ESPN’s The Last Dance miniseries about the one and only Michael Jordan was well received by many when it aired recently. The miniseries discussed Michael Jordan’s career and his final season with the Chicago Bulls. Of course, talk on Barça social media was how much they looked forward to a similar miniseries made about Lionel Messi when his playing days are over. Yet, as much as I look forward to enjoying a miniseries about Messi, I am also concerned of about Barça after Messi’s last dance with the Blaugrana.
The idea of Messi walking away from football struck a nerve last December when Messi addressed the media after winning the Ballon d’Or for a record-breaking sixth time. Messi said, “I’m aware of how old I am. And I enjoy these moments so much because I know that retirement is approaching. Time flies.” Barça fans have been under the illusion that Messi was eternal and would play on forever. Yet, that December night woke Barça fans from their stupor and made them realize that nothing lasts forever.
All good things must come to an end, and the day Messi walks off the pitch as a Barça player will be one of the most gut-wrenching days as a fan. Messi has been representing the Blaugrana for almost 20 years, ever since his arrival from Argentina as a young teenager who made his way through La Masia ranks before reaching the first team and becoming a married 32-year-old man who is also a father to three children. Throughout those years, the one constant was Messi representing FC Barcelona. Eventually, we will have to bid farewell to Messi when the wonderful magician walks off the pitch as for the final time as a Barça player. However, is the club ready for when that day arrives?
Since I started following my beloved Blaugrana, I have seen a couple of great eras and great players come and go. The club survived after they sacked Johan Cruyff and survived after Pep Guardiola left the club in 2012. The club survived after Romario, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, and Ronaldinho departed the club. But there is a cause for concern about of FC Barcelona after the departure of Messi.
The Chicago Bulls never tasted success before Michael Jordan’s arrival and have not since his departure. The Bulls allowed their successful coach, Phil Jackson, and Dennis Rodman to walk away while trading Scottie Pippen to Portland. The Bulls began a new era with Toni Kukoč as their best player with the hopes of enticing other players to join their team. However, players ignored the Bulls and their history and opted to join other teams while the Bulls slowly slid into an abyss of failure. Also, the successful Boston Celtics of the 80s paid the price for not having players ready to step in for Larry Bird and Kevin McHale when they retired in the early 90s and would struggle for many years until becoming competitive again. I am concerned that Barça seem to be following in the footsteps of the Bulls and Celtics regarding future planning of the squad at the moment and when Messi retires. Luis Suárez and Gerard Piqué are both 33, and Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba are both 31. While Frenkie de Jong seems to be Busquets’ successor, the club still lacks the necessary successors for those other players, and for Messi as well.
The grand plan of former Barça president, Sandro Rosell, was for Neymar to be Messi’s heir apparent, either after they sold Messi or after Messi left the Blaugrana. However, that plan went down in flames when Neymar opted to join Paris Saint-Germain F.C. in 2017. Barça received quite the windfall, €222 million, from Neymar’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain but the club squandered that fortune on expensive transfers that have failed to deliver. Barça splashed €105 million on Ousmane Dembélé whose bad luck with injuries have frustrated the fans. Coutinho cost €145 million and lasted a season and a half before being sent out on loan. Meanwhile, Liverpool used that €145 million to sign Virgil van Dijk and Alisson and win the Champions League.
While looking ahead to determine what signings Barça need to make, one has to wonder how dire is Barça’s current economic situation when they cannot afford to sign Neymar or Inter’s Lautaro Martínez without selling other players first. They were able to gobble up players before, but now, Barça seem to have tightened the belt across their waist twice. Will they have the financial capability to sign other “Cracks” when Messi leaves or is the financial hole they’ve dug themselves into is far too deep to crawl out from?
We lived through this financial mismanagement under Joan Gaspart’s presidency and it took Joan Laporta a year to clear the club’s deadwood. Elections are next year and will the next Barça president have the funds needed to replace Messi and strengthen the team? Moreover, will the next Barça president be brave or crazy enough to contemplate the thought of selling Messi to recoup the funding needed to pay off the club’s debts and sign new players. Besides Messi, the only players that could warrant a big transfer value are Marc-André ter Stegen, Arthur Melo, Frenkie de Jong and a healthy Ousmane Dembélé.
If Messi walks away, careful planning will be needed to usher in the new Barça project. This club will always rebound but the appropriate decisions need to be made to ensure a smooth transition to life without Messi and not become what Manchester United and A.C. Milan are today. Failure to do so will be catastrophic for this club.