Looking back at the first goal Lionel Messi ever scored for Barcelona, it seems thoroughly average. Why should we care about a simple lob that, in the grand pantheon of all the goals he has scored, is actually quite unremarkable. If he were any other player, no one would bat an eye. And that is exactly the point.
More players than we care to count have had their debuts for Barcelona, have stepped out onto the field as a precocious youngster, ready to take on the world. Most fail. They either never step up or their star burns for a fortnight, never to be rekindled again. One only has to look back at Munir El Haddadi this past fall. He came into Barcelona’s senior team and looked for all the world like he would live up to the hype surrounding any Barcelona debutant. After scoring in his first match for the senior team, El Haddadi would never find the net again. And after 11 games he was demoted back down to the Barcelona B team, where he has only scored 2 goals in all of 2015. No one will ever remember El Haddadi should he never make it back to Barcelona’s senior squad. Just like no one would have remembered Messi had he failed to score after opening his account in his debut, as well.
There he was, just another kid ecstatic to have scored for the club that had given him his chance. He still had every possibility of failing utterly, of never being seen again. That the length of the road he had in front of him is absolutely astonishing to look back and behold. It is a miracle that he has progressed from that young boy in the video to the grown man he is today.
What was Messi called when he first walked onto the pitch? For El Haddadi, like so many of his contemporaries, was hailed as “the next Messi,” a phrase so ubiquitous it might as well come paired with and eye-rolling emoji. Who was Messi compared to? Baggio? Maradona? Whomever it was, you can bet that he was called it with the same sense jaded hope that we feel whenever we call anybody the next him.
Today, Messi is the all time top scorer in El Clasico. He has scored the most goals in one season and in one calendar year. He has won the Ballon d’Or the most times. He is Barcelona’s top scorer in history. He is the all-time top scorer in La Liga and the Champions League. He has provided the most assists in La Liga history. The majority of these records he has broken while scoring a hat trick. He is 27. But every single one of those accomplishments pales in comparison to him to how far he has come since his debut.
He is no longer a 16-year-old in danger of becoming what El Haddadi may become now. He is no long the next Baggio or Maradona; he is the next Messi. On the 10th anniversary of his first goal for Barcelona, we need to remember that. If not for him, then for the next unfortunate soul burdened with the task of becoming the next Messi. Only in remembering that can we understand what they will have accomplished when they are no longer “the next Messi” but simply the first themselves.