Most of us prefer a good story to end on a happy note, or rather with a spin that satisfies all parties. Lionel Messi’s career is far from over, but where he decides to end it may define how fulfilling and rounded his footballing story eventually finishes, and how he justifies and balances torn allegiances with his Argentine and Catalan identities.
Messi’s love-hate relationship with Argentina has taken another turn with his first club, Newell’s Old Boys, keen to bring their most famous son back to the place where it all began.
“Messi, your dreams are our hopes. Newell's support you and are waiting for you”, read a banner put up by Newell’s Old Boys’ fans at the Marcelo Bielsa Stadium during their club’s recent 1-0 win over Tigre in the Argentine Primera Division.
Of course the prospects of Messi heading back to Argentina are very far-fetched at the moment. Messi is Barcelona’s driving force and his current contract runs until the summer of 2018.
However, Messi is open to the possibility of returning home to Newell’s, having stated his desire to spend more time in Argentina in an interview with Miguel “Minguito” Angel Rodriguez.
“Me and Antonella [Roccuzzo, his wife] always speak about it, we have everything in Argentina, her family, my family. We’d like to return. I have not spent much time living in my country because I left when I was just 13,” said Messi.
Having started his footballing sojourn with Rosario-based Newell’s, Messi moved to Barca aged 13 as Newell’s could not afford to pay for his growth hormone treatment. He grew up in La Masia, and has since gone on to become the best footballer on the planet.
Messi has now spent 16 years at Barca, most of them as the club’s heartbeat in their most successful sporting era. Messi has defined Barca, being the face of Barca at the club’s swashbuckling best; the protagonist who has changed identity with time to add the finishing touches to the artistry of his mates.
He is a big reason La Masia is talked up and aped as the model version of a football club’s academy. He is a big reason for Barca’s current mega club status, one that doesn’t come about easily. That just about sums up Messi’s meaningfulness to Barca which extends way beyond the pitch.
While Messi’s status at Barca is undeniable, the reality is at some point in the future Barca have to move on from the era of Messi-inspired dominance. There would be transition years and as the cliché goes, nothing lasts forever.
Football analysts at large consider the age between 24 and 28 to be the peak years of a footballer’s career. That clearly doesn’t apply to Messi since he has been dominant since his teens and, already 29, doesn’t look like he is past his peak. Extraordinary players like Messi are generally exceptions to the rule, hence it can be guaranteed that there is a fair amount of top level mileage still left in Messi.
But there will come a time when Messi will inevitably run past his peak, there won’t be serial Ballons d’Or, and Barca’s dependence on La Pulga will diminish. New stars -- the likes of Neymar, Paul Pogba or Paulo Dybala -- will emerge, and gradually Messi will fade from the mainstream consciousness.
Messi will be 31 by the time the next World Cup comes round, 32 by Copa America 2019. Wayne Rooney’s early career start has been used as a subject to study footballers’ mileage at the top level; the Manchester United captain’s regression over the past few years has encouraged such research work.
To put him into Rooney’s context, Messi has competed at the topmost level of football for the best part of more a decade now. It is thus logical to predict a cooling off in the next few years; cooling off from the relentless intensity that has helped Barca win relentlessly in the recent past.
Thus, Messi’s Rosario retreat could be seen as a realistic step but only in the twilight of his career. The No.10 has already professed his desire to play in the Argentine league with Newell’s, and although Argentina probably doesn’t deserve it, Messi will have a chance to give something back to his homeland by strutting his stuff in the poor Argentine Primera League.
Newell’s’ vice president Cristian D’Amico told FourFourTwo last month about the economic shift Messi’s move back to the club would usher.
"Imagine a game with Messi in the Coloso [the club's stadium] with the press around the world. The sponsors who would come, that would make a difference economically, apart from the sentimental value, and could make a big difference to clean up the debts,” D’Amico said.
Economics aside, Messi playing in Newell’s colours will be historical for Argentina’s also-ran club; Newell’s aren’t talked about in the same breath with the big Argentine clubs like River Plate, Boca Juniors, Independiente, Racing Club and San Lorenzo. Hence prizing Messi away would plant a significant feather in Newell’s cap and D’Amico is convinced that could happen.
As of now though, Messi’s time at Barca is far from over. Inevitably, Newell’s and D’Amico would have to wait for quite a few years before they see their famous son in the club’s red and black colours.
Playing close to the Argentine public is an attractive proposition for Messi but, for now, let's sit back and continue to enjoy the best ever footballer making Blaugrana history.
By Abhijit Bharali, columnist at Barcablog. Follow him on Twitter here.