Marti Riverola was 20 years old when he made his debut for Barcelona in December 2011. It was at the Camp Nou Stadium for a UEFA Champions League game against BATE Borisov. He wasn’t nervous on the eve of the game because he wasn’t sure if he’d play. It took him a long time to sleep after Barca’s 4-0 win, though, as he was so high on adrenaline and flooded with messages of congratulations from family and friends.
It was peak Lionel Messi time. The Argentinian was in the middle of his most prolific scoring season, netting a record 50 goals in La Liga—though Real Madrid won the league—and tallying an incredible 91 goals in a calendar year. Riverola had not believed his luck when Barca coach Pep Guardiola called him up to train with Messi and Co. for the first team a couple of years earlier.
“At that stage, Messi was my idol, and he still is,” Riverola says. “When you first meet him, it’s like: Wow! I can’t believe I’m meeting Messi. Then five minutes later, you have to calm down and train with him. You have to tackle him. You have to pass him the ball. You’re just one more player in the training session. You can’t be thinking, Wow, there’s Messi over there.”
Frank Rijkaard gave Maso his first-team debut against Athletic Bilbao in the old San Mames ground in 2006. He was part of the crop from Barcelona’s most celebrated collection of youth academy footballers—those players at La Masia who were born in 1987 and known as “the generation of ’87”, which included Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique. Maso remembers the training sessions at La Masia were ferocious.
“The training matches at the academy were more competitive than the games,” he says.”Messi in training was very competitive. He always wanted to win. When he got on the ball, you could see he was different to everyone else, even alongside Pique and Cesc. He made things look easy, but whenever he touched the ball, something nearly always happened.
“Messi’s personality was very unassuming, very straightforward. He was introverted, but once he got out onto the pitch, he came alive. He’s always had a winner’s mentality, and he was always thinking about football, football, football, how to be the best. It’s what put him at a different level and why he continues to be superior year in, year out for the last 10, 12 years. He never lets up. He keeps breaking records, keeps scoring as many goals as the previous season. He’s a beast.”
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