There are more than 100,000 registered footballers in New Zealand but only one has played against Lionel Messi at senior level. And not just once, but three times.

Auckland City goalkeeper Enaut Zubikarai faced the Argentinian superstar during a seven-year stint in La Liga, playing for Real Sociedad.

Zubikarai spent much of that time duelling for the No1 jersey with Chilean keeper Claudio Bravo, who is now at Manchester City, but still played 69 matches for the Basque club, including memorable occasions at the Nou Camp and Santiago Bernabeu.

"That is what you live for," said Zubikarai. "To face the biggest teams at the grand stadiums. Football is huge in Spain and there are so many great players."


Messi, who converted his 500th goal for Barcelona last week is el mas grande, but Zubikarai says it's best to put the No10 out of your mind.

"You can't think too much about him," said Zubikarai. "If you stop and think a little bit ... bang, it's a goal. You have to just watch the ball. He arrives near the area and the ball is zipping around. You don't have any time to think."

Facing the Catalan giants is special but also stressful.

"More than anything, it is difficult," said Zubikarai. "They can score five or six goals past you if they want, especially at home. I've never even had a draw at either the Nou Camp or Santiago Bernabeu but at home, we have beaten both of them."

Zubikarai enjoyed some memorable moments.

He made a spectacular double save against Barcelona in the 2013-14 season, denying Messi from 12m with a one-on-one stop, before leaping up to block Cesc Fabregas, who had hit the rebound towards an empty net.

"It was so fast, it was just automatic, said Zubikarai. "You stop it or you don't. You train so much, you learn to react at that moment. You have to memorise, if the ball is coming from here, or there, what you do."

A clash against Barca also saw one of the most embarrassing moments of his career, as he was at the centre of a comical own goal.

"Alexis Sanchez was through and hit the post," said Zubikarai.

"I turned back to recover and as I ran back towards the goal, the defender's clearance hit me in the chest and went in. It was funny later, but it wasn't nice when half the world is watching."

Today at Kiwitea Street, Zubikarai will perform in front of barely 1000 people, as Auckland City face Team Wellington in the first leg of the Oceania Champions League final. It's a far cry from Spain but Zubikarai is enjoying the experience.

"There is no point to compare," said Zubikarai. "New Zealand is a completely different environment. Rugby is everything but football is growing slowly and this is a great project to be part of."

Zubikarai admits he knew nothing about New Zealand football, but had heard about Auckland City through their regular exploits at the Club World Cup.

"They had a good reputation and I heard good things about Ramon [Tribulietx] and his coaching," said Zubikarai. "There is nothing like the resources that clubs have in Spain - absolutely no comparison - but Auckland City are very professional in their attitude."

Tribulietx admits capturing Zubikarai was a coup.

"I was a bit surprised he wanted to come to New Zealand," said Tribulietx. "But after we talked, he jumped at the opportunity.

"The Club World Cup was a good carrot but he has been a fantastic professional the whole time. He's always demanding the best from everyone and we need that."

Zubikarai is thoroughly enjoying the experience.

"It's been great," said the 33-year-old. "The country, the people, the football. Here, so many people give up their free time for the club and the sport, and it's great to see."