga winner’s medal, and made his international debut for Argentina. His callup for the 2006 World Cup was inevitable after a return of eight goals from 25 club appearances in 2005/06, and he didn’t disappoint, rounding off the scoring against Serbia and Montenegro on his World Cup debut.
3. A 2009 vintage
Today Lionel Messi is still a huge draw within player-themed markets for those getting to grips with spread betting basics, despite his advanced age. That is because he has the strength of character to carry on, even if his body may not be what it once was. The mid-2000s demanded such strength at a far more tender juncture in Messi’s life.
If there was one nagging itch in Messi’s life back in 2006, it was his inability to play in the Champions League final of that year due to a lack of fitness. His first competitive encounter with rival to-be Cristiano Ronaldo, in the 2008 Champions League semi-finals, also ended in frustration.
However, his moment would soon come, and do so in considerable style. Messi’s magic knew no bounds in 2008/09, with his tally of 38 goals from 51 appearances being a personal best at the time of Barcelona’s treble being completed.
The Champions League final of 2009 brought Barcelona a commanding 2-0 victory over reigning holders Manchester United, with Messi scoring the killer second goal. In doing so, he also enacted sweet revenge on Ronaldo, who was mere weeks away from joining Real Madrid – and starting a war with Messi in earnest.
Messi also won the FIFA World Player of the Year award in 2009, in addition to becoming a richly-deserving European champion for the second time in four seasons.
4. Messi tortures Leverkusen
We are truly spoilt for choice when it comes to calling Messi’s best Champions League performance. Yet, in terms of pure predatorial power, nothing comes close to his five-goal haul against Bayer Leverkusen in March 2012. For neutrals around the world, it was a true privilege to witness this one-man demolition job.
5. The half-centurion
The 2011/12 season was also memorable for seeing Messi score 50 league goals, making him the only player to reach this mark in a single European domestic campaign so far this century.
It is also a La Liga record, which has since come close to being emulated by none other than Cristiano Ronaldo (with 48 in 2014/15). A four-goal haul vs Espaynol in the Barcelona derby got him that mythical tally.
Messi’s sense of timing was exquisite in more ways than one, with this match also being Pep Guardiola’s last in charge of Barcelona at Camp Nou.
6. El Clasico Hero
Speaking of one-man demolitions, who can forget Messi’s hat-trick against Real Madrid back in March 2014? A rollercoaster opening half-hour at the Bernabeu Stadium saw Andres Iniesta’s early strike cancelled out by a double from Karim Benzema, with Messi equalising minutes from half-time. A penalty from Ronaldo appeared to have won it for Real, but Messi outdid him with aplomb, scoring two penalties inside the final 30 minutes, showing not only his heroic streak, but also his nerves of steel.
7. World Cup finalist
Those nerves of steel might well have seen Messi emulate Diego Maradona, and lift the World Cup, back in July 2014. An extra-time winner, from Germany’s Mario Gotze, prevented a penalty shootout and denied him that opportunity. Yet, simply by being there, Messi became one of an extremely rare breed, and he led the line with his customary professionalism.
8. Zarra beaten
Ahead of the 2014/15 campaign, all the talk in Catalonia was about when Messi would break the existing record of 252 La Liga goals set by Telmo Zarra in 1955 – not if. The answer, it transpires, was the evening of 22 November 2014, when Messi bagged a sensational hat-trick against Sevilla.
9. Never say never
In the aftermath of the 2014 World Cup, a small part of Messi may well have though that a silver medal was as good as it was going to get. When Argentina lost to Chile in the 2016 Copa America final, any such feelings may well have appeared vindicated. He announced his international retirement, only to return for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers just two months later.
He put in some crucial performances, but none more so than his hat trick in Quito on 10 October 2017, which handed Argentina a 3-1 victory. Without his heroics, after a devastating first-minute goal from Ecuador’s Romario Ibarra, Argentina would have failed to qualify for the World Cup at the last hurdle.
Suffice to say, the internet reactions were priceless.
10. Ronaldo off his perch – for good
Throughout the latter half of the 2010s, much was made of the Ronaldo v Messi rivalry in the Ballon d’Or stakes – to the extent that the war entered online ‘memedom’. Between 2013 and 2017, Cristiano Ronaldo won four Ballon d’Or awards to Messi’s one, making it five wins apiece.
In 2018, Luka Modric’s win kept the suspense going for another year. However, Messi stole back his undisputed crown in December 2019, winning the prestigious award for a sixth time, just 11 months after hitting his 400th La Liga goal.
With neither man getting any younger, it seems as though Messi has decisively won his Ballon d’Or war with Ronaldo. His tally of six awards is also an outright record, and one which will be extremely difficult for even the likes of Kylian Mbappe or Erling Håland to beat.