Of his numerous accolades and awards, FC Barcelona and Argentina national team star Lionel Messi’s most cherished prize, as per his own admission, is the Olympic gold medal won at the Beijing 2008 Games.
The Argentine star is a four-time UEFA Champions League winner, 10-time La Liga champion, a six-time Ballon d’Or recipient as well as a FIFA U-20 World Cup winner.
“The Olympic gold in 2008 is the win that I value the most because it is a tournament that you may play only once in your life and involves many athletes from different disciplines,” Lionel Messi had said during a 2017 interview with Spanish Esquire.
Here is a trip down memory lane on how Lionel Messi’s golden moment transpired and eventually played out.
When Beijing looked too far
Having heartbreakingly lost out in the Copa America 2007 final to Brazil, the La Liga 2007-08 title to Real Madrid and watching arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo lead Manchester United to the Champions League crown earlier that year, Messi was looking for a moment of reckoning.
For the then 21-year-old, the Beijing Olympics seemed the perfect platform to initiate his road to redemption. However, there were obstacles to overcome.
In the time leading up to the Games, uncertainties loomed over his participation. A tussle behind closed doors between the Argentina Football Association (AFA) and Barcelona over the youngster’s participation was out in the open and fans, as well as Messi, held their breath for the verdict.
With the Games’ schedule clashing with Barca’s Champions League qualifiers, the Catalan giants were steadfast in their stance to keep hold of their star player and with just months to go, Lionel Messi’s prospects of making it to Beijing looked slim.
Pep Guardiola to the rescue
However, the appointment of Pep Guardiola as Barcelona’s new manager changed things.
“Pep was phenomenal with me as nobody wanted me to go to the Olympics with the national team, but I wanted to go. He was the one who gave me the permission.
“I remember that we were in the pre-season in Italy and after a friendly match against Fiorentina, he grabbed me and said, ‘You want to go, don’t you?’ I said yes,” Lionel Messi recalled during an interview.
Pep Guardiola, an Olympic gold medallist with Spain at the 1992 Games himself, understood Lionel Messi's desire to play at the stage.
While the Barca team travelled to the United States for the next phase of the pre-season, Lionel Messi flew to Beijing to join his teammates preparing for the Olympic Games under Argentina coach Sergio Batista.
The Barcelona management was still resistant to the idea but Pep Guardiola, in New York, convinced the then club president Joan Laporta to let Lionel Messi stay.
The Olympic Games
With his path cleared, Lionel Messi took to the Olympic field for the very first-time on August 7, 2008. Donning the number 15 shirt, the diminutive wizard went on to weave his magic on the grand stage.
As a packed Shanghai Stadium watched on in awe, Lionel Messi opened the scoring for his team at the Games against Ivory Coast in Group A.
Minutes before the half-time whistle, he latched on to a long through ball from Juan Roman Riquelme, accelerated to beat his marker and slotted past Ivory Coast goalkeeper Vincent Angban to give Argentina the lead.
Sekou Cisse equalized for the Elephants in the 53rd minute but with five minutes left on the clock, Messi came alive yet again and provided the assist for substitute Lautaro Acosta to seal the three points.
In Argentina’s second match against Australia, Lionel Messi played a crucial in the build up to Ezequiel Lavezzi’s 76th-minute winner, which finally broke the Socceroos’ gritty resistance led by Australian goalkeeper Adam Federici.
With qualification to the knock-out stages confirmed, Lionel Messi was rested in the final group game against Serbia.
Quarter-finals vs Netherlands
In the quarter-finals, Messi was up against a Roy Makaay-captained Dutch side.
Lionel Messi produced one of the finest goals of the tournament in the 14th minute as he raced past a couple of Dutch defenders, left the opposition custodian bamboozled with a deft touch before firing in from a tight angle.
Otman Bakkal’s 36th minute strike did take the contest to Extra Time, but Lionel Messi was there to make the difference again.
Fifteen minutes into Extra Time, the Barcelona man teed up Angel Di Maria with a lovely weighted through pass and the winger netted the winning goal.
Semi-final against Brazil and ‘the’ Ronaldinho picture
In the semi-final, Argentina were up against arch-rivals Brazil, featuring the likes of Marcelo, Alexandre Pato, Thiago Silva, Rafinha and most importantly, Ronaldinho – Lionel Messi’s mentor and predecessor at FC Barcelona.
The highly-anticipated match, however, turned out to be an one-sided affair with Argentina cruising through 3-0, courtesy a Sergio Aguero brace and a Juan Riquelme penalty.
The post-match image of Lionel Messi standing on his toes consoling his dejected idol with an embrace painted a powerful picture, especially amongst football fans on social media.
It was symbolic of the proverbial passing of the torch in world football – from one great to another.
Final against Nigeria
In the gold medal round, Messi and Co. were up against Nigeria. Both teams were familiar with each other, with most players having met previously in the 2005 U-20 World Cup final.
Despite Diego Maradona predicting a 2-0 cruise for the Albiceleste, it was far from an easy match.
Under sweltering heat at Beijing’s National Stadium, popularly known as the Bird’s Nest, the Super Eagles were proving to be a hard team to break down, until Messi scripted a piece of magic.
Just before the hour mark, Lionel Messi received the ball just inside his own half, turned on a hair-pin and produced a lovely pass, setting Angel di Maria free.
The lanky winger latched onto the ball and finished with a brilliant chip over the onrushing Nigerian keeper Ambruse Vanzekin.
Both the goal and the assist were deserving of a gold medal, and the Argentinians won by the barest of margins.
Argentina and Lionel Messi finally had something big to show!
“The World Cup is great, but the Olympics are something special,” Messi told ESPN in 2016.
Lack of Encores
Despite his love for the Games, his 2008 appearance is, till date, Lionel Messi’s only appearance in the Olympics.
Argentina was unable to qualify for the 2012 edition in London, depriving Messi an opportunity to defend the gold.
At Rio 2016, Lionel Messi was eager to play but Gerardo Martino, then coach of the Argentina national team, opted to rest him with an eye on the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.