Messi and Co in festive mood

Year after year the eyes of millions of Spanish children light up at the thought of the impending arrival of the Tres Reyes Magos (Three Wise Men). And who can blame them, given that the celebrated trio bear the gifts that ensure a joyous start to the New Year for youngsters across Spain.

Well aware of just how much it would mean to their supporters to see their footballing heroes up at close quarters, Catalan giants FC Barcelona hosted a public training session where fans could come and enjoy the spectacle of the league leaders honing their skills.

Of course, nobody expected 7 January to be the coldest day of the Barcelona winter so far, but even the plummeting temperatures could not dampen the Culés' ardour. Indeed, supporters defied the weather conditions to start queuing outside the Mini Estadi, usually used for the club's reserve and youth team games, from the early hours of the morning.

Little by little the ground located opposite Barça's mythical Camp Nou stadium began filling up with excited fans until, a full half hour before training was scheduled to start, the stands were packed to bursting. With jaunty music playing and an entertainer on hand to keep spirits high, a party atmosphere reigned as everybody awaited the Azulgrana squad's arrival.

Finally, the players began appearing one by one, mere hours after their resounding 3-1 first-leg victory away to Atletico de Madrid in the last sixteen of the Copa del Rey. The assembled youngsters, thrilled by their festive treat, raucously cheered for each one of their idols, though one man in particular received an extra rousing reception.

That man was Lionel Messi, author of a stunning hat-trick in the previous night's encounter in Atletico's Estadio Vicente Calderon. By some distance the current darling of the Blaugrana faithful, the around 3,000 souls in the Mini Estadi roared "Messi, Messi", to which the Argentinian responded with a wave and his trademark shy smile.

Autographs aplenty
For an hour and a half the Barcelona players were put through their paces with a view to returning to La Liga action this weekend. Those involved in Madrid carried out exercises to loosen up stiff limbs while the rest of the squad played a match on a reduced-sized pitch.

Training over, the moment for autographs had arrived. Each one of the thousands of kids in the stands was desperate to see their own pieces of paper adorned with the signatures of one or more of Barça's galaxy of stars. And the players did not disappoint, signing all manner of objects for their diminutive followers.

"People are really enjoying [our performances] this season and it's great that the kids can come and see us train," said defender Martin Caceres, who was signed from Villarreal in the summer. "Besides, the squad trains even harder when there are fans watching. This is like a reward for us after the result against Atletico."

Of course, the fans themselves enjoyed the experience even more than the players, especially those whose autograph hunt was successful. "Iniesta has signed my piece of paper!" said 11-year-old Oriol from Andorra, visibly agog at what had just taken place. "My class-mates are going to go crazy. This is great!" added the youngster, whose parents brought him all the way to Barcelona just for this event.

So, as the dust settled on the Mini Estadi, young Azulgrana fans like Oriol were left clutching an indelible souvenir of a magical 7 January 2009. And for lovers of the beautiful game everywhere, it is days like this which remind us of just how much joy the sport can bring.