Doomsday. The day it ends—the day when the little man hangs up his boots. The day no one wants to see. For the past decade and more, Lionel Messi has been on top alongside Cristiano Ronaldo as world football’s best. For some, he has been their only hope at Barça. Messi moved to Barcelona at the age of 13 and made his competitive debut at the age of 17 in 2004. In another four years, the prodigal talent from Rosario became an integral part of the team and took the baton from the legend and Ballon d’Or winner, Ronaldinho, from whom he also took the iconic number 10 jersey. The rest, as they say, is history.
Lionel Messi has shattered several records and is the first and only player to win 6 Ballons d’Or. But Leo is getting old. He isn’t the mercurial 20-year-old now. He’s 33. And the day, when he hangs up his boots, is not far. For this decade, FC Barcelona’s team has been so heavily dependent on Messi that many believe that the Catalan empire will crumble once Leo leaves. To ensure that does not happen, Barcelona need to make a strong foundation for the future so as to maintain their standards after the Argentine’s time is done.
It’s pretty self-explanatory as to why Messi is considered the best. His numbers and accolades have been phenomenal throughout his career. Even taking just this season into account, Messi has scored 26 goals and bagged 18 assists in 33 appearances. Across 720 appearances for Barcelona, Lionel Messi has scored a staggering 629 goals and bagged over 269 assists winning 10 La Ligas, 4 Champions Leagues and 6 Copa Del Reys. Personal achievements include 6 Ballon D’ors, 6 FIFA Men’s Player of the Year, 2 UEFA Men’s Player of the Year and 6 European Golden Shoes, among a host of others.
It’s just not his accolades and skill that makes him so good. It’s his influence outside the pitch. For many years, Messi has been the face of Barcelona. His influence has played a big part in managers and players coming to the Camp Nou. At the moment, Barcelona are struggling with transfers of Lautaro Martínez and Neymar. But one factor which usually lures many to the club is Lionel Messi. It’s just his name which gets many players up on their feet ready to move to Barça. No team has depended this heavily on a player. That’s all well and good as long as the player is there, but nothing lasts forever. Someday, that player will depart or retire, and the team needs to have someone to step up to the occasion.
But Barcelona was formed in 1899. The club has existed for long and has had many greats over the years. The club can survive without Messi if it has a competent, smart and critical board. The board right now, led by Josep Maria Bartomeu, isn’t exactly in good condition, bereft of any long term plans or vision. Barça needs a board that is competent and critical, one that has an idea about what it’s doing. The poor management of finances by the current board has put the club in a tough spot where they lack sufficient funds to bring new players in and are saddled with debt.
With Bartomeu’s presidency due to end next year, his successors must be strict regarding all operations of the club. They should hire managers who have an idea of how Barça plays and make full use of the identity Cruyff, Guardiola and Laporta worked so hard to instil. The board should be smart enough to handle the finances well and not just squander money over signings. If the manager does not provide the required results, the board should dismiss the manager or at least give him an ultimatum to prove himself or get back on track. These steps are crucial for Barcelona if they don’t want their empire to fall in the post-Messi era.
The board should also be on the constant lookout for good and capable managers, looking to strike a balance between being mindful of the manager’s wishes and desires, and not giving him complete power. This mistake by the current board, of not listening to the manager, was what drove Pep Guardiola away after a stunning 4-year period with Barcelona in 2012. The manager chosen should have an idea about Barça’s playstyle – quick build-up, possession play, while also keeping results in mind. The manager should also bring a sense of unity in the team. La Masia – Europe’s most successful youth academy which gave rise to legends like Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi himself, must not be ignored, but also not overly favoured. Quique Setién seems to have a grasp over all these fundamental principles, but the crucial part of the season is yet to come, and only time will tell how things play out.
However, above all, a competent group of players will have to work to fill Messi’s boots collectively. Lionel Messi is irreplaceable. No one player can fill the hole which will be left after Messi’s retirement. The best that could be done is to have a squad with the perfect combination of youthful energy and experience. Be it stars like Frenkie De Jong, Arthur Melo and Ousmane Dembélé, or La Masia graduates such as Álex Collado, Ansu Fati, Carles Aleñá and Riqui Puig. With these players properly trained and nurtured, Barça may have a shot at somewhat coping with Messi’s absence on the pitch.
The Argentinian is at that stage in his career, where his current contract with the Catalans, set to expire next summer, could well be his last. The most pressing item on the agenda for Bartomeu and co’s successors will be to renew Messi’s contract in order to keep him in the Catalan capital for a few more years. Keeping all this in mind, it seems that us footballing fans have about 3-4 years more to enjoy the mercurial genius of Lionel Messi. So, let’s enjoy him in his final moments and keep being enthralled by his magic so that when the time finally comes, we are prepared for what lies ahead.
Written by Shiv Tiwari | Feature Image by David Ramos/Getty Images
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