In the summer of 2006, Barcelona were on a pre-season tour of America.
Ronaldinho, at the time the reigning holder of the Ballon d’Or who had just led Barca to Champions League and La Liga titles under Frank Rijkaard, went to visit an old friend, and he took a new friend with him.
“Ronaldinho, who was a good friend, said ‘I’m going to introduce you to the player who’s going to be the greatest of all time’,” recounted Kobe Bryant, years later.
“I said: ‘You what? You are the best.’ But he said: ‘No, no. This kid right here is going to be the best.’ And that guy was Lionel Messi.”
Ronaldhino had told Kobe that the 17-year old Lionel Messi was “going to be the greatest of all time”
— KF (@klutchfamilia) December 18, 2022
Messi had been a regular in the Barca team for a year or so and had just returned from the World Cup with Argentina. But he had only just turned 19 and while most people were pretty confident that the kid was good, not many knew how good.
Ronaldinho seemed pretty confident, though.
“Me, Deco and the whole team had been following Leo since the youth team, going to watch his games,” Ronaldinho tells The Athletic. “We already expected that he would be the best.”
Look how right he was, with Messi extending his record haul of Ballon d’Or successes, with his eighth award last night. There’s a good argument to be made that their relationship was a pretty significant factor in Messi’s ultimate success. Part friendship, part brotherhood, part mentorship; it was much more formative than perhaps many realise.
The popular narrative is that Ronaldinho was sold by Barcelona when Pep Guardiola took over as manager in 2008 because he was seen as a bad influence on Messi.
That’s true, to a point, but the broader motivation behind Ronaldinho’s departure was about his impact on the dressing room as a whole. By that time, the widespread perception was that the Brazilian’s professionalism had all but disappeared: his work ethic had dropped and he wasn’t training properly, which admittedly was true of a few players towards the tail end of Rijkaard’s tenure. His nights out had become more frequent and had started to have an adverse impact on his football. The Brazilian midfielder Edmilson said around this time that there were some “black sheep” in the Barca dressing room.
When Guardiola became Barca manager, he decided that Ronaldinho, Deco and Samuel Eto’o had to go. The first two went to AC Milan and Chelsea respectively, while Eto’o stayed for a year before moving to Inter Milan. “It’s time for a ‘restart’ in this dressing room,” said Guardiola on his first day in charge.
In his book Barca: The Making Of The Greatest Team In The World, Graham Hunter wrote: “(Barcelona) saw that young, impressionable Leo Messi would have to be absolutely superhuman not to be led astray by these senior players, whom he not only idolised, but who had treated him like he was family.’
For his part, Ronaldinho disputes the idea that he would lead young Messi astray. “That makes no sense,” he says, when asked about it by The Athletic.
And even if it is true, it shouldn’t obscure the pivotal role Ronaldinho played in the early days of Messi’s career; helping him go from pulsing potential to fully formed genius, and the really quite touching friendship the two developed.
Messi was 16, but looked even younger, when he was brought to train with the first team, and Ronaldinho’s scouting trips to see the prodigy turned out to be pretty accurate. “He was an alien,” French winger Ludovic Giuly told Sport. “He killed us all.”
“When I saw Ronaldinho, I thought this was the best footballer I would ever see,” said Henrik Larsson, in the BBC’s documentary about Messi that aired shortly before the 2022 World Cup. “Until that day.”
Rijkaard was initially cautious with Messi, but a combination of the senior players and coaches convinced him Messi should be promoted to the first team on a more permanent basis. He made his competitive debut against Espanyol in October 2004, aged 17.
But while his feet were loud, the rest of him wasn’t so much. Those around the Barca team at that time recall two things about Messi: he was clearly an astonishing talent, and he was incredibly quiet, to the point of muteness.
Ronaldinho recognised both of those things. He made a point of approaching Messi, making him feel more at home and less intimidated by the stars around him. He made sure Messi took the seat next to him in the dressing room. He invited Messi to sit at ‘the Brazilian table’ at dinner, joking he was the only Argentine they would allow to eat with them.
“My debut was about the same age and I know exactly how difficult it can be making your way in a dressing room full of adults as the talented kid,” Ronaldinho told Hunter. “So, to take the pressure off him, I treat him like a kid brother and we try to joke around with him to make it all as natural as possible. I’m just showing camaraderie.”
He partly did this because he knew how good Messi already was — and was going to be. He also knew the pressure of being The Guy, the creative giant that the rest of the team looks to. Genius recognises genius.
“At the time, Ronaldinho was the main man in the dressing room,” said Larsson. “Leo saw what it takes to be the main man.”
But it’s not as if Ronaldinho reserved this treatment just for otherworldly talents: he also took Maxi Lopez aside when he first joined the club. “He said ‘Whatever you need, I’m here for you,’ Lopez told the BBC. “He did exactly the same for Leo. They were superstars, but they were so humble. With Leo, he understood that he would be one of the best of all time. He was there for every single moment.”
Not that he went in for particularly intricate advice. “Leo needs no comments,” Ronaldinho says, “so the only advice I had for him is: play with joy and freedom. Just play with the ball at your feet, the rest will come naturally.”
Messi took that advice on, telling Hunter: “I try to copy little things Ronaldinho does, but more fundamentally I just try to play for the joy of it. Look at the way he always has a smile — that’s how I feel. Playing football has always meant joy and happiness to me and that’s why I do it.”
Rijkaard gradually eased Messi into the first team over the 2004-5 season. His first start came in a Champions League dead rubber against Shakhtar Donetsk, but his league minutes were limited to a series of brief substitute appearances, partly because of injury.
The last of those came at the Camp Nou on May 1 against Albacete. Messi replaced Eto’o in the 88th minute, and Ronaldinho seemed to spend what time remained of the game trying to get the youngster a goal.
He very nearly did just a few seconds after Messi entered the field. Just before the clock ticks over to 90 minutes, Ronaldinho scoops a ball over the top for Messi, who chips the keeper and the Catalan crowd goes berserk. But their celebrations are cut short by a linesman’s flag. Ronaldinho smiles and cocks his head. Replays suggest Messi is, at worst, level. But it was a tight call.
“That annoyed me into action,” said Messi, years later. Shortly afterwards, Deco plays a ball down the left channel, which Messi half-controls with his head and jostles with a defender, before shoving a short pass to Ronaldinho, who repeats the scooped pass from moments earlier. Messi moves to control the ball but stops and lets it bounce, before gently, gently, gently lifting it over ’keeper Raul Valbuena. This time, the linesman’s flag remains firmly at his side.
Messi runs away to celebrate, but then turns back and looks for his mentor. Ronaldinho runs over and Messi jumps on his back — not quite a passing of the torch moment, but it was as if the older man was showing off his eventual successor to the assembled crowd.
“Whenever I remember this moment, it is very special,” says Ronaldinho now, “because that was where his career began. Having the opportunity to participate in the beginning of his story is beautiful. It was something very natural and it filled me with joy to see a young man, my friend, doing well with that first goal.
“And to my happiness and luck, the pass to the goal was mine. It fills me with happiness to know that his first goal came from my feet. This is a memory we will never forget.”
Their relationship had become extremely close at this point. They were friends, but it also had a big brotherly feel, the older man showing the young pup how the world works. There was a mentoring aspect too that nobody else could have fulfilled: someone with Messi’s talent would need someone who knew what it was like to be the best in the world, to be the one that everyone — team-mates, opponents, media, fans — was watching.
The word that Ronaldinho uses most frequently, in response to The Athletic’s questions, is “natural”. Even though there were lots of logical and practical reasons for the two men to be friends, it wasn’t forced: it wasn’t as if someone had a quiet word with Ronaldinho and said ‘Keep an eye on this kid, he’s going to be special.’ It just happened.
Even though the two are pretty different personalities, to say the least. The free-spirited, outgoing, sometimes chaotic rascal, about whom the phrase “liked a night out” is up there with “his first touch was decent” in the pantheon of great understatements. And the quiet, reserved, even introverted family man, who wasn’t exactly a shut-in during those early years and certainly accompanied Ronaldinho out on the town a fair few times, but who has been with his wife Antonela since he was 21 and had his first child aged 25. By his own admission, Messi’s day-to-day life away from football is relatively routine, boring even.
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“Football can give us that,” says Ronaldinho, when asked about the differing personalities. “We spent so much time together, travelling and playing games that we become a family, as we are always together, laughing and enjoying. He sat next to me in the locker room. Leo has always been more reserved, but we get along well and to this day, whenever we can see each other, it is a joy.”
Would Messi have become the greatest player in the world without the guiding hand of Ronaldinho? Probably. It would have taken something remarkable to stop that sort of genius.
But it’s clear this was one of the most important, formative relationships in Messi’s early days. By the time Ronaldinho left, Barcelona was already Messi’s team. The boy was a man and, in that respect, Ronaldinho’s work was done.
“It’s very rewarding to see friends achieving their dreams,” says Ronaldinho. “That truly makes me happy.”
(Top photo: LLUIS GENE/AFP via Getty Images)