I can’t place much of my footballing education. It all becomes a blur of Panini stickers, staying up to watch the second half of Champions League games on ITV and standing in the cold, shouting at Freddy Eastwood.
But I can tell you one thing. By 2009, at the age of 14, I was utterly obsessed with Lionel Messi. That Christmas, having never had Sky Sports at home, I begged my dad to pay the £6 a month it cost for me to have the newly-released Sky Mobile on my iPhone 3Gs.
He gave in, and every Sunday night I would sit in my room absolutely fixated, with my phone mere inches away from my face. The internet was shoddy and the screen was tiny, but it gave me a glimpse of the player who made my childlike obsession with football turn into something else: A genuine love.
It’s still to this day, the best present my dad has ever bought me.
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But my love of Messi began before I was able to watch every shimmy, nutmeg and goal. I saw him score for Argentina at the 2006 World Cup, and his name was always mentioned in MATCH! Magazine as one to watch, but the late 2000s was a different time.
There was still a slight mystique around players who weren’t shown on Match of the Day every weekend. Sky Sports had taken over in terms of domestic football and showed most Champions League matches, but for us mere mortals without a subscription, you’d have to wait for the big games on ITV with Clive Tyldesley talking you through the action.
The only time you’d get to see Barcelona and Messi would often be against an English club. His shuffle past Paul Scholes in 2008 caught the eye, but it was the following year when he truly made his mark on the Champions League. The Chelsea v Barcelona semi-final of 2009 captivated me, but I was not part of the English contingent that wanted the Blues to win that game.
Then, surrounded by Manchester United fans, I watched him win the 2009 Champions League final. I’d grown up in an Anglo-centric world dominated by United, Sir Alex Ferguson and Ballon d’Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo. Then Messi came along to burst that bubble. It was beautiful.
By the time that Christmas came around, Messi had already been crowned as the best player in the world, and I wanted to see every single second of him. That goal against Real Zaragoza is still my favourite, but Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona showed me a different way to play football and, on the playground, Tiki-taka became the only thing I wanted to recreate.
The 2011 Champions League final was a crowning masterpiece, and I’m almost certain I watched every single one of the ridiculous 91 goals he scored in 2012. I grew up with Messi, but now, a decade on, his footballing journey is approaching the end.
At 35, he’s not as quick as he once was. He certainly doesn’t run as much, yet he is still just as magnificent. But, as the footballing world fawned over Lionel Messi’s outrageous performance against Australia in the last 16, there were some that went against the grain, desperate to dampen the mood.
“I couldn’t care less if it’s Messi’s last World Cup or not,” Simon Jordan said on TalkSPORT. “I want the best team to win the World Cup and that will be the end of the discussion. There’s no reason for us to want Argentina to win it for Messi!”
Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo’s best mate Piers Morgan claimed the BBC were fan-girling over Messi and that they should "calm [themselves]". But Messi attempting to win this World Cup, for me, isn’t even about settling that tedious GOAT debate. It’s far simpler than that.
I watch football to bring me joy and happiness, and no player has ever been able to put a smile on my face like Lionel Messi. Every time he gets the ball and takes on two or three players I am transported back in time to my teenage bedroom, clutching my iPhone with a massive smile on my face.
To this day, whenever Messi is playing, I’ll always put the game on. After all the moments of ecstasy he has given me over the past 15 years, it would be a fitting ending for him to experience the greatest joy of all.