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One Night in Bremen: the time Inter nearly signed Lionel Messi

Can you imagine if... actually no. Maybe it’s better that we don't.

Football's transfer market is littered with fascinating deals-that-never-were. Whether it be Steven Gerrard almost joining Chelsea, Alfredo Di Stefano almost joining Barcelona, Robert Lewandowski almost joining Blackburn Rovers or *Insert Literally Any World Class Player Since 2005* almost joining Arsenal, pretty much every club around the world has at least one ‘sliding doors’ moment to their name that could so easily have sent their history down a different path.

Inter are naturally no exception; in fact, transfers that could have happened but didn’t have always been a speciality of ours. Do you remember, for instance, the time when Walter Mazzarri chose to sign Hernanes instead of Radja Nainggolan? Good job, Walter, seriously. Or when Palermo accepted our offer to sign Paulo Dybala, only for the player to prefer a move to Juventus? Or when Fiorentina threw a gigantic hissy fit and forced us to pick up the ghost of Stevan Jovetic instead of soon-to-be Liverpool player Mohamed Salah? The list, I suspect, is endless; those are only the most recent episodes that I can recall off the top of my head. We could probably make a full XI of Players That Inter Might Have Signed.

But there can be no greater deal-that-never-was than one that involves Lionel Messi, the man whom for many people is football itself – and, believe it or not, Inter did come close to signing La Pulga once upon a time. Italy’s media has linked Messi to Inter on several occasions during the last few years (remember this?), and not once has there been the tiniest shred of truth attached to such rumours; when Pirelli CEO Marco Tronchetti hit the headlines last November after saying it was his ‘dream’ to see the Argentine play for the Nerazzurri, he later clarified that this was simply a ‘provocation’ designed to stimulate the club and its supporters. Despite the endless inches of newspaper tripe that have been churned out in recent years, though, on one occasion we really did have a chance of bringing Messi to Inter, as former Barcelona president Joan Laporta mentioned in an interview with the Guardian last week:

... But it is not only context; it is content too. The other thing Guardiola does not have, of course, is the player he most needs: Lionel Messi. “Don’t give him ideas,” Laporta jokes but he has no doubts over the Argentinian’s future with a contract renewal imminent. As president, there was only one moment he feared Messi departing and that has long gone.

“It was 2006 when Inter made an offer,” he explains. “They were prepared to pay the €150m buyout clause, which is why we [later] raised it to €250m, but I always felt reassured by my relationship with his dad, Jorge.

“I told him: ‘They’ll have to pay the clause because I won’t sell. He’ll be happy here, he’ll get glory. There, he’ll only win financially. Your son’s destined to be the greatest in history and here he’ll have a team to help get there. He’ll enjoy it.’

Naturally this passage of the interview has made quite a stir within the Italian media and elsewhere, because the thought of Messi ever playing for any club other than Barcelona is just, well, weird. And wrong, I might add. However while it is a news story, it isn't a new story (see what I did there), because the Inter-Messi episode has been recounted in much greater detail by Spanish football journalist Guillem Balague, amongst others, in the biography of Messi that he released in 2013. Therefore, we actually know a lot more about what happened than was mentioned in that article this week - and as the story has been brought up again in the last few days, we thought you might be interested in hearing what actually went on back in September 2005. One Night in Bremen, as I have phantasmagorically called it in the title.

As Balague explains, the reason Inter stood a genuine chance of signing Messi a decade ago was fundamentally bureaucratic. At the start of the 2005-06 season, Barcelona found themselves unable to use Messi in their La Liga matches because of a debate over his footballing passport. The league's rules state that no team can have more than three non-EU players in their first-team squad at any one time, and in 2005 the Catalans already had those spots filled by Brazilian Ronaldinho, Cameroonian Samuel Eto'o and Mexican Rafael Marquez.

Messi had made seven appearances for Barcelona's first team during the previous season, because the club believed he had already acquired Spanish citizenship - as he had already lived in the country for a while and spent several years in their youth system - but since then it had come to their attention that the Spanish Football Federation saw things differently, and so a period of confusion ensued. Before the problem was definitively resolved, Barca decided to keep him away from the first team so that opposing teams could not start questioning the validity of all the matches they played, and thus Messi had to sit on the sidelines until the end of September.

While this 'legal grey area' was sorted out, Barcelona considered the possibility of loaning an 18-year-old Messi out for the season. Balague says that two Spanish clubs, Lleida and Zaragoza, called his father Jorge with such a proposition, while Dutch giants PSV Eindhoven and Scottish side Rangers also began to express an interest. Such a deal never came to pass, but the bureaucratic issues the club were encountering caught Inter's attention and convinced them to try and tempt Messi away on a permanent basis. By this stage the club had already been following him for three years, and former president Massimo Moratti was already in love with him (as is his wont with any footballer who happens to be left-footed) - that summer he had told reporters in Italy that "I'd spend crazy money if I could buy Messi" as "he's the only guy to have inspired me this much in a long, long time".

(In case you'd forgotten what Lionel Messi was like back in 2005...)

It was at the beginning of September that things got serious, when Laporta was informed by Jorge (who represented his son at the time) that an 'astronomical' offer from Inter was on the table [for the following season, obviously]. He was told that Inter had offered Leo wages three times higher than what he was currently earning in Spain, but more importantly that they 'weren't put off in the slightest by the €150m buyout clause' that had been inserted in Messi's first senior contract, which he had signed on his 18th birthday in June that year. Balague:

"The message received by [Txiki] Beguiristain [then director of football] and Laporta from those close to the player was loud and clear: 'If Leo cannot play in the Spanish league, if the red tape is not sorted out, then he's off to Italy'."

Laporta's only hope therefore was to convince the player and his entourage to decline Inter's offer, and he was able to do just that by telling Messi and his father what he spoke about in the Guardian interview - while Inter could guarantee him money, Barcelona could guarantee him money AND glory. Messi took the president's message on board, and so when Moratti met Laporta for dinner in Madrid 'around that time', Laporta told the Inter president that Barca had no intention whatsoever of selling the player. Panic over?

Not really. In fact, the worst was still to come for Laporta. That arrived on 14 September, the day Barcelona played Werder Bremen in their first UEFA Champions League match of the season - a day he'll probably remember for as long as he lives. On the morning of the game, Messi Sr met with Beguiristain to discuss Inter's interest in greater detail, but the meeting went badly and a rift developed between the parties. According to Balague, Jorge made it clear at this meeting that he felt the club now owed Messi an improved contract, despite the fact that he had only signed the last one three months ago. There were three motivations for such a standpoint: the intense pressure Inter were exerting on him to sign his son; the patience and professionalism Messi had shown while the legal dispute was being sorted out, training with the same intensity as ever despite being unavailable for selection; and the incredible summer Messi had enjoyed since signing the last contract - this was a summer in which he won the Under-20 World Cup with Argentina, made his senior debut for his country and put in an jaw-dropping performance against Fabio Capello's Juventus in the Gamper Trophy [a pre-season friendly Barca hold every year]. (Some highlights from that breathtaking display are shown in the video below.) Beguiristain however disagreed; he didn't see the rush for such discussions.

It was at this precise moment that Inter came closer to signing Lionel Messi than any other club has come in the twelve years since: Wednesday 14 September 2005. Make a note of the date. Balague again: "The lack of sensitivity shown by the club in view of the progress Leo had made exasperated his father. That morning he said, 'we're off'. The road to Inter now looked more likely than ever and the Italians were beginning to talk numbers and promising to have the transfer sorted out for the following season [the 2006-07 season]. It looked as though matters were coming to a head. Ferran Soriano [then vice-president] received a call from Messi's inner circle and was told that he was thinking of leaving Barcelona."

In case further confirmation were needed that Messi really was tempted by the prospect of going to Inter, Juan Sebastian Veron told Tuttosport in December 2015 that 'once he told me that he would have liked to play for Inter'. As far as I can work out Veron didn't attach any specific dates to this, but given that he was playing for Inter in September 2005 he must surely have been referring to this particular incident. They would have known each other through the Argentine national team by then, so one can only imagine that Leo called Veron to ask him what Inter was like.

So what happened, then? What stopped us from signing the man who has since gone on to become arguably the greatest player of all time? The answer, rather fittingly, is that Messi happened. Messi and his otherworldly footballing genius forced the club's hand. The Champions League match with Werder Bremen was the first senior game for which Messi had been eligible for all season; unlike La Liga, UEFA overlooked the unresolved bureaucratic issues and granted him special dispensation to be included in Frank Rijkaard's match-day squad. That night in Germany the Barcelona board received a crystal-clear demonstration of what they were at risk of losing.

With 25 minutes left in the match Rijkaard brought Messi on as a substitute, and it didn't take long for him to make his mark on proceedings. After ten minutes of causing havoc amongst the Werder Bremen back-line, Messi won Barca the penalty that Ronaldinho scored to seal a 2-0 win, leaving his coach to describe his performance as 'important' after the game. Watching on from the stands, Soriano and the rest of the club's board were said to be 'close to a nervous breakdown' and decided they had to act immediately; letting this 18 year-old phenomenon get away from them would be a mistake that they could never ever forgive themselves for.

Having been treated to yet another magical Messi performance in the flesh, the board hastily scheduled a meeting with Jorge for 10am the following morning in which they softened their position regarding a contract extension. Laporta is said to have repeated what he had already told Jorge in the previous meeting, about the choice between just money and money as well as glory, and then he just kept speaking in an incoherent and disorganised manner until he'd made enough promises to win him over - 'I said to Jorge: if he went to Italy it would be a different way of playing, he is used to playing here... and so on. I was coming out with just about anything I could think of at the time.' Translation: he knew the risk of Messi leaving was real and began to panic. But luckily for him, it worked: later that same day, after probably the biggest scare of Laporta's life, Messi signed a new contract with Barcelona that tied him to the club until 2014 and raised his release clause to €250m. Our brief window of hope had been slammed shut.

As it turns out, Inter never genuinely intended on paying the previous release clause of €150m. Instead, their plan was to take Barcelona to court over the enormous disproportion between what Messi was earning and what they were being asked to pay to sign him - and then cough up a smaller, albeit still mouth-watering free once they had won the case. At least that's what Laporta told Balague before the aforementioned book was published: 'I had a very good relationship with Moratti and he saw that there was no way that I was going to sell Messi, and it wasn't worth two clubs like Inter and Barcelona facing up to each other on a matter like this. And he was told soon after that meeting that Leo and Jorge had decided to stay at Barcelona. I think that's what put an end to Moratti's intentions. Every year there's been an offer, or some kind of movement, but this was the only time I thought there was a real risk of him leaving us'.

Moratti himself returned to the issue in 2013, in an interview with Inter Channel: "We couldn't have done anything more to sign Messi. We had a go but he was so attached to Barcelona, they had looked after him when he had had health problems as a kid and it almost seemed cruel to try and snatch the player away from them. [Er, yeah right; I'm sure you felt that way at the time.] Since then we've never been able to do anything, but I remember seeing him on television when he was young and thinking that he really was incredible. He's so nice as well; every so often he sends me a signed shirt of his..." In the interview below, given to Sky Sport in 2011, Messi thanked Moratti for always having spoken highly of him but reiterated that he saw himself spending the rest of his career at Barcelona.

So there you have it. Nobody has ever prized Leo Messi from Barcelona's grasp, and in all likelihood nobody ever will, but there is one team that went close once upon a time and that team is F.C. Internazionale. I mean it's something, is it not? 'Never been in Serie B and almost signed Messi' - I reckon if you made some t-shirts with that printed on them they would sell pretty darn well outside San Siro. Can you imagine if we really had signed Messi, though? Obviously we would have been signing the 18 year-old version of Messi, who wasn't the greatest footballer the sport had ever seen and maybe wouldn't have become so, but even when you bear that in mind... my word. Imagine how Juventus fans would have felt in the summer of 2006 - not only would they have had to deal with their club being stripped of two league titles and relegated for match-fixing, they would have had to deal with their arch rivals being awarded one of them and signing one of the best youngsters in the world at the time. My thoughts upon imagining such a scenario start with 'l' and end in 'ol'. And then you have to consider the Barcelona side of things - would they still have gone on to become one of the greatest club sides in the history of the game under Pep Guardiola, had he not had Messi in the 'false nine' role up front? You have to doubt it slightly.

Ultimately, we'll never know what would have happened had Inter signed Lionel Messi. All we do know is that there was one night in Bremen on which we came incredibly close to finding out.

Life isn't fair sometimes.