World Cup Memories: 2006, 'wonder boy' Messi makes debut

Pablo Vinocur

i24NEWS head of social media strategy - @pvinocur

7 min read
Argentinian forward Lionel Messi celebrates with teammates after scoring during the FIFA World Cup 2006 group C World Cup football match Argentina vs Serbia-Montenegro.
JUNG YEON-JE / AFPArgentinian forward Lionel Messi celebrates with teammates after scoring during the FIFA World Cup 2006 group C World Cup football match Argentina vs Serbia-Montenegro.

A new and old generation together, playing a beautiful game in the most exciting tournament that exists

The 2006 FIFA World Cup was the first one I felt capable of understanding what was going on. I was 12 years old and Argentina was, as always, one of the favorite teams to win the coveted trophy. 

Brazil arrived as one of the favorites as well, having won the golden trophy at the previous 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan. Germany, the host this time around, was the team that everybody expected to win. And France, with Zinadine Zidane’s last dance, was also expected to play great soccer.

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Soccer is one of the most popular sports worldwide. Some people could say it got its notoriety from the talent of historic players like Pele, Diego Maradona, Michel Platini, Ronaldinho Gaucho, Roberto Baggio, and many others.

But in 2006, there was a new talent playing for FC Barcelona, with the Spanish team’s already-established stars. Earlier that year, the Catalonian team won the UEFA Champions League, and everybody was looking at this wonder boy: Lionel Andres Messi. 

AP Photo/Francesco Pecoraro, File
AP Photo/Francesco Pecoraro, FileArgentina's Lionel Messi dribbles past an Angola player during an exhibition soccer match in Salerno, Italy, on May 30, 2006.

Wonder boy

As a young boy, I was always either playing or watching soccer. During my last year of elementary school in Argentina, all my classmates and I did was debate, play, and breath the sport. So when the big tournament came around, we all had the feeling that Messi and Juan Roman Riquelme would bring back the trophy for us. 

Our team was at the time playing an objectively beautiful game – similar to what the Dutch call “total soccer” – but combined with the craftiness that represents Argentinian soccer, rooting from the poor neighborhoods and dusty pitches. 

That year was also the 20th anniversary of Argentina’s last World Cup trophy, in Mexico, and several coincidences were mentioned in the media: Messi’s name starting with an “M” like Maradona, the tournament gear paying homage to the 1986 World Cup, and Riquelme being Argentina’s #10 and a Boca Juniors’ idol, just like Maradona was 20 years prior.

AP Photo/Armando Franca
AP Photo/Armando FrancaArgentina's Roberto Ayala (2) and Juan Riquelme (10) plead with referee Massimo Busacca in the second half of Argentina vs Mexico Round of 16 World Cup soccer match at Central Stadium in Leipzig, Germany, on June 24, 2006.

Meant to be

Messi’s first World Cup game was against Serbia and Montenegro, but he didn’t enter the match until the 75th minute. One person who was possibly the most excited to see his World Cup debut: Maradona, chanting his name from his VIP box in Gelsenkirchen Arena. 

Messi scored one goal and assisted the talented striker Hernan Crespo for another score, all in fifteen minutes.

Celebrations in Buenos Aires started after that game – the team seemed invincible. Mexico was a tough matchup in the round of 16, but a stunning goal from Maxi Rodriguez put the Argentines in the quarter-finals against the host, Germany. Both teams had yet to play each other in a World Cup since Italy 1990’s final, where the Teuton team won 1-0 with a penalty shot at the end of the game.

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My classmates and I had no doubt that Messi and Riquelme would beat Germany in Berlin and win the tournament, and that they did with a header from Roberto Ayala, assisted by Riquelme: It was meant to be. 

Joy, hope, nonsense

Argentina vs. Germany – after 80 minutes and a tied game, Argentina’s goalkeeper got injured, and his substitute replaced him. Then came extra time, which would become “the nonsense” in Argentina’s soccer history. 

Riquelme was subbed out and Messi wasn’t playing. Finally, penalties would decide who would go through to the semi-final match. Germany’s goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann, had a little paper on his sock with the direction of where Argentinian players usually shoot their penalties. 

He got it right and saved two penalty kicks, securing Germany's 4-2 win.

AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle, file
AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle, fileGerman goalie Jens Lehmann making the final save in the 4-2 shootout win in the quarterfinal World Cup soccer match between Germany and Argentina in Berlin, Germany, on June 30, 2006.

We were done without having the chance to see Messi and Riquelme save us from a tough World Cup battle. In tears, my classmates and I would have to wait another four years for a new chance. 

But who can take away the joy, hope, or happiness of thousands of kids and teenagers around the world who had the chance to see Messi and Riquelme play together? A new and old generation together, playing a beautiful game in the most exciting tournament that exists. 

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