Charly Rexach, a long-time member of Barcelona, claims that he will be remembered in the club’s history not just for his 17 years as a player and various other roles, but for one specific event. The story goes that Rexach signed a young Lionel Messi to the team on a serviette. Horacio Gaggioli, Messi’s agent at the time, still has the serviette in his possession and occasionally shows it off. In September 2000, Gaggioli and others arranged for Messi, then only 13 years old, to have a trial at Barcelona after flying in from Argentina with his father.
Rexach, Barcelona’s technical director, was informed by Minguella that the young boy they were about to meet had a great potential like Diego Maradona, who was brought to Barcelona 20 years before by Minguella himself. The team accommodated Messi at the Hotel Plaza, located near Montjuïc, where the Olympic stadium is. The next day, Messi had his first training with the Barcelona youth squad, including Cesc Fàbregas and Gerard Piqué, but he was not even five feet tall and preferred to change clothes in silence. His teammates were amazed by his small size in the dressing room, but as soon as he took to the pitch, they were astounded by his exceptional skills.
On that fateful day, Rexach was present at the Sydney Olympics Games where he witnessed Messi’s impressive skills. He stayed back until Rexach returned to arrange a game for him in October. However, Rexach’s habitual lateness caused him to arrive a little too late as the game had already started. Nevertheless, within seven to eight minutes of observing Messi play, Rexach was convinced that they had to sign him immediately. Although it seemed natural for Messi to thrive in Barcelona today, it was not so simple back then. Barcelona was in a crisis, with Figo having left for Real Madrid and Gaspart taking over as president. Despite Messi’s exceptional talent, signing a 13-year-old from Argentina back in 2000 was not a common practice.
The family of Lionel Messi faced financial challenges, including finding employment for his father and paying for his expensive hormone treatments. Despite concerns about the cost and guarantees of signing such a young player, Barcelona agreed to pay Messi’s father £40,000 annually. Initially, due to his foreign status, Messi was unable to play with the Juvenil A team and could only participate in Catalan competition. In the dressing room, he was known as “el mudo,” or “the mute one.” The family moved several times before settling in a flat near Camp Nou. Though other clubs showed interest, Messi’s father grew impatient with the lack of progress in signing with Barcelona. In a meeting with Charly Rexach, the technical secretary for FC Barcelona, on 14 December 2000, Rexach committed to signing Messi as long as agreed conditions were met and hastily scribbled an agreement on a serviette.
The framed napkin that holds Lionel Messi’s informal Barcelona contract, written by Charly Rexach in December 2000, has a line that stands out: “opinions against it,” revealing that some at the club were not convinced. At the time, the first team was struggling, and Barcelona’s president, Gaspart, was under pressure. The Camp Nou was soon filled with fans calling for him to resign, and the club would go on a five-season trophyless run – their longest since the 1930s. Messi was far from the first team, and as a kid from Argentina, he wasn’t the priority. However, the club’s director general officially laid out the agreement on proper paper that very night. The club did eventually commit to signing Messi, who is now on the verge of becoming the all-time leading scorer in La Liga at only 27.
Messi’s official international transfer didn’t arrive until August, and that summer, his mother and three siblings returned to Argentina. Leo was asked if he wanted to join them, but he was determined to make it and insisted on staying. In December 2001, he signed a new contract. He quickly progressed through the system, going through five levels in barely a year and a half. His competitive debut came on October 16, 2004, against Espanyol at Montjuïc. Messi replaced Deco in the 82nd minute of a game that one headline paper described as “not much of a derby.” He wore a shirt for his mum, who was back in Argentina, and said he would remember those 10 minutes his whole life. A brief article at the bottom of page five of the Catalan sports newspaper El Mundo Deportivo noted that he was the youngest Barcelona player since Paulino Alcántara made his debut in 1912. Beside his name on the paper’s team sheet, it said “sc,” which means sin clasificación: he had not been on long enough to even get a match rating. Leo Messi had not done much that day, but it wouldn’t be long before he did.