What’s the truth of the story about the Barcelona icon almost going to Scotland? Goal takes a look back
Football is full of stories about near-misses and fantasies concerning players who might have been signed by certain clubs.
Blackburn Rovers famously missed out on Zinedine Zidane in the 1990s, opting to sign Tim Sherwood instead, while Barcelona and Arsenal were potential destinations for Cristiano Ronaldo.
One enduring account about an almost-signing is that of Lionel Messi nearly joining Scottish outfit Rangers in the early 2000s.
So what is the story? Did it really happen? Goal takes a look at the truth behind the tale.
Did Lionel Messi nearly sign for Rangers?
No, Messi did not nearly sign for Rangers. Sorry to shatter the myth.
However, it is true that there was strong interest from the Scottish club around 2003-04, just before the Argentine broke into the Barcelona first team.
Tentative enquiries were made from the Rangers about the possibility of taking Messi on loan to Glasgow, but they were rejected out of hand.
The rejection of the interest from Scotland is perhaps no surprise considering that Messi was already on the fringes of the Barca team and eventually made his senior competitive debut at 17 in October 2004.
What actually happened?
So if Rangers did not nearly sign Messi, what really happened?
Alex McLeish was manager of the Ibrox club when enquiries about Messi were made and it was his son Jon who alerted him to the precocious Argentine after seeing him on Football Manager.
Jon, who actually went on to become a football agent, had noticed a 13-year-old Messi on the game and told McLeish – who was then managing Hibernian – about it.
Though Messi’s burgeoning reputation was certainly no secret in football circles, the tip evidently stayed with the Scottish coach as he asked about the Barca youth product a number of years later, only to be told “no chance” by the Catalan club.
“My son Jon was into Championship Manager,” McLeish explained on Graham Hunter’s The Big Interview podcast in 2017.
“He was constantly giving me names in South America. They come out of the sky and say ‘Lionel Messi is going to be the best player in the world’.
“He was 13 or 14 at the time. You dismiss it but Rangers were downsizing and we were looking for some quality in midfield.
“Barry Ferguson had gone down to Blackburn so we lost a guy who would have taken the ball in any stadium anywhere in the world. We needed players of that ilk again.
“Jan Wouters phoned Henk ten Cate, who was the assistant of Frank Rijkaard, the ex-Dutch international.
“Jan phoned him and said: ‘Messi?’ We were told no chance.”
Rangers had links with Barcelona, having previously done business with the club to sign Ronald de Boer in 2000 and Mikel Arteta in 2002, so it was not wholly unusual for such enquiries to be made.
Added to that, the fact that McLeish’s assistant Jan Wouters was friendly with Barcelona assistant head coach Henk ten Cate helped.
McLeish went into greater detail about the attempts to sign Messi in Hunter’s 2012 book Barca, explaining that Barcelona were worried that the Scottish game may have been too rough for the Argentine.
“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,” McLeish said.
Letting the diminutive forward cut his teeth in British football was seen as a risk because of the perception that “tough tackling” and a more physical game held sway in the United Kingdom.
While the prospect of signing Messi was a complete non-runner, Rangers and McLeish were subsequently tipped off by Ten Cate about a young Andres Iniesta, who was also still only a teenager at the time.
However, that didn’t happen either, not helped by the fact that Iniesta was turning heads at Camp Nou. Influential figures such as Txiki Begiristain and Joan Laporta were also keen to promote La Masia products to the first team.
“[Ten Cate] said ‘we’ve got a young kid, Iniesta, he’s a phenomenal player’, only 18 or 19,” McCleish explained in 2017.
“We said ‘can he come to Scotland?’
“They said ‘yep I’ll try and make hay at Barcelona and get him over to you. He needs to get some action’.
“By the Monday Iniesta was called into the team and he played a stormer.
“Ten Cate came back and Jan asked him ‘what about the wee man? Are we getting him?’”
“Ten Cate sighed and said we had no chance.”