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‘Messi was very impressed with me’ – Former South African star recalls Barcelona spell

Lionel Messi, Mkhanyiseli Siwahla
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The now-retired footballer has recalled his time training and playing alongside a young Messi in Barcelona’s youth teams.

Despite a move to Barcelona never materializing, Mkhanyiseli Siwahla has nothing but fond memories of his time in Catalonia and of the opportunity to train with Lionel Messi.

The former South African midfielder had a trial at the club’s La Masia academy in the 2002/03 season. He was paired alongside a young Messi, Cesc Fabregas, and Gerard Pique.

Unfortunately, he didn’t get a contract and returned to Ajax Cape Town in his homeland but still relishes the experience to this day.

‘I was supposed to be a Barcelona player’

In an interview with Sowetan Live, Siwahla recalled his trial period at Barcelona and the experience he had sharing the dressing room with a future seven-time Ballon d’Or winner.

“I trained with Barcelona juniors and Lionel Messi was there,” said the 33-year-old.

“Messi was still a junior player there around 2002 and 2003. When I arrived there, I didn’t know about him but they tell you when you get there because he was the star player and almost everything revolved around him.

“I see him now and say to myself that I shared a dressing room with this guy, but that is inside me and I know some people won’t believe it. The truth is that I was there for about two to three weeks and I played with him. We even went to Germany to play in a youth tournament and after that, I came back to South Africa because nothing materialized.

“I was supposed to be a Barcelona player because everything was there, even at Ajax Cape Town they know that but I don’t know what happened. I don’t take it personally because it was not meant to be. I don’t want to say a human being blocked the move, I say God had other plans for me.”

‘Messi was very impressed with what I was doing’

On his experience with Messi, Siwahla added: “During the matches we played and at training, Messi was very impressed with what I was doing. Most of the time he didn’t even call for the ball from me because he knew he would get it.

“At times he would shout at other guys when he didn’t get the ball, but when I had it he knew I would supply him and he didn’t have any problems with me. I could do whatever he was doing, like taking on players and pass to the strikers or to him.

“I saw him make his debut and going on to become a world star alongside the likes of Ronaldinho, Xavi, [Andres] Iniesta, Samuel Eto’o – I am happy for him and I have fond memories of the times I played with him.”

What happened to Siwahla’s career?

After his trial at Barcelona, Mkhanyiseli Siwahla became the youngest footballer in the South African Premier Soccer League’s history aged 15 years, five months, and 22 days and later the youngest goalscorer.

He enjoyed a 17-year senior career that saw him play for Ajax, Bloemfontein Celtic, Mpumalanga Black Aces, Chippa United, Cape Town, Centre Chiefs in Botswana, KS Proch Pionki in Poland, and Bardejov in Slovakia.

Siwahla announced his retirement from professional football to Kickoff in December 2021.