The band was back together again. Eight years, three months and 13 days had passed since Gerard Piqué, Cesc Fàbregas and Lionel Messi last played together and so much had changed since those days of the Barcelona Cadete A youth team. They were now 24 years of age, had won world championships at either club or international level or both and they were playing in a Clásico, in the second leg of the 2011 Spanish Super Cup. But one thing was the same. They won.
Pep Guardiola subbed on Fàbregas with eight minutes remaining to give him his Barça debut after his summer move from Arsenal and just five minutes later he helped his long-time friend Messi to score the winning goal. With the tie level at 4-4 and destined for extra time, the midfielder collected the ball on the right flank and pinged it inside to Messi, as if nothing had changed since 2003. The Argentine played a one-two with Adriano and then fired past Iker Casillas for the winning goal.
As the full-time whistle blew and as tensions continued to boil over following the stoppage time dismissals of David Villa, Marcelo and Mesut Ozil and following Jose Mourinho’s famous eye-poke of Tito Vilanova, Piqué, Fàbregas and Messi embraced in the middle of the pitch. Just as they had done as part of the greatest U-15s team in Blaugrana history.
It all began in the year 2000, as Messi moved over from Rosario to Barcelona and signed with the Catalan club just before Christmas. Although registration issues meant he couldn’t start competing straight away, he started training with his peers and that was when he first came across Piqué and Fàbregas, who had both joined the club three years earlier. In Piqué’s case, his grandfather and former Barça vice-president Amador Bernabéu took him along to an open day and he was almost immediately accepted. Fàbregas joined shortly afterwards, having been discovered at his local club Mataró, despite the coaches’ best efforts to hide him from Barça scouts by benching him for matches against the region’s superclub.
At first, Messi struggled to integrate. “We thought he was mute initially,” Fabregas later said. Given that he didn’t speak Catalan and given that he stayed in an apartment with his father, rather than at La Masia’s housing complex, the Argentine didn’t feel like a member of the group. It wasn’t until the team went away on road trips that Messi began to come out of his shell, with a war of pranks allowing him to show off his subtly humorous side. Piqué and Fàbregas, in their role as team captains, helped him to blossom socially and Messi often shared a room with the midfielder and they spent long nights battling each other on the PlayStation.
In the 2001/02 season the trio were part of the Cadete B team and they were incredible. It was at that age group that they began to play in a 3-4-3 system and they were the spine of the squad, with Piqué in the middle of the back three, with Fàbregas in central midfield and with Messi in the centre of the attack, often dropping back to play as a No.10 as well. Under the coaching of future first-team coach Tito Vilanova, they won their local league ahead of Espanyol’s Cadete A team, whose players were a full year older. It was the first time this had been done.
If academy bosses thought that was impressive, then they were truly shocked in the 2002/03 season when Piqué, Fàbregas and Messi played together for the Cadete A team, under coach Álex García. They completely wiped the floor with the opposition, going the entire league season unbeaten and winning three trophies that campaign. In their final match, the Copa Catalunya final against their Espanyol counterparts, Messi had to play with a mask on his face due to a broken cheekbone, but pulled it off after just a few minutes, scored two goals and then accepted the need to be substituted. Barça won the match 4-1.
They also, Fàbregas later claimed in an interview with ESPN, won a match 32-0 that year. Although there is no record of that scoreline, it is true that this Barcelona team – known as Las Ansias, or The Nauseatingly Good Ones – did win some matches by 20 goals plus. In fact, most players have claimed that their midweek training sessions were more competitive than the matches, with the coaches working the squad members hard to improve on the few weaknesses that they did have. Piqué was put through daily drills to improve his heading of the ball. Fàbregas refined his shooting ability. Messi was shown how to become more of a team player and he did start to sacrifice himself for his teammates more and more, even if he still scored 37 goals in 30 games that year.
“That generation will never be repeated,” coach García later said of that team. “Even at just 15 or 16 years of age, they had the maturity of 22 or 23-year-olds.”
It was a truly special unit, but it couldn’t last forever. The cup final against Espanyol proved to be their final match together until that 2011 Clásico, as Fàbregas moved to Arsenal’s academy in 2003 and as Piqué joined Manchester United in 2004. Messi, meanwhile, stayed in Catalonia and he was fast-tracked towards the first team the next year, playing for five different squads in 2003/04, including Barcelona B and Barcelona’s first team, who he represented in a friendly against Porto in November of 2003.
Before long, Messi was a first-team regular and one of the best players in the sport, while Piqué returned in 2008 to anchor Pep Guardiola’s defence alongside Carles Puyol. It took a little longer for Fàbregas to return from England, but in 2011 he eventually did and on that sweaty August night at the Camp Nou they celebrated a Clásico victory together. It was like they’d never been apart. “He totally understands the concepts and you don’t have to explain him anything,” Xavi said of Fàbregas when he returned. “It’s as if he never left.”
One year later the trio’s former tutor Vilanova was promoted to the position of first-team coach and he oversaw a record-breaking Barcelona side, with Piqué, Fàbregas and Messi three of the most important players in that 2012/13 squad, as the Blaugrana won 100 LaLiga points for the first time in their history. They each made at least 44 appearances, while Messi scored 60 goals and Fàbregas netted 14, at the same time as Piqué was part of 12 clean sheets.
“If they’d told us back then that we would all play for the Barcelona first team one day then we’d have said it was impossible,” Fàbregas said when looking back on those days in Cadete A. “One of us might have made it, or maybe two. But three?” As unbelievable as it might have sounded, all three did make it and they played some of the best football ever seen at the Camp Nou. Playing together had become instinctive after those years together in the petri dish that was the academy. We’ll surely never see anything like it again.