“In Barcelona on December 14, 2000 in the presence of [Josep Maria] Minguella and Horacio [Gaggioli]Carles Rexach, Sporting Director of FC Barcelona, hereby agrees to sign the player Lionel Messi under his responsibility and regardless of any dissenting opinions, provided we keep the agreed amounts. “
The above words, scribbled on a napkin after a tennis match in Barcelona, went down in football history. They were hastily written by Rexach, Barca’s sporting director at the time, to reassure Jorge Messi that the Catalan club were required to sign his son. Rexach signed the napkin, as did Agents Minguella and Gaggioli as witnesses.
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Messi’s dad had been concerned about his son’s future because Barca were obviously reluctant to strike a deal. Behind the scenes at Camp Nou there was a debate about the merits of signing a 13-year-old, but minutes after Rexach saw him during an audition in Barcelona in September 2000, he was convinced they had to act. When the prospect of Messi moving came up and Real and Atletico Madrid had the opportunity to sign it, Rexach took matters into his own hands to calm the family’s nerves.
Twenty years later, Messi has scored more than 600 goals for Barca and is nearing Xavi Hernandez’s record for the club of 767 games. (He also has two goals ahead of Pele’s record for scoring the most goals for a club.) He has been named best player in the world six times and is considered by many to be the best player of all time.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the napkin being signed, ESPN spoke to the three men who signed it: Rexach, Minguella and Gaggioli, along with Barca’s then-President Joan Gaspart, about the events that would lead to a moment of improvisation in the fate of the Clubs will change over the next two decades.
Reporting by Sam Marsden, Jordi Blanco and Moises Llorens
Ale Moreno gives his opinion on Barcelona’s recent lack of goals after beating Levante 1-0.
Messi joined his local team, Newell’s Old Boys, in 1994 at the age of six, and videos of his amazing skills at that age have gone viral since then. However, news didn’t spread as quickly at the time and he remained relatively unknown outside of Rosario. It became known as he got older, but the fact that Messi had been diagnosed with growth hormone disorder – and needed treatment in order for his body to grow and develop properly – pushed clubs in Argentina, including River Plate, out. Treatment was expensive for a teenager with no guarantee of success. It was an expense they either couldn’t afford or didn’t want to play on and Messi needed a club willing to pay for the treatment.
Messi’s luck changed in 1998 when Argentine-born agent Gaggioli, who has lived in Barcelona for many years, received a call from two contacts in Rosario, Fabian Soldini and Martin Montero. Two years later, Gaggioli and Rexach managed to bring the Messi family to Barcelona with the help of Minguella – an agent who had worked on many deals with Barca in the past, including signing Diego Maradona – and Rexach.
Gaggioli: It all started in 1998 when two of my contacts, Soldini and Montero, who had a football school in Rosario, told me about this child. Messi was 11 when they first called me to talk about him. My idea was to wait a bit until he was 12 or 13 because he was very small at the time. They never hid that he needed injections [to aid his growth]. They kept sending me videos.
As soon as things progressed, I organized a meeting in Buenos Aires and [the agent] Juan Mateo came from Porto Alegre. We talked about getting a video with Minguella to try and get a sample in Barcelona. Messi’s family told Soldini and Montero that they wanted a big club and that the family could live together somewhere. That was Barcelona because [I was there]but at the time it could have been a club in Madrid as I had a proposal to move there that never came to fruition.
By February 2000, I’d already seen videos of Lionel playing and I knew this kid was crazy good. The opportunity for me to work in Madrid arose and I would have offered it to Real Madrid or Atletico, but in the end I stayed in Barcelona and Rexach accepted the proposal of a process.
Minguella: One of the people I trust most in the world of football has always been Juan Mateo. He was the one who called me on the phone and was excited that he had found an exceptional talent in Rosario, playing for Newell’s youth team and how when he got the ball he always went straight to the opposing goal. Technology was not then what it is today. Now you can connect anywhere in the world and see everything right away, but then I had to get them to record some videos and send them to my home.
When I saw the footage, I almost couldn’t believe it. He was a very small player, but he had an extraordinary talent for going straight for goal with the ball glued to his foot.
Rexach: Gaggioli spoke to me about Messi in Montevideo, Uruguay. I had been to Brazil to watch players and in Montevideo on the way back to Barcelona he told me I had to change my plans and go to Rosario to see a phenomenon. When I asked about his age and position and he told me 13, my first reaction was that there was no rush … but his excitement to talk about him took me back. So I made a decision that could have been criticized at the time: I suggested to Horacio that he arrange a trip to Barcelona for the child and his parents so that we can examine him over a few weeks.
Personally, I didn’t know anything else about Messi until I saw him one afternoon – I don’t know the exact date – in the parking spaces next to the Mini Estadi. A game had been arranged with some of the children from the youth teams. By the time Messi arrived in Barcelona I had made it clear that a child was going to be tried but I had to go – I think to Australia – and I wasn’t up to date until I got back. I later heard that he had played in different games, but no one had dared to make a decision.
What I will never forget is that a three to four minute walk, whatever it takes to run around the pitch, took 15 minutes because I was stunned and excited to watch him and see what he was up to the ball, its movements, its dribbles and its vision. I knew it was him without anyone telling me because he was by far the smallest on the court and I could see something completely different in him. I went to the bench, sat down and said to the two coaches who were there: “Sign it. Don’t even think about it. And if someone asks, tell them it’s my decision.”
Gaggioli: When I first saw him, I didn’t know how small he was. He came to Barcelona for the trial from September 16-30. Jorge Messi, Soldini and I watched the test matches together. Lionel was noticed immediately. He touched the ball like no other. There was nerve, but Lionel soon dissipated it. It was a wonderful experience and Rexach said he was already convinced that the club had to sign him.
Gas saving: I didn’t know who Messi was. It would be easy to say that I did and that I fell in love from day one, but that’s not the case. Rexach talked to me about Leo; He deserves all the credit. He came to me and said that we must not let this extraordinary child who came from Argentina escape. He said he was unlike anything he had ever seen. And when a sports director of Rexach’s reputation says that … I didn’t just give him permission, I encouraged him to do so.
And I repeat: [I did it] without knowing anything about Leo.
Ale Moreno is hoping that Lionel Messi’s and Cristiano Ronaldo’s high standards will not be turned against them in the future.
The risk of losing Messi
Despite Rexach’s belief that Barca should sign Messi, the club took their time after the September trial. There was doubt about investing in someone that young. Messi and his family found themselves between Barcelona and Buenos Aires and over time, with no news from Barca, they became anxious.
As the holiday season approached, those who wanted to bring Messi to Spain started thinking about taking him to other clubs. Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid were mentioned.
Gaggioli: Rexach had already made up his mind [to sign him]as did the late Joan Lacueva, who ended up paying to start his hormone treatment, but the club hadn’t made up its mind. They said it was crazy to sign Messi. Things didn’t go well in Barcelona at all and the club was on the verge of bankruptcy. Montero came in November to resolve the issues, but he couldn’t. Montero then called me and told me to speak to Rexach and warn him that we can no longer hold on. And he told me that if we didn’t sign, Messi would go to court with Real Madrid or Atletico.
Rexach: I don’t know if there were other interested teams at the time, I don’t think so. We had a kid here at the club who was very different from anything we had seen before. I don’t know that like a gift it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for so much risk. You said to me in the club: “Listen, Charly, he’s 13 years old and we don’t know what can happen in the future …” You didn’t want to take any risks for such a young child. But I knew we had to sign it to keep him from going elsewhere and then regret it.
Minguella: River Plate had him in court for a few days but decided not to sign him in the end. Because of this, the player’s father didn’t have much to think about when the opportunity arose to travel to Barcelona.
Part of the exam was a game with children Messi’s age and a team of people [the next age bracket above]. It was arranged after we spoke to Rexach about the child who came to Barcelona. The best they could do was watch him. Charly had the president’s trust and is a legend in Barca so there was no one better than him [Messi] that again.
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Rexach reacted the moment he saw him play. After a few minutes he said it had to be signed, it was unique. That game also featured Quimet Rife and various ex-Barca players who were working at the academy at the time. Messi was different from the others and it confirmed what we saw in the videos Juan Mateo sent me from Argentina: he was always looking for the goal.
Gas saving: I didn’t know anything about the process and haven’t consulted anyone after speaking with Rexach. I already said it was his decision … Well, the last word had to be mine, as President of course, but the credit is all Charly’s.
Messi’s signature came a few months later [Luis] Figo’s exit, which was very difficult for the club and had deserved its own book. Everything that happened this August I wouldn’t wish for anyone and as you can imagine Messi wasn’t a priority for the club at that moment.
I remember that the logistical conditions were different because the father Jorge wanted Leo to live in an apartment with him and not with the other children in the academy in La Masia. For once, Rexach told me that this could be done, that we couldn’t get caught up in minor problems, and that we had to do it.
Sign the napkin
In mid-December, Messi’s father Jorge was particularly nervous. The lack of news from Barcelona made him believe they weren’t ready to sign his son. Sensing that the club might miss out on a one-off player, Rexach stepped in to make sure Messi didn’t go elsewhere.
Rexach: Jorge thought [Barca] blocked. I wasn’t there and I don’t know exactly how things were, but when I met Jorge I realized that nothing was clear to him. I suppose he didn’t trust [Barca] and he seemed desperate so one night I met Minguella and Horacio at the Pompeya tennis club and when he was on the phone with Jorge he said to me, “If this isn’t cleared up soon, let’s go. I have to go back to Buenos Aires and I don’t see anything happening. “Then I decided on my feet and decided everything.
Why a napkin? Because it was the only thing I had on hand. I saw that Jorge could only relax by signing something and giving him proof. So I asked the waiter for a napkin and wrote: “In Barcelona on December 14th, 2000 and in the presence of Messrs. Minguella and Horacio, Carles Rexach, the sports director of FC Barcelona hereby agrees, under his responsibility and regardless of dissenting opinions Sign player Lionel Messi, provided we keep the amounts agreed. “
I told Jorge that there was my signature and that there were witnesses, that I would take direct responsibility with my name, that there was nothing else to talk about and be patient for a few days as Leo was already presenting himself as Barca- Player could look at.
Minguella: We met at the Pompeya Tennis Club in Montjuic in Barcelona. We talked for a while after playing a game of tennis. Horacio was there too. We came to the conclusion that something had to be done. It was a genius from Rexach who had no paper on hand at the tennis club, grabbed the napkin, wrote the contract and we all signed.
Immediately afterwards, I spoke to Jorge Messi, who was with Leo at the Plaza Hotel in town to confirm that one of the President’s men had signed a document and that the boy would stay here. The Messis became desperate at Barca’s silence, but at that moment everything was cleared.
Gaggioli: The napkin was legally a valid document, as my lawyers told me, and it changed everyone’s life. It is now guarded in a bank in Andorra – it is a historical document and must be protected. However, it should also be noted that since this document was in existence, Barca have sent a letter to the family asking them to come to Barcelona. Joan Lacueva sent a 10 line letter saying that in February 2001 the whole family should go to Catalonia.
Gas saving: The napkin was a moral way of making Jorge understand that there was nothing to worry about. Officially, it didn’t serve as anything, but it was the step prior to the signing of the first contract that [former Barca vice president] Paco Closa did.
Debut and treatment
The napkin was just the beginning of the saga’s end. It would be almost another month before Messi was officially signed as a Barca player. Due to registration problems, he would not be able to make his competitive debut until March.
He wore the # 9 jersey in a game against Amposta and scored a goal on his first official appearance for the club. Everyone at the club soon realized the caliber of the player they had on their hands, and it wasn’t long before other European heavyweights tried to lure him away. Messi remained loyal to Barca, however, grateful that they had agreed to fund his hormone treatment.
Messi’s treatment involved injecting human growth hormone into his own legs every night. The full cost of the treatment has been reported to be around € 1,000 per month, although neither the club nor Messi have confirmed the numbers.
Rexach: He didn’t make a debut for a while because he was a foreigner and couldn’t play official games until his father was registered in the country. We had to sort the paperwork so he could play, but after the napkin I was relaxed, and so was Jorge.
Minguella: There were some minor bureaucratic issues that were resolved in March, the month he made his debut. He was a foreigner and under 18 years old, so he had to have a permit. Despite training with the U13 A team when it would have been more normal to be with the U15 B team, he had to make his debut with the U13 B team.
Gaggioli: Newell’s had refused to pay for hormone treatment, as River Plate had. Lacueva paid for the initial stages of treatment and after that Barca took over everything. Once he started playing regularly [for Barcelona]All the big clubs like Juventus, Inter Milan, Liverpool and Real Madrid called although Arsenal were closest to him. We even had dinner with Arsene Wenger. It was around the time that Cesc Fabregas, Messi’s close friend, joined Arsenal.
Rexach: The hormone treatment? Look, I did the signing – everything else was the club. There was a cost involved, of course, but it wasn’t overly high and I wasn’t worried about it. I said, “He signed and now you can take care of the rest.” [the club] had to take responsibility.
Gas saving: Nothing special happened with the growth treatment, the hormones. Don’t pay attention to what people with bad intentions may say. The signature was approved with the special connotations [relating to the treatment] and from there Messi had a normal day-to-day life at the club. What I to do It is believed that another club wanted to get their hands on him for a period of time. There is no need to say who. [Real Madrid?] I think it’s obvious, of course.
I didn’t get the chance to enjoy Messi as president. I haven’t been fortunate enough to benefit from him or from players like Andres Iniesta, Victor Valdes, Xavi and Carles Puyol, although some made first-team debuts and I took extra care that Puyol and Xavi stayed at the club when they had to go and can argue with them [Louis] van Gaal when he wanted to kick Valdes out. Taking care of the local children and the academy’s players is of fundamental importance to the club.
I’m happy that the Messis, Jorge and Leo have always had a very close relationship with Barca. They understand the chance the club took against Leo and their gratitude was very evident.