In the second edition of the Chelsea ‘IF’C series we travel back to the turn of millennia and imagine “What if… Lionel Messi had been found by the Chelsea scouts and was signed by the Blues”. Yes, he probably would’ve been sold to Huddersfield town or shipped off abroad only to shine on international waters and make the fans wonder “why have we let another one go?” But what if he managed to replicate his progress at Barcelona and even have his size overlooked (This really is a fictional tale). Well he’d obviously struggle on a rainy day in Stoke… but let’s face it, who doesn’t?!
It’s the year 2000 and the Chelsea scouting system has been busy, the club have had little funds to spend on bringing in new players, so bargain buys and talented youth players have been the focus of the club’s transfer policy. After an extensive search reaching as far wide as Rosario in Argentina, where the scouts report they have found a gem, a diamond in the rough, excited by the prospect Chelsea sign the youngster and in the summer there is a new face at the Harlington training ground.
The youngster is reserved and even for his age (13) he is diminutive in size. He doesn’t speak English but he doesn’t need to, he amazes those in attendance with his skill on the ball, he lets his feet do the talking. Staff and players alike turn to each other and a buzz is already being created but there are worries about his size. For all the skill in the world, the Premier League, the competition he will have to grow up competing in is physically draining. To make matters worse he suffers from a growth hormone deficiency, but Chelsea are prepared to finance his medical costs. Of those watching the little Argentinian, one Chelsea player has taken particular interest, Gianfranco Zola approaches the youngster and asks him what his name is, to which he replies “Lionel Messi”.
Messi finds his first few years are a struggle to adjust, the coaches say that his ‘footballing brain’ is far too advanced for this level and that others around him find it difficult to keep up. Individually his star shines brighter than anyone they’ve seen. I got the chance to interview him as his English had improved.
When asked what he thinks has gone wrong he answers “What, they call this…’Route one’ football, it is just not for me. I’ve tried to adapt but I prefer playing with the ball on the ground” he is humble and from what I can tell hungry to learn and yearns to improve. Maybe we can make a player out of him yet.
It’s 2004. His goal scoring records in the youth and subsequently the reserves are frighteningly good. Not known for its production of youth in its recent past, the Chelsea academy has long awaited Lionel Messi’s chance at the big time and his performances have been noted by new manager Jose Mourinho and the self proclaimed ‘Special One’ is prepared to give Lionel Messi his debut at the age of 17. He plays on the right of a front three and immediately impresses, his first game is against Arsenal and his ability coupled with new signing Arjen Robben are too much for the gunners to handle down the flanks. Chelsea win the game 3-1. In his next few games, Messi fails to have the same impact. His physical presence comes into question with the media claiming that he is too weak for the Premier League. (If only they looked at actual talent, eh?)
A long winter was to follow, fans wondering if it would be better for Messi to go on loan or if his style was better suited to a team like Barcelona (They must have been having a laugh, right?). Mourinho still stuck with his guns and kept the young 17 year old at the club but performances went from bad to worse. A poor work rate on the field was met with trouble off it. Messi was living every 17 year olds dream life, but was he throwing it all away? Kept out the team by Robben and Duff, he failed to make his substitute appearances pay and remained on the sidelines.
Despite all this, he had built a relationship with manager Jose Mourinho and the pair seemingly shared a more father/son relationship rather than player/manager.
“He’s not one from the bottle. He’s like me, special,” said Mourinho when asked about Messi.
Was the manager really prepared to throw away the title bid, to accommodate the player he loved as a person? Thankfully for Chelsea they didn’t have to find out. A knee ligament injury ruled Messi out for the season and the team seemed all the better for it. They raced to the league title without their promising youth player, who unfortunately had only played 9 games in the season and therefore missed out on a winners medal.
Messi now 18, was maturing slightly on the field but his off the field antics worsened. Pictured clubbing before match days, the Argentinian was doing his best impression of Brazilian legend Ronaldo, however his performances weren’t good enough to excuse his behaviour. Which wasn’t far off him receiving an ASBO.
Finding first team opportunities hard to come by and showing that he was far too good for the reserve league in the country, Messi was loaned out to Ajax, a team renowned for its upbringing of youth. He raised eyebrows in the Eredivise, playing an integral part in their bid for the title, in which victory was sealed on the last day of the season. He racked up 12 goals and 14 assists in his 30 appearances. His form in Holland saw him called up to the Argentinian national team for the first time and although early days in his career he was drawing comparisons with former great Diego Maradona. Not convinced by his achievements in Holland many still question whether he can pull of the same back in the Premiership for Chelsea who won their second straight Premier League title.
On his return to Chelsea, Messi is told he is being loaned out to Championship side Nottingham Forest to get a feel for the English culture and its style of football. Reluctantly he accepts but when told for the first game of the season he will start on the bench, Messi packs his bag and goes on a vacation to Argentina, reports circulate that he spends most of his proposed 3 month loan period at Forest, playing golf.
Not one for tough love, Mourinho defends his star pupil and puts an arm round his shoulder after convincing Messi to return to Stamford Bridge. With ten games left in the season, Chelsea’s attacking options have been limited through injury and their title hopes hang in the balance, Chelsea need Messi to step and to fulfil the potential everyone has seen in him. Next stop is away to Stoke on a Tuesday night, the recently promoted side have built a fortress at the Britannia Stadium. Pouring down with rain and the pitch in almost unplayable condition, Mourinho names his team sheet with the little Argentinian in the starting XI.
“He could never do it on a rainy day in Stoke…” The phrase became history after an incredible one man display, Messi scored 4 and set up the other in a crushing 5-0 victory. To quote a line from a Hercules song “You can shout it from the mountain top, A STAR IS BORN.” The little boy from Argentina became a man tonight.
In a magnificent turnaround, Messi’s attitude has been changed. First in, last one out at training he seems to have now understood what it takes to be the best in the world.
Chelsea are propelled up the table in the following games, relying on his incredible talent alone to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Never has a 19 year old shown this much promise in the Premier League. Going into the final day of the season Chelsea are one point behind leaders Manchester United and prior to the game, Alex Ferguson has a few words to say about the new sensation.
“They told me I couldn’t win anything with kids, now I’m hoping it’s true. We have a couple of young talents here in Rooney and Ronaldo, but this lad plays like he’s not from this world.”
As the line ups are announced, what seemed an unlikely event a few months ago is now reality (It’s reality within a dream, inception style). Messi is the source of the biggest cheer from Chelsea fans, he has scored 13 goals in his previous 9 games. From kick-off the United team look frightened of him, he’s everywhere like an energiser bunny from the adverts. The crowd are reminded of a young Zola but even better. As he goes on what has become one of his famous dribbling exhibitions, he leaves Rio Ferdinand flat on the floor and the rest of the team chasing shadows as he lobs the ball over keeper Edwin Van Der Sar… who was still on his line!
Chelsea win the game 2-0, they’re champions once again but more importantly so is Lionel Messi. He picks up the award for young player of the year for his contribution to the champions.
Oh and just before you thought the fairytale story was over, Messi would go on to become the World’s best player an unprecedented five times and lead Argentina to World Cup glory. Not to mention win successive Champions League titles for Chelsea (Still Pele argues that he scored 600 more goals in his career). Claims that he was the greatest ever, mooted by Spanish reports that he couldn’t pull off such performances “On a sunny day in Malaga…”
Investment in the youth has gone a long way and history has been rewritten.