From Nou Camp to New Zealand
On November 16, 2003, two young men wearing Blaugrana stepped out for the inaugural match at FC Porto's Estadio do Dragao. Making their debuts for Barcelona, the forwards - who would both go on to score in two Champions League finals - felt they had the football world at their feet.
Ten years later, one of those players has been named the planet's best for a fourth successive time - with 19 major trophies, Lionel Messi has become a sporting icon, squeezing every ounce of potential from his 5' 7" frame - but what became of Barca's other debutant that night in Oporto? Manel Exposito may have been five years the senior of his teenage team-mate, and unable to boast the sort of precocity that persuaded the Catalans to invest their resources in a pre-pubescent Argentinean, yet the 22-year-old was full of the same hopes and dreams - imagining an idyllic football future in which he was a central cog in Frank Rijkaard's free-flowing first-team.
But his debut was to be the pinnacle of Exposito's Nou Camp career and while he fell off the radar, the Messi meteor soared out into the exosphere. Serious injury curtailed Exposito's time at Barcelona, though it is fair to say it was unlikely that the player, whose football education came at Catalonia Tercera Division side UE Vic, was ever destined for the very top. His place in the Barca B set-up was down to hard graft and the fact he was battle-hardened from a life below La Liga; while Messi was being nurtured and primed at La Masia, Exposito was fighting through Spain's lower leagues.
There was one more Blaugrana appearance for the Spaniard in another unofficial friendly, against Marseille, in 2004 but while Atletico Madrid C offered him the chance to train alongside a young Fernando Torres, among others, his CV began to lose lustre when moves to the likes of Alcorcon, UE Figueres and Benidorm followed. Having once had a glimpse of the big time, Exposito had tumbled down the football pyramid.
Then, in 2011, came an unexpected call from the other side of the world. Down in New Zealand, a young manager by the name of Ramon Tribulietx had been trying to put his stamp on Oceanic football by bringing some Catalan colour to Auckland City. A Barcelona native and Camp Nou season-ticket holder throughout his youth, Tribulietx migrated south for a new challenge after spells as technical director at various Spanish second division clubs. Not feeling he could do it alone, the young coach added some fellow countrymen to his playing staff; Exposito became an expatriate. "Ramon had coached me before in the Segunda and I knew he was in New Zealand, but I never would have predicted the call," Exposito told ESPN. "But Spain was, and still is, in a bad position with the economic crisis, so it was a really easy decision.
Life in New Zealand has been brilliant, it's a great country to live and the club look after overseas players really well - it's a big family and it certainly helped a lot having people who speak Spanish as when I arrived my English was not good.
"The football is very different here: the pitches are different, there are not big stadiums like in Spain, the game is probably a little more physical and direct but it's getting better. I'm lucky because Ramon wants to play soccer the proper way, the Barcelona way - keeping possession and using the ball - that's what I like and for me it was pretty easy."
If Exposito was shocked by the change in football culture, he did not show it. The striker quickly established himself as a man for the big occasion and in April 2011, a month before Messi the magician once again proved the scourge of Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League final, Exposito was announcing himself as the star of the Oceanic continent. Scoring in both legs against Amicale of Vanuatu, his goals inspired Auckland to OFC Champions League glory. The triumph was tainted only by the 3-2 loss in the domestic Premiership final to bitter rivals Waitakere United a week before the second leg, though Exposito also netted in that game. The OFC Champions League victory brought with it the potential for an unlikely reunion with Barcelona. The draw for the 2011 Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi left Auckland needing to beat the champions of Japan, the CONCACAF region and South America to book a final against Barca. As anticipated, though, it was no more than a fairytale notion for Exposito and co. as they lost to J-League premiers Kashiwa Reysol their opening game.
"For me, playing in the Club World Cup was a dream, it was amazing to play there," Exposito said. "It's completely professional, you are with the best teams in the world and the environment is perfect. You enjoy every training session, every meal, every second of the trip. For the bigger clubs the games are not important but for Oceania, it is a big chance to play on the world stage, and to show the development of the region's football."
Desperate for a taste of the global limelight again, Auckland's Spanish star took the 2011-12 OFC Champions League by the scruff of the neck. Six goals in eight games were enough to claim the competition's Golden Boot and he achieved something that has thus far even eluded Messi, when he struck in his second successive Champions League final to deliver a second Oceanic crown.
Another Club World Cup berth beckoned, but five days before Auckland's first-leg victory over Tahitian outfit Tefana in the continental final, Exposito and his Barca-mad boss Tribulietx had watched as the Catalans exit the UEFA Champions League at the hands of Chelsea. Once again, any faint hope of a meeting of minds (and feet) with Messi evaporated. Auckland went on to lose out in their opening match of FIFA's global gathering in Japan last year but every moment on the world stage is valuable to the club and its players. The media attention and pressure-cooker atmosphere invoked happy memories in particular for Exposito, who was inevitably reminded of his time at one of the world's biggest clubs.
"I still remember my Barcelona debut so clearly - November 16 - it was an incredible moment," Exposito beamed. "It was on the very same day Messi made his debut and obviously our careers have gone in very different directions. He is big star now and you could see, even when he was only 16, that he was always one step up from everyone. He played only 15 minutes in that match against Porto and had maybe three chances to score, while I was on for 75 minutes and had zero chances! There's the difference.
"As good as he was, though, we did not know he would become the best player in the world. But now I can always say I made my debut with Messi. I played with the top players in the world at Barca and I learned every day about so much - from game situations to technical aspects. Every training session is so intense and so hard, it is so hard to train there as there is a lot of pressure, because if you are playing for Barcelona you need to be the best. You learn so much from your team-mates and coaches. I used to go and watch the first-team and was fortunate enough to train with them sometimes too - every day is an education."
Although he has not reached the dizzy heights of his illustrious team-mates, Exposito must still be admired for carving out a place as the biggest fish in Oceania's continental pond. That achievement is enough for him.
"Life changed really quickly after Barcelona," he concluded. "One day you are watching Ronaldinho do stuff with the ball in training that you would still question was possible even in the flesh, the next you are without a club. You just have to accept it - football is a transient sport and that is what we sign up for. Now I just enjoy every single moment playing football with no regrets – I think that life shows you your way and that's what's happened to me."