While it had been evident to everyone at Barcelona that they had a special player from the moment Messi arrived at La Masia at thirteen, it would be his remarkable progress in the 03/04 season that took him from the Juvenile B team all the way to training sessions with Ronaldinho.
During the season Messi progressed through a record five development teams in a single year. From Juveniles B all the way to a substitute appearance for the first team in a November 2003 friendly against Jose Mourinho’s Porto.⠀
His stay in the Juvenile B side would be brief, featuring in just one regular season game before being moved to the Juvenile A side following a scintillating pre-season in which he won four consecutive player of the tournament awards. He took the step up to the Juvenile A side in his stride with 18 goals in his first 11 matches.
His progression had started to get him noticed by manager Frank Rijkaard who promoted him along with a handful of players to to train with his injury depleted first team. His performances in these training sessions led teammate Ludovic Giuly to remark that "Even the team's starting centre-backs were nervous. They would go in hard on him, but he took it in. He was an alien. He killed us all." At just sixteen years and four months Messi made his unofficial debut for the first team in the friendly vs Porto. ⠀
While continuing to train once weekly with the first team Messi was moved full time from the Juvenile sides into the senior set up, training and playing with the Barcelona B team, while also representing Barcelona C in a number of games.⠀
His rapid rise would be rewarded with his first professional contract in February 2004, the contract included a €30 million release clause that a month later rose to €80 million upon his first appearance in the Segunda Division for Barca’s B team. ⠀
He finished the 03/04 season having scored 36 goals in competitive matches and by the beginning of the next season he would be featuring regularly in the first team set up after making his league debut, reportedly at the behest of many in the Barcelona first team, in October 2004.
Words by Andy Gallagher