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Napkin securing Lionel Messi's first contract fetches nearly $1 million at auction

A plain white restaurant napkin outlining the agreement between Lionel Messi, one of the world's greatest soccer players, and FC Barcelona, the Catalonian club that propelled him to stardom, sold at an online auction by the U.K.-based firm Bonhams on Friday for 762,400 British pounds, equivalent to about $968,600.

The starting bid for the standard, white, waxy-papered restaurant accessory scrawled all over in blue ballpoint pen was 300,000 pounds (roughly $381,000).

"Yes, it's a paper napkin, but it's the famous napkin that was at the inception of Lionel Messi's career," said Ian Ehling, head of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams New York in a statement from the auction house about the sale. "It changed the life of Messi, the future of FC Barcelona, and was instrumental in giving some of the most glorious moments of football to billions of fans around the globe."

Messi was just 13 years old when FC Barcelona director Carles Rexach met with the prodigal Argentinian athlete and his father as well as two industry colleagues for lunch at the restaurant of Barcelona's Pompeia Tennis Club. Rexach wrote and signed the ad hoc "contract" in a bid to secure the prodigal Argentinian.

The napkin is dated Dec. 14, 2000. It says that FC Barcelona's director "hereby agrees, under his responsibility and regardless of any dissenting opinions, to sign the player Lionel Messi, provided that we keep to the amounts agreed upon," according to a translation of the writing.

That night, FC Barcelona President Joan Gaspart formally confirmed the agreement with a more orthodox-looking contract.

Messi made his professional competitive debut in 2004 and went on to break FC Barcelona's goal scoring record — 672 goals in 778 games. He was named the best men's player a record eight times by the International Federation of Association Football and has been instrumental in winning numerous championships for his club and his country, including the World Cup in 2022.

After a long career in Barcelona, Messi joined Paris Saint-Germain in 2021. The 36-year-old currently plays for Inter Miami in the U.S.

"Lionel Messi's time at Barcelona was one of the most successful in not just the club's history but in total football history," said Nicky Holender, a U.K.-based coach to several top European soccer players and former professional player in England and the U.S. "In the world of high-stakes football with all the mega-agents, writing a contract on a napkin is so iconic. It's like finding a sketch of the Mona Lisa on an A4 piece of paper before the original was done."

Messi's napkin is one among several napkins made famous by association. Other notable items in this category include a napkin featuring former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's lipstick kiss, which was was auctioned for 2,000 pounds in 2015, and a napkin from 1994 featuring sketches for future characters made in a Northern California restaurant by key members of the Pixar team. [Copyright 2024 NPR]

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