The first goal Lionel Messi ever scored for Barcelona was taken off him, so he did it again two minutes later, and kept on doing it for over a decade. It was May 2005 and the 89th minute of the 34th week when Ronaldinho scooped a lovely pass and the 17-year-old wearing No 30 lifted it softly into the net.
To his right, though, the linesman’s flag was up, probably wrongly. Raúl Valbuena ruffled his hair, latex in those locks, and gave him an indulgent look that said: Unlucky, kid. Next time. Albacete’s keeper already knew this boy was different; what he didn’t know was that next time was pretty much now. And in the 91st minute Ronaldinho scooped a pass as ludicrous as the last and Messi lifted it gently in.
The goal was almost identical only this one counted. A grin spread across Messi’s face, his arms opened wide, and Ronaldinho carried him on his back. There, Messi waved his arms, complicity clear between the world’s best player and this small, shy teenager that some called the flea and others called el mudo, the mute one; between that year’s Ballon d’Or winner and the kid who was still unsure exactly where he was, still less who he was or would become. Not just top scorer at his club but top scorer at any club anywhere, ever. Last night, fifteen years on, Messi scored his 644th goal for Barcelona.
No one has scored more for a single team, Pelé’s 643 for Santos left behind in an empty stadium on a cold Tuesday night in Valladolid, another statistic smashed – as if it’s all about the numbers anyway. At the end of the game, won 3-0 by Barcelona with Clément Lenglet and Martin Braithwaite scoring before he did, Messi boarded a plane for Buenos Aires. Before it took off, he left a message. “When I started playing, I never thought I would break and records, still less this one Pelé had,” he wrote. “I can only thank everyone who has helped me over the years: teammates, friends and everyone who supports me every day.”
It is a long list, 54 strong just counting those who assisted his goals, with Luis Suárez, Andrés Iniesta and Dani Alves giving the most. There’s Samuel Eto’o, Sylvinho, Ludovic Giuly, Iniesta, Deco, Xavi, Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Thierry Henry, Bojan Krkic, Alves, Alex Hleb, Zlatan Ibrahimovič, Pedro, Eric Abidal, Yaya Touré, Seydou Keita, Maxwell, David Villa, Thiago, Adriano, Ibrahima Affelay, Cesc Fàbregas, Gerard Piqué, Alexis Sánchez, Christian Tello, Martin Montoya, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, Neymar, Alex Song, Marc Bartra, Suárez, Ivan Rakitic, Rafinha, Arda Turan, Munir El Haddadi, Lucas Digne, Sergi Roberto, Javier Mascherano, Paco Alcácer, Paulinho, Aleix Vidal, Ousmane Dembélé, Philippe Coutinho, Arturo Vidal, Nelson Semedo, Malcom, Antoine Griezmann, Arthur Melo, Riqui Puig, Francisco Trincao and Frenkie De Jong, in that order.
At each end are Ronaldinho and now Pedri, who culminated a 20-pass move with a gorgeous back heel into Messi’s path. At a time when the classic Messi goal, bent into the far corner coming in off the right, isn’t going in, these ones are: from the inside left channel, Messi put the ball diagonally across Jordi Masip and into the other side. As it hit the net, he turned and pointed at Pedri. Then he flung his arms around him and hugged the air out of him.
A long time has passed between the first goal and the 644th and a lot has happened, so much that even Messi had decided it was time to move on. Yet despite that – because of that? – watching last night it was easy to be drawn to the similarities and connections, the certain parallels played out. To the sense that Messi sees something in Pedri, maybe even something of himself or of the men who left his side, leaving a hole where they once were. That he knows.
Long before the rest saw it, Ronaldinho was telling them: this kid is better than me. If that was some endorsement, it was also some kind of promise, a commitment to guide, defend and nurture. If later it became a problem, Pep Guardiola keen to lead Messi towards different company, Messi never forgot it. There was joy in playing together – it’s forgotten how good Messi was the day the Bernabéu gave Ronaldinho a standing ovation – and a trust that can feel like preparation for a handover, some footballing circle of life. Ronaldinho’s eclipse arrived early, his time too fleeting, but he left them in good hands, legacy secured.
Exaggeration is easy, it doesn’t help to load expectation early – still less this expectation – and concerns in Catalonia are more immediate. But there was a little hint of that in what happened in Valladolid. The awkward kid with no pretension, just talent. The Ballon d’or winner who sees it, embraces it. The quiet, unsaid connection. The sense of something starting – and ending? The recognition, maybe even succession. It was supposed to be Neymar who followed Messi – Messi even promised to help then step aside, and there’s Ansu Fati too. But last night it felt like Pedri, superb lately, was confirmed as a candidate to lead Barcelona’s future.
Or perhaps even as someone who can postpone that future? Watching them combine, the question arose: could Pedri be what Messi needed to stay? After all, it wasn’t that Messi broke the record or played superbly – and it was “only” Valladolid – it was that he seemed to be enjoying playing this time, and with Pedri particularly. It wasn’t just the assist; it was everything. How they fit, how they saw the same game. How Messi, carrying Barcelona on his back alone like Ronaldinho carried him, might have found a partner.
Barcelona have found a player for sure. Born in 2002 in Tegueste, Tenerife (population: 11,000), where his parents ran a bar, Pedri first started playing football with his older brother Fernando but was too small and skinny for Tenerife. Real Madrid were not convinced either, which was no bad thing: a Barcelona supporter whose dad played videos of Michael Laudrup, he wanted to be like Iniesta, right down to getting his hair cut like him – until his dad said that’s not a cut, son. He played like Iniesta too, according to Pepe Mel, his coach at Las Palmas, and last night’s assist that recalled a pass from Iniesta to Messi when he broke the record for goals in a calendar year.
Small, slight, socks halfway down his shins, he’s like something from another era. There is a contradiction in that combination of a kid with no arrogance and a player with total assurance. “There goes a millionaire who doesn’t know it,” as Mel put it to AS’s Juan Jiménez. “He’s not going to score fifteen a season but everyone will grow around him. He knows exactly what every one of his teammates needs and always makes good decisions.”
Signed for €4million from Las Palmas, where he had been the club’s youngest goal scorer at 16 years nine months, Pedri lives with Fernando, much was made of him turning up to one game with his kit in a carrier bag and leaving in a taxi – “I don’t have a licence; it was that or come by bike,” he said – and initially he was advised to go out on loan. Ronald Koeman, though, watched him make a case for inclusion. His touch is impeccable, his awareness too, his timing and control of space. Against Real Sociedad, he crashed into the post sprinting back to make a saving clearance. He has played in all fourteen league games and in all sorts of positions: left, right, deep, No 10. He only turned 18 last month; he is 121 days younger than Messi was when he provided his first assist.
“Pedri plays with his head up,” Lenglet said. “He doesn’t have the body of an elite athlete but his head works faster than the rest. He has a special feeling with Messi.” Koeman said: “Messi is happy, you can see. He plays better with good players around him. Pedri is good between the lines and combines well with Leo.” Guillermo Amor, Barcelona’s institutional director, was asked to describe Pedri in a word. “There will be many,” he said. “I’d go for generous, because of everything he does for the team … splendid – superb … and surprising at his age.” Amor was asked too about the things that could convince Messi to stay and whether Pedri could be one of them. “He understands Pedri; between the lines they connect,” he said. “I don’t know if that’s a reason to recover his happiness.”
Others did. In the summer, Pedri described it as a “gift” to be in Messi’s saying: “I’ll probably faint when I see him in the dressing room.” Now, wrote Santi Giménez, it’s the other way round: “Pedri is a Christmas gift for Messi, a scandalous player who at last provides him with a partner.” The paper’s editor Alfredo Relaño said Pedri had “unfurrowed Messi’s brow”. “Pedri dances, Messi smiles,” ran the headline in Sport. In El Mundo Deportivo, the cartoon had a Barcelona badge with “Pedro and Messi, Inc” on, their hands meeting in the middle. “Geniuses seek geniuses to feed their talent,” wrote Paco Cabezas in El Mundo, “Messi has given Pedri his blessing.”
That is no minor issue. Messi doesn’t just play football, he gets it. He knows, judges, and demands. It is not subservience he seeks; it is excellence, understanding. There have been good players at Barcelona but not all have had that blessing nor been themselves, the pressure too great, unable to adapt. Just look at the current team. Pedri, by contrast, seems unfazed. “I play as if I was in the garden with my brother,” he says. But that wasn’t Fernando he was flicking it to on Tuesday night; it was Lionel Messi, the man Pedri was helping to another record, his 644th goal arriving fifteen years after the first.
Latest La Liga results
Tuesday 22 December
Elche 2 -2 Osasuna
Valencia 0-1 Sevilla
Real Sociedad 0-2 Atletico Madrid
SD Huesca 1-1 Levante
Real Valladolid 0-3 Barcelona
Villarreal 1-1 Athletic Bilbao
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