Eventually, time catches up with everyone " even the most infallible, most brilliant and the exceptional has to bow out. It has happened with US athlete Carl Lewis, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and it would happen with Lionel Messi also. The day might not be far away when the world will witness for the last time the final few dodges, dribbles of a player considered to be Pele, Cruyff and Maradona's heir. As the Barcelona captain approaches the last leg of his career, the question that hangs heavy in the board and locker rooms in Camp Nou is what happens after Messi retires or precisely who after Messi? And it can be a billion-dollar question " quite literally.
The talismanic forward " considered one of the greatest ever to play the game " is approaching 32, a marker when footballers generally tend to decline. And it's not the Argentine alone " Luis Suarez, Pique, Busquets and Rakitic " the core of the team - have all crossed 30 making it imperative that new talent has to be unearthed, brought in and synced with the club's philosophy of possession-based play.
But it's easier said than done. The problem can explode into a crisis considering the fact that four years later and spending around 265 million euros the club haven't found an able replacement for Xavi Hernandez. And it's not an isolated case: the void left by Dani Alves, the wing back who left Barca in 2016 is still hurting the club in crucial games. It took the club four-and-half years to 'replace' Carles Puyol's after Samuel Umtiti and Clement Lenglet arrived. Apart from the overrunning costs, even the most talented ones find it hard to adapt to the club's 'unique' style of controlling the game.
A cursory glance at European football clubs' history shows that the concern is hardly unfounded. The soccer world is rife with examples of clubs struggling to replicate their performances once the golden generation hangs up their boots. Real Madrid, Barca's bete noire, is a classic example of what happens when the central figure leaves the team. Post Cristiano Ronaldo, Madrid is heading for a trophy-less season after winning the UEFA Champions league thrice in as many years. Manchester United, which won a record number of league titles under Sir Alex Fergusson, is playing a catch-up game with their cross-town rival Manchester City and Chelsea while Liverpool last won the league in 1989-90 season " before the advent of Premier League. Even money is not a sure-shot guarantee for success either. Despite cobbling a team of 'stars' with an investment of one billion euros, the Qatari-owned PSG has always bitten the dust in Europe's elite competitions. Manchester City is yet to prove its mettle in Europe despite ruling the EPL. And this is precisely the cause of concern for the cult faithful that neither money nor talent can underwrite success.
Messi's retirement is not only limited to sporting terms but will directly affect the outcome of the presidential race in the club which is scheduled for 2021. Catalonia-based businessman Victor Font, who has already announced his candidacy, admitted that the main challenge will be to replace the Messi generation. Joseph Maria Bartomeu, the current President of the club, begrudgingly admitted that though the club shudders to imagine Barca without Messi nevertheless he's doing everything to prepare a life without the 5-time Ballon d'Or at the helm.
And some progress has already been made. Since selling Neymar to PSG in 2017 for a world record fee, Barca has focused on young talents with an eye future such as Ousmane Dembele, Arthur, Malcom and Clement Lenglet while established stars like Philippe Coutinho were purchased to ensure a smooth transition. The latest to put pen to a paper is the 21-year-old midfield star Frenkie De Jong from Dutch powerhouse Ajax. Temperamental French forward Dembele, hurriedly brought in to replace Neymar, is proving to be a good bet as he has shown in this current campaign while De Jong is expected to fill in the shoes of pivot Busquets. But none of these signings addresses the problem that is going to plague the La Liga Champions " replacing Messi and getting a world-class striker who can guarantee 30-40 goals a season the way Suarez has been doing. Things become even more complicated in an inflated market where a decent footballer costs 50 million euros upwards and signing a marquee footballer would be up and above 150 million - something that the financial position of the club would hardly allow leave aside competing with clubs flushed with Chinese Yuan or petrodollars.
The other option is to depend on La Masia " Barcelona's fabled sports academy "which for years have been the bedrock of supplying footballers to the first team. But it can be tricky as in the last few years only one player " Sergi Roberto - has shown the level required to compete at the highest level. Though this year Carles Alena has been promoted to the first team the failure of others have pushed the club to dive into the market and take a gamble. The next big bet is Riqui Puig " a 19-year old midfielder " but he's more in the mould of Andres Iniesta rather than a forward who can score as well as provide assists. Besides, nurturing young talents and betting on them is tricky in a club like Barcelona where the pressure to perform and win gives very little leeway to coaches to experiment and provide time for the development of a player.
Since Messi broke into the first team around 15 years ago Barcelona has won 4 UEFA Champions league and 9 La Liga titles and have overtaken Real Madrid in a head-to-head contest. The club captain is also Barcelona's all-time leading goal scorer and formed a historic 'trident' with Brazilian Neymar and Uruguayan Luis Suarez. But mere statistics and numbers are seldom an indicator to define the contribution of the Argentine. Under the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, working in tandem with midfield maestros Xavi and Iniesta, Messi took Barca's game into the dizzying heights of perfection that every team or club tries but rarely achieves. The death of opponents through a thousand passes is how both critics and admirers described the best Barca team not only in the club's history but of football per se.
Therefore the elephant in the room is something that the current president, former players, coaches are dreading to articulate " that there cannot be another Messi for the club in a long time to come not for money nor for anything else.