Messi’s First Barcelona Contract Is Hitting the Auction Block

Despite the player's status as one of soccer's all-time greats, the 2000 contract—penned on a napkin—nearly stalled due to concerns over Messi's age and size.

Napkin with blurred out lines written on it
The simple paper napkin measures 16.5 x 16.5 cm. Courtesy Bonhams

In December of 2000, history was made at a tennis club cafeteria when a group of soccer executives signed a napkin in blue ink. Written on the napkin was an informal agreement to sign Lionel Messi, then only 13 years old, to FC Barcelona.

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Training in the club’s youth academy and debuting with its senior team at age 16, Messi would grow up to become one of soccer’s most legendary players. Long guarded in a bank safe in Andorra, the napkin that started it all will soon be open to bidders when Bonhams auction house offers it in an online sale in March with a starting price of £300,000 ($380,000).

“In Barcelona, on 14 December 2000 and the presences of Messrs Minguella and Horacio, Carles Rexach, FC Barcelona’s sporting director, hereby agrees, under his responsibility and regardless of any dissenting opinions, to sign the player Lionel Messi, provided that we keep to the amounts agreed upon,” reads the napkin, written in the hand of Barcelona’s sporting director Carles Rexach.

As evidenced by Rexach’s mention of “dissenting opinions,” not everyone at FC Barcelona was eager to sign Messi. Born in Rosario, Argentina, the player had been flown out to Barcelona in 2000 for a try-out after being scouted while playing for Newell’s Old Boys, his local club. But despite the future soccer star’s evident talent, club executives were hesitant. Signing such a young player, especially one from a foreign country, was unusual. And the small stature of Messi, who had been diagnosed with a growth hormone deficiency and would require expensive treatment, was further cause for concern.

An unusual start to a legendary soccer career

Soccer player running across field in blue and red striped jersey
Lionel Messi at Camp Nou stadium on March 17, 2010. Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images

As negotiations stalled, Messi and his father Jorge returned to Argentina and indicated that they would pursue other clubs. Rexach knew he had to take action. While lunching at Barcelona’s Pompeia tennis club with the club’s transfer advisor Josep Minguella and Argentine agent Horacio Gaggioli, he quickly scribbled down the promise of a contract, which was then signed by all three men.

“Why a napkin? Because it was the only thing I had available to hand,” Rexach told ESPN in 2020. A formal agreement was written up later that day when he called up FC Barcelona’s president Joan Gaspart to confirm the contract.

The rest is history. Playing with Barça for two decades, Lionel Messi went on to become the club’s all-time top scorer. He helped the team win 35 titles, including ten La Liga titles, four Champions Leagues and three Club World Cups, in a tenure that cemented his status as one of soccer’s all-time greats.

There have been attempts to have the napkin exhibited at FC Barcelona’s museum, to no avail, Minguella told Catalunya Radio yesterday (Jan. 31). It will now be offered up at Bonhams on behalf of Gaggioli, in an online auction scheduled to run between March 18 and March 27.

“Yes, it’s a paper napkin, but it’s the famous napkin that was at the inception of Lionel Messi’s career,” said Ian Ehling, head of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams New York, in a statement. “It changed the life of Messi, the future of FC Barcelona, and was instrumental in giving some of the most glorious moments of football to billions of fans around the globe.”

Messi’s First Barcelona Contract Is Hitting the Auction Block