The little man who had come to see the world leaned against a wall and wrapped a blue and red face mask on his finger. At first glance you would think he was completely at ease.
However, in those tense moments before kick-off, Lionel Messi was constantly rubbing his lips together and occasionally swallowing. There was also a moment when he moved behind the hulking figure of Gianluigi Donnarumma, as if seeking shelter.
Forget the phone number salary, if you can, and the worship he can afford from Buenos Aires to Barcelona and all the points in between. Here was a snapshot of a man feeling nervous and vulnerable, the fears pouring through on the first day of a new job.
Lionel Messi (second from R) looked nervous as he prepared for his PSG debut in Reims
The superstar watched and reveled in admiration as Kylian Mbappé went on to benefit PSG 2-0
Messi is no stranger, so he would hardly have turned a blind eye to the three photographers who had strategically positioned themselves as marksmen around the bench in Paris St Germain and started clicking-click-clicking to get the perfect shot, taking his place. took with the other substitutes.
But for him – and the rest of us – there is a need to adapt. Gone are the days when he swept across the pitch at the Camp Nou, as if being controlled by a joystick, and it is now expected that he will continue to cast spells in France.
We must say ‘expectation’: no matter he is 34, Messi’s name invites you to enter a world where fantasy with a football can become reality. We all have our memories of him, those nights when he made you jump out of your chair wide-eyed.
Anyone with a taste for this sport will understand that point and being in Reims on Sunday reinforces it; Reims was where the French kings held their coronation ceremonies from 1027 and 1825 and Messi’s first appearance in Ligue 1 felt like the royal family had returned to the city.
Mbappé (R), who could move to Real Madrid on Tuesday, celebrates after scoring the first goal
appropriate, The team yesterday devoted his front page to Messi with a big headline on a photo declaring: ‘A king in Reims’ and thousands had descended to see his anointing, along the streets to hopefully glimpse him.
The crowd around the main entrance was ten times deep when the PSG team bus pulled into the stadium at 7:05pm, the increased crowd leading to stout guards looking increasingly exhausted as they tried to keep order and barked instructions into walkie-talkies.
He was cheered as he bounced down the stairs of the bus – Neymar, on the other hand, was booed loudly – but that was nothing until manager Mauricio Pochettino finally gave him the nod to stretch his legs 57 minutes into the game.
Ask yourself what happens in English stadiums when a big name drawing the opposition starts warming up – there’s booing, gesticulation and someone will jump from their seat to scream expletives. It may be different if Cristiano Ronaldo shows up, but don’t bet against it.
The French attacker makes no mistake with the second, he came in before Messi joined the fray
Here? The audience in Reims started ‘Messi! Messiah! Messi!’, with many pulling out their cell phones to grab a digital souvenir. The ovation was even louder as he took to the field in the 60th minute, they even roared as he completed his first three passes.
Reims was inundated with requests to accommodate media organizations – 120 were in attendance, many more were missed – and officials said the last time they could remember such a frenzy was when David Beckham played his second game for PSG in March 2013.
That night there was a shock when Reims won 1-0 – Beckham was introduced from the bench like Messi – but you could see, even if you watched the warm-up, that history was not going to be repeated.
Messi, along with the rest of the other substitutes, stayed in the dressing room as Pochettino stood on the sidelines, watching this expensively put together team go through their paces and none sparkled more than Kylian Mbappe.
Neymar (R) warmly embraces his good friend Messi as the icon makes his historic first appearance
Perhaps his entry into the starting lineup was the most emphatic answer to the question of whether Real Madrid will succeed in their relentless bid to sign him. Mbappe might want to go to Spain, but his attitude is impeccable, his warm-up efforts are worth the price of a ticket alone.
In one target practice he was picture perfect – right foot, left foot, top corner, bottom corner – and the prospect of him aligning perfectly with Messi and Neymar is filled with the potential of them collecting PlayStation scores if it all clicks.
“Will Mbappe stay?” said Pochettino. “Well, he’s our player. The football industry is full of rumors. Our chairman and Leonardo are very clear. He’s here with us. I am very happy to have him. He is one of the best. It’s a gift.’
Mbappe was the star of the evening, the man who had the best chance of scoring from a very early stage. In the 10th minute he dragged a shot wide, but Reims was not so lucky in the 16th minute when the majestic Angel Di Maria – how did it not work out for him at Manchester United? – picked him up.
Messi immediately shows that he has lost none of his close control and magic in possession
Complacency would be PSG’s greatest from then on and there was relief when VAR ruled out what would have been an equalizing goal for Marshall Munetsi early in the second period. Pochettino’s look at his defense can best be described as an angry father who had seen one of his children break the greenhouse window.
Fortunately, the glow didn’t last long. Almost immediately, Paris broke loose and Achraf Hakimi, the right-back for whom they paid a king’s ransom to Inter Milan, delivered a glorious ball to the back post which Mbappe gleefully sent.
With the game won, it was time for Messi. Again, you could see the nerves in his first few moves, going back to basics of just wanting to complete his first few passes – one went to Hakimi, another went to Marco Verrati – but then his instincts kicked in.
Yunis Abdelhamid, the Moroccan captain of Reims, knocked over Messi when he tried to run forward. It was duly noticed and on the next occasion Messi responded by thundering at Abdelhamid and giving a quick, relentless glance behind him as he ran towards the goal.
The 34-year-old had spent his entire career at the boys’ club Barcelona before turning shock
There wouldn’t be a dream start if he opened his account – he didn’t even get a chance to test Reims goalkeeper Pedrag Rajkovic and he’s clearly not in top shape – but it won’t put him to sleep.
What was important here was simply the opportunity to get started. No matter how many centuries a lead batsman has, they always feel better hitting that first single in their next innings. All athletes are the same and while Messi has a gift from God, that doesn’t make him any different.
“He was very good from the moment he took the field,” Pochettino said generously. “Every time he touched the ball, he spread calm throughout the team. In fact, it is important for Lionel Messi to win on his debut.
“The welcome he received was wonderful to see and hear, not only from our fans but also from Reims. He deserved it. He can radiate an optimism and energy that everyone can feel and that can have a positive influence on the other players. He’s Messi.’
And he’s not done yet. Not long.
Messi’s passing accuracy was near perfect when he made his presence clear during his cameo