[Taken from Graham Hunter’s book ‘BARCA – ‘The Making of the Greatest Team in the World’]
Messi was 17 years, four months and 23 days old. He had just scored a hat-rick for the B team against Granollers and, as it was an international break, was taken to the Dragon Stadium in Porto and came on with 15minutes left. Although a very weak Barra side lost 2-0 to Jose Mourinho’s Porto, Messi produced three good scoring chances in his 5minutes on the pitch and, when Pere Gratacos (Barca B Manager) got his player back, it was with the news that “you were right, he should be training with the first team – you can have him back at weekend’s for games”.
It was around this point of the season that Rangers fans came closer than anyone knows to the extraordinary prospect of Lionel Messi, or indeed Andres Iniesta, playing on loan at lbrox. Alex McLeish has always had an adventurous outlook on how to add quality to his squads. He has always loved European football and his early managerial success, at Hibernian in Scotland, centred around his imaginative recruitment of the former France defender Franck Sauzee and Russell Latapy, a magical midfielder from Porto – this when Hibs had been relegated from the Scottish Premier League. As Rangers manager, he succeeded with Mikel Arteta, a La Masia graduate, Jean-Alain Boumsong and Dado Prso. However, during season 2003-04 he came closest to the greatest coup of his career.
McLeish recalled: “Ian Wouters was my assistant at lbrox at the time and I asked him whether or not he knew Frank Rijkaard and if he’d be willing to get in touch to check if there were some quality youngsters who might benefit us because of their talents, but who could gain experience in Scotland before returning to Barra.”
“Jan told me that he was slightly friendlier with Rijkaard’s assistant, Henk ten Cate, and our scouts had already been aware of Leo Messi’s growing reputation at youth level. We didn’t have much budget at the time and the previous season we’d taken some bigger-name players on free contracts or low transfer fees but higher wages.
“This time, we thought that the fans might be a little bit more understanding if we brought younger or less experienced players, but who were evidently of good quality. “Ten Cate and Jan Wouters had chats about us taking Messi on loan, but the guidance from Henk was that he was probably too young and possibly too slight to get benefit from Scottish football. Our view was that Barca were probably hedging their bets at the time.
“Even then, they knew how good he was and they must have thought that letting him go to British football might be a risk because of the tough tackling and the physicality, but they were also obviously unsure about how quickly he might actually make the Barra first team.We caught them just in the middle of that process of working out what they wanted to with Messi, but during the discussions Henk said to Jan that we should do ourselves a favour and take Iniesta on loan instead.
“I think his exact words were, ‘This boy is going to be a world beater; which he proved against Holland in South Africa.He told us that lniesta ‘sees the picture in front of him’ earlier than anyone else and that he’s got a great pass and an ability to beat people.
“Eventually we made a formal enquiry; I think it would have been towards the end of season 2004-5. But Messi handy in the Youth World Cup and Barcelona were sure that they wouldn’t loan him. Then Iniesta scored in a big pre-season game which meant that the club couldn’t really loan him out – without losing face.
“It was a pity nothing worked out because I’d been really excited at the idea of one or other of them for a season. The other thing about Messi was that my kids were into that Championship Manager game and they’d told me about hire when he was only 12 or 13, that he was going to be a superstar.”
Ferran Soriano was one of Barca’s two vice presidents at the time and well recalls the fierce debate galvanized by Rangers’ determination to take either Messi or Iniesta on loan:
“At the time of the Rangers interest there were lots of discussions about lniesta. I remember Henk defending his logic saying. ‘The guy’s small, he doesn’t have the strength, maybe we send him elsewhere for a couple of years and then we’ll see.’ He liked Marc van Bommel, for example, a symbol of which is the Champions League final in 2006, where they (Rijkaard and Ten Cate) started with Van Bommel and the game changed when Iniesta came on for him.
“In those discussions about whether to loan to Rangers, history and tradition played a role. I remember Begiristain, Laporta, the old guys, the local guys, defending Iniesta very, very strongly and saying, ‘No, this guy has talent, he has to stay,’ and they were proved right.”