What happens when Lionel Messi is gone?

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
September 3, 2017

One of the conveniences of a non-uniform European football calendar is that league cup indifference can sometimes be interrupted by a bigger fixture from abroad. And so it was on Tuesday night, as Barcelona’s game with Eibar appeared shortly after Leicester’s reserves had finished beating Liverpool at the King Power Stadium.To Camp Nou we went, then, and within forty-five minutes we’d seen Lionel Messi score another hat-trick and then, because he could, knife through the visiting defence once more to add a fourth.

Consider how often that happens: how regularly a football fan inadvertently stumbles on a Barcelona game and, within a short space of time, has seen Messi complete an extraordinary feat which has he completely normalised. Tuesday saw him score his 300th goal at home for Barcelona and complete his 28th La Liga hat-trick; the supply of goals isn’t quite constant, but it’s near enough – and it creates the illusion that, wherever you are and whatever time of day it is, there will always be a channel on your television which is showing him scoring goals.

Messi is 30 years-old now. The end isn’t quite in sight, but the downslope soon will be. Eventually, the game will have to consider what life might be like without him. Not just Barcelona, not just the politicians whose mis-steps he hides and the native supporters who rise when he starts driving towards the box, but the sport itself.

Before the furious protestations begin: yes, the same is true of Cristiano Ronaldo. Football will be poorer without him too. If there is a difference, though, it lies in the Portuguese’s personality: he’s a competitively aggressive character and a provocateur whose excellence is delivered with a bravado that Messi lacks. Ronaldo has buckets of charisma and absolutely belongs in the same part of the stratosphere, but – in all likelihood – his retirement will prove less objectionable. It’s the fate of the antagonist: some people will overlook the achievements and the spectacle and rejoice in his departure.

In Messi, though, football struck gold. Not only could he credibly be claimed to be the finest player of all time, but his is a career that almost everybody could enjoy. Watching him play is like having a ticket for a Sinatra performance in Vegas or hearing Stephen Hawking speak in some centuries old part of academia; an event with transcendent appeal.

That, of course, relates to the opportunity to see him in person. For most of the rest of the world, Messi glows only through the television screen. But even that is a precious commodity. As great as the game is and as much as everyone misses it during the summer, once the season begins it’s easy to drift dispassionately through the fixture list. For the television supporter who can now gorge on dozens of fixtures from across half-a-dozen countries every week, the temptation is to become very selective about what he or she watches – and, worse, to neglect one game in the knowledge that another will be beginning very soon after.

Outside of tribal loyalties, neutrals migrate towards games in pursuit of storylines and drama. They want to watch a particular player, perhaps, or gaze upon a new tactical fad. The trouble, invariably, is that football doesn’t come with guarantees: bad games will exist for as long as the sport is played and, if we’re honest, we’re more often left disappointed than exhilarated.

But Messi rarely does that. His value, beyond the La Liga hoarding, Champions League-winning, hat-trick guzzling obvious, is in the entertainment he provides. Again, the “spectacle”. There have been great players before, some who compare favourably with him, but never before in the broadcasting age has a footballer promised so much and so consistently delivered. It’s highly likely, for instance, that within half-an-hour of watching a Barcelona game in which he’s playing, the viewer will be rewarded with something; a goal, a turn, a defence-scattering run – something which reminds them of the sport at its finest and, in so doing, stokes their love for it.

How do you replace that?

Every era faces this question and, understandably, it’s always assumed that greats will never surpassed. Nobody imagined, for instance, that Ben Johnson’s juiced 9.79 would ever stand as a legitimate world-record or, obviously, that it would be shaved as dramatically as it has been. It’s natural to imagine, then, that upon Leo Messi’s retirement (or just his regression) that the summit of the game will remain vacant and that the sport will be dramatically poorer as a result.

That’s not a doomsday prophecy or a prediction of football’s general decline; of course that won’t happen. But, cliched as it might be, the volume of space which Messi occupies in the game won’t truly be known until he steps away, leaving a vast hole in the atmosphere. It’s boxing without the great heavyweights, sprinting without Usain Bolt; something which is still worth watching but, perhaps, not not quite as compelling as it once was.

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