When Lionel Messi arrived at La Masia as a young teenager, he was small, reserved and had jaw-dropping talent.
Maybe not much has changed since those early chapters on FC Barcelona's famed academy campus.
Now in MLS after a glittering European club career with FC Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, he’s still a diminutive, gifted attacker who would rather avoid the spotlight. And just like in his La Masia days, Messi is scoring a lot of goals, pushing Inter Miami CF to a Leagues Cup semifinal Tuesday night at the Philadelphia Union (7 pm ET | MLS Season Pass) and potentially beyond.
A number of other MLS players have come through La Masia as well, and they remember a player who was clearly different, both because of how he carried himself and because of what he could do once the whistle blew.
“He was a very shy kid, really quiet, but you already could see the technical qualities he had, and we all were amazed from the first training session, honestly,” recalled Toronto FC midfielder Víctor Vázquez, who helped lead the Canadian side to a historic treble in 2017.
Vázquez and Messi were part of the same legendary Barcelona class (which also included Cesc Fàbregas and Gerard Piqué), and while Messi went on to win more trophies in his career, Vázquez always strived to match the Argentine when he first arrived at La Masia. At the time, Vázquez played as a center forward, and he quickly found himself competing with Messi.
“I was the player who scored the most goals. When he arrived, because of his characteristics and skills, his way of playing, he scored a lot of goals too, but it always was a healthy rivalry, a rivalry where we got along well,” Vázquez said. “We were 14-year-old boys playing football and doing what we liked best.
“Sometimes when Leo scored five goals, I wanted to score six. There were games we won 15-0, 20-0.”
A knee injury put Vázquez on a different path, but not before manager Pep Guardiola gave him a chance to represent Barcelona’s first team in a 2010 UEFA Champions League group-stage match. Vázquez entered as a substitute against Rubin Kazan in the 13th minute, with Messi coming on just after the hour mark. Vázquez scored to make it 2-0 in the 83rd minute with his old friendly foe from the academy extending his arms for a hug as Vázquez ran toward him in celebration.
Sporting Kansas City center back Andreu Fontàs scored the first goal of that game against the Russian side and fondly remembers celebrating with Messi later in that tournament when Barca lifted the 2010-11 UEFA Champions League trophy at Wembley Stadium. Two years younger than Messi, Fontàs was in La Masia around the same time but took longer to break through and join the top squad.
“I made it to the first team and he already was in the first team. He was young, but obviously went through the steps quickly and got to the first team really fast, and when I got to the first team he already was the best player in the world,” Fontàs said. “Sharing a locker room with him was marvelous, seeing him train every day was amazing.
“Everyone watched our games each weekend, but I think seeing him day-in, day-out, seeing the skills he has in every training, was very special for me and something I’ll remember forever.”
No one can remember Messi’s team losing a small-sided game in practice, with Fontàs and other defenders struggling to contain La Pulga (aka "The Flea") as he flitted around and gave maximum effort even in sessions with little on the line.
“He’s a born winner, a born competitor that never stops competing, competing, competing and winning, winning, winning,” Fontàs said.
Yet, Messi was also friendly in off-field settings, in contrast to the demanding, competitive face he showed on the training ground. Fontàs said Messi clearly had an inner circle, a group of friends he made at La Masia and loved ones from Argentina who made him comfortable. But he would joke around at team dinners and meet up with teammates and their families during the offseason when vacation plans aligned.
“He’s a normal person, even if it’s tough to believe, and, like everyone, you have people you see more or less, but in the locker room he showed he still has great friendships,” Fontàs said.
That normality can be tough to register, though, even for others who saw Messi up close on a regular basis. LA Galaxy midfielder Uri Rosell joined La Masia when Messi already was beginning to win some of the first-team trophies that would eventually fill his case, but there were still chances for Masia players and recent graduates to learn what they could from a player as brilliant as Messi.
“He’s older than me, but I crossed paths with him a few times in La Masia because we all went to eat there and you’d run into older and younger players. That was really nice,” he said. “I also crossed paths with him when I’d go train with the first team when I was at Barca B. That’s where I saw him, and we trained together. It was really impactful to be a young player and to go train with the best players in the world was spectacular.”
While Rosell remembers seeing Messi in the facility on occasion, it was the legendary No. 10’s moves on the training pitch that stood out: “When you see him live and up close, you see who he really is and how good he truly is.”
Reunited in MLS
MLS opponents are getting a taste of that lesson in Leagues Cup, with Messi so far netting a goal in every match and leading the tournament in scoring (eight goals).
Couple those performances with what he’s done before with Argentina, Barcelona and PSG, and even Messi’s former La Masia schoolmates understand the rules of life are different for the player many consider to be the greatest of all time.
“Even though he’s shy, he has his moments where he enjoys everything – though it’s tough because Leo can’t go to a restaurant like we can, without being, not bothered, but drawing attention,” Vázquez said. “He’s very calm, as he always has been, and likes being around the family.”
All three of Vázquez, Fontàs and Rosell said they either have the dates when they’ll face off with Messi circled or are eagerly awaiting matchups in 2024.
“We’re in a league that’s very competitive, but it’ll be a game to enjoy in one of the best cities in the United States with ex-teammates like Messi, [Sergio] Busquets and Jordi [Alba],” Vázquez said of a Sept. 20 fixture when Toronto are set to visit DRV PNK Stadium.
“If I can be on the field that day, I’ll enjoy it, try to win the game for Toronto and enjoy the experience because I was never able to [play against Messi]. I’m near the end of my career and I suppose it will be a beautiful day for everyone.”
That's the impact Messi has had on those who train with him, who live alongside him, who grew up with him. They look forward to seeing him, and to trying to stop him. They anticipate exchanging a few words, some memories, a laugh or two together. They’ve watched Messi hit the highest highs there are in the sport, winning the World Cup, accumulating seven Ballon d’Or awards, stacking European trophies and more.
But even with those accolades, Messi is still that same short kid who turned up at La Masia and made jaws drop.