Thursday, October 16, 2014 marks ten years since Lionel Messi made his La Liga debut for Barcelona.
Since that brief foray against Espanyol, the Argentina ace has established himself as arguably the most talented player of his generation.
Along with his four Ballon d’Or awards, record-breaking Messi has landed six La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues and a pair of Club World Cups with Barcelona.
The diminutive but deadly forward has cemented his place among the Camp Nou legends – but it could have been very different.
Here, in an excerpt from Guillem Balague’s biography of the player ‘Messi’, the Sky Sports pundit explains how Arsenal nearly signed Messi as a 15-year-old, in a treble-swoop which included Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique…
"Although the international scouting system was far less developed and universal than it is today, it would have been impossible for the generation of ’87 not to have attracted admiring glances from foreign clubs. So it was that during the 2002-03 season the Cadete A side was followed closely by Arsenal who were looking to sign not just Cesc Fabregas, but also Gerard Pique and Leo Messi.
"It all began with a game in Lloret de Mar against Parma. On that day Pique didn’t play, but the rest of the gang, who had already won the game, did. Arsenal’s representative in Spain, Francis Cagigao was astonished.
"He had just witnessed something very different, and quite extraordinary, namely the control of Cesc and the talent of Leo. He spent that day, and many more, fruitlessly searching for the Argentinian’s agent.
"He came back to see Alex Garcia’s side in the MIC tournament at Easter. While Barcelona were battling against a new rival, Cagigao was speaking on the telephone. ‘If only I could find someone who works with the Argentinian youngster…’ As he put the phone down one of Leo’s representatives in Spain, Horacio Gaggioli, who had overheard the conversation, approached him. ‘I believe you’re looking for me.’
"That night Francis had dinner with the agent and expressed an interest in Messi, an interest that culminated in an offer being passed to the boy’s father, Jorge. From that moment the lines of communication between Arsenal and the Messis were open. Cesc and Pique were also targets.
The offer from Arsenal was Leo’s first from a foreign club since he had arrived at Barcelona.
"Cagigao’s report was unequivocal. Messi was a ‘little flea’ aged 15 with extraordinary qualities, although he still didn’t possess the power that he would later add to his game.
"He was intelligent with an extraordinary capacity for finishing. There were some doubts because of his lack of height, but they were easily outweighed by the quality of his playing.
"Cagigao was one of the few, indeed, probably the only, European club scouts at these tournaments, so the offer from Arsenal was Leo’s first from a foreign club since he had arrived at Barcelona.
"The Messis listened to what Arsenal had to say but they were not about to have their heads turned. Obstacles were apparent in any potential agreement.
"The English club could not offer a flat for the family, and there would be difficulty obtaining a work permit. Bit by bit points of mutual interest evaporated until the offer lay dead in the water. But they left Jorge with a message: ‘Any time you encounter problems, remember, our club wants him.’ In any case, Arsenal had managed to secure the signings of Pique and Cesc. Well, almost.
"Pique travelled to London to see their training facilities, everything was agreed and confirmed, only for a legal matter to delay the process: he was not yet old enough to sign and Arsenal suggested that they should make a verbal agreement that would be confirmed in a year’s time, when he was 16. The same agreement that they worked out with Cesc. Pique (or, to be precise, his agents) said no."
The paperback version of Messi by Guillem Balague – with World Cup analysis – will be available in November. Buy the hardback - or order the paperback - on Amazon