The group of people had lined up and were waiting patiently to have their photos taken with Lionel Messi – but these weren’t fans, they were the Argentine’s Barcelona teammates.
One by one, members of the squad took it in turns to pose alongside Messi and the Copa del Rey trophy, which Barcelona had just claimed by beating Athletic Bilbao 4-0 in Saturday’s final.
Messi, unsurprisingly, stole the show. While this match was perhaps the breakout performance in a Barcelona shirt for youngster Frenkie de Jong – for the first time truly resembling the star Barcelona bought from Ajax in 2019 – it was Barcelona’s third goal, Messi’s first, that this game will be remembered for.
Starting well inside his own half, Messi exchanged passes with Sergiño Dest, before whizzing forward and doing the same with De Jong further up the pitch.
De Jong’s return past found Messi inside the penalty area and the Argentine skipped between two Bilbao defenders and coolly slotted the ball into the bottom corner.
It’s the kind of genius that fans have become accustomed to seeing when watching the diminutive No. 10 and it brought back memories of the opening goal in the 2015 Copa de Rey final – also against Bilbao – widely considered one of Messi’s greatest ever.
Saturday’s opponents must surely be sick of the sight of Barcelona and its captain. Since Bilbao last won a major trophy in 1984, the club has now lost six Copa del Rey finals. Four of those final defeats have been against Barcelona and Messi has scored in each of them.
To make matters worse, with this defeat, Bilbao has now lost two Copa del Rey finals in the space of two weeks. The final of the 2020 competition had been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and only took place a fortnight ago, with Bilbao losing 1-0 to Basque rival Real Sociedad.
This was Messi’s 35th trophy with Barcelona, but it may also be his last. Before the season started, Messi made it public that he had wanted to leave Barcelona “all year” and it remains to be seen whether the team’s recent resurgence has changed his mind.
Saturday’s victory was the first trophy for head coach Ronald Koeman, who took the job in the summer, and it was a just reward for the steady and incremental improvements this team has made under his stewardship over the court of the season.
Those improvements have seen Barcelona close the gap to La Liga leader Atletico Madrid to just one point – with Real Madrid just another point further back – meaning Koeman and Messi have one more realistic chance of winning a trophy before the end of the season.
But domestic success may no longer be enough to satiate the appetite of a player that hasn’t won the Champions League since 2015 and this season’s 5-2 aggregate hammering at the hands of Paris Saint-Germain proved again just how far Barcelona remains behind Europe’s elite.
Whether this was goodbye or not, it was plain for all to see just how much this title meant to Lionel Messi – Barcelona’s first since 2019. There was pure, genuine joy on his face as he hoisted the trophy above his head.
“It is very special to be captain of this team where I have spent my whole life,” Messi said after the game. “And very special to be able to lift the cup.”