Would we be waiting for the last chapter in Lionel Messi’s Argentina career with such anticipation if not for a signature scrawled on a restaurant serviette?
What is the most expensive autograph in the world? If you go by what auctioneers across the world say, then George Washington’s signatures on the United States of America’s Acts of Congress are worth around $9.8 million dollars. As far as football is concerned, Pele’s autographs fetch around $1,125 each. But if you were ask any modern-day football historian about the most valuable signature in the game’s history, they would mention a name that many fans wouldn’t even have heard of.
Carles Rexach scored 197 goals as a winger for Barcelona, and was Johan Cruyff’s teammate for years after the Dutch legend moved there from Ajax in 1973. Years later, he was Cruyff’s assistant coach as Barcelona won the European Cup for the first time in 1992. But Rexach’s greatest contribution to Barcelona’s history was a signature on a restaurant serviette.
Given a choice, Lionel Messi would never have left Rosario and the club of his heart, Newell’s Old Boys. But when he was diagnosed with Growth Hormone deficiency and Newell’s declined to pay for the treatment, the Messi family had to look elsewhere. River Plate, one half of Buenos Aires’s big-two rivalry, showed an interest, but they too shied away from picking up the tab for the treatment.
In September 2000, the 13-year-old Messi and his family journeyed to Barcelona for a trial there. The club’s directors, however, were hesitant to sign him. Football, after all, is rife with tales of teenage prodigies like Sonny Pike and Nii Lamptey who faded away after promising so much. By December 2000, the Messi family had had enough. Given an ultimatum, Rexach, first team director at the time, grabbed a paper napkin and gave them a contract offer on that.
The rest is football history. In just over two decades at Barcelona, Messi won four Champions League titles and ten La Liga crowns. Those stellar statistics also included 672 goals, the most by a player for one club. Rexach’s playing career alone made him a Barcelona legend, but his role in the signing of Messi elevates him to another plan altogether.
That boy who left half his family and his beloved Newell’s behind to cross the Atlantic is now the game’s most cherished player. But having ticked every box possible at club level, one final task remains – the winning of a World Cup with Argentina. Having ended nearly three decades without an international honour by winning the Copa America in 2019, Argentina will be playing their sixth World Cup final. The last two, in 1990 and 2014, ended in tears, defeat and recriminations.
Messi himself was so drained by repeated failures with the national team that he retired from international duty after losing to Chile in the Copa America final in 2016. Thankfully for his millions of adoring fans, he reversed that decision. And in some ways, this World Cup in Qatar has seen the best of him – a more liberated version who doesn’t look like he’s carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
He couldn’t have chosen a tougher opponent though. France’s side is a superb blend of experience and youth. Hugo Lloris, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann have been around for years, as has Raphael Varane. Kylian Mbappe is already a World Cup winner, and in contention for the Golden Boot along with Messi. Aurilien Tchouameni, Ibrahima Konate and Eduardo Camavinga represent an unquestionably bright future. How many teams could leave players of the quality of Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba at home, and reach a final?
So much of the focus ahead of the game has been on Messi and Mbappe, but the game will be decided behind then. Enzo Fernandez, Rodrigo de Paul and Leandro Parades have provided a solid midfield base for Messi and Julian Alvarez to attack from, while Nahuel Molina and Marcos Acuna have been dynamic in their full-back roles.
The midfield battle with Tchouameni and Adrian Rabiot will be crucial, as will the way Argentina and Messi target Theo Hernandez on the left of France’s defence. Similarly, Argentina’s central defensive pairing of the wily old Nicolas Otamendi and Cristian Romero will need to be especially wary of the space that Griezmann drops into. With so much of the focus on controlling Mbappe, it was Griezmann that set up both goals against England in the quarterfinal.
Few World Cups get a dream final. Before the tournament began, the hope was always that France would run into either Brazil or Argentina in the final. Now that it has happened, we can only hope that the 90 minutes, or more, lives up to the advance billing. If Messi does get the farewell that tens of millions around the world yearn for, spare a thought for Charly Rexach and the hastily scrawled signature that made this story possible.