Lionel Messi was a boy wonder at Barcelona. His story was so unique for the time, at the turn of the century, as a young Argentine with a lot of baggage and risks attached to him. Every chapter is so well known now, from the napkin he was signed on by Barça’s Technical Secretary, Charly Rexach, to the growth hormone he needed to help him reach the optimum condition in La Masía, the youth academy. By the time he made his debut in the first team, everybody knew who he was. His talent was worth everything else; it all paid off in the end which is a lesson that could be worth heeding for Barcelona’s latest boy wonder; Ansu Fati.
Perhaps it took Messi’s first goal, against Albacete in 2004 aged just 17, for the world to take notice. It was incredibly fitting that Ronaldinho passed him the ball, twice, because his first and almost identical effort was called offside; the Brazilian was the reigning World Player of the Year and king of Camp Nou, but there were two reasons that moment served as a brilliant metaphor for the future. Not only would Messi pick up the talismanic baton when he departed, but Ronaldinho was one of the very first to spot the genius within him, and arguably the man who nurtured it best in the early days.
Motivation, rather than injury or a decline due to age, was Ronaldinho’s main enemy. His fall from grace and departure came far sooner than anyone expected, just four years later when he was 28 and Messi was 21. By that time, the club was tired and stale; its overall mentality had followed Ronaldinho’s, but the squad was still remarkably talented. They just needed a fresh voice, someone who could add impetus, direction and greater intensity. Enter Pep Guardiola, who climbed up from the B team and replaced Frank Rijkaard as coach.
He put his trust in Messi, who was ready. The rest is history.
As a combination, Barcelona and Messi have, at one time or another, developed into the best team and player in the world, arguably of all time. But the end is nigh; Messi would have left this summer had he got his way, and the reasons for that are, at least in part, directly linked to the club ceasing to be competitive at the very top level.
Even if, as he has always planned, he ends his career in Europe at the club, he is now 33 and adapting his game accordingly. There is little doubt that Messi will be able to squeeze every last drop from his career, unlike Ronaldinho, but eventually there will have to be a full contingency plan. Right now, with his contract running out in less than a year, it looks like it’ll have to be in place by June.
The transition will not be as seamless as it was when Messi stepped up, because the club is not as well run as it was 12 years ago. Their identity isn’t as pure, their aims are disjointed and the quality in the squad isn’t the same. Messi has had to carry them for so long, but at least there does seem to be a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
Ansu Fati scored twice in the 4-0 victory at home to Villarreal on the opening night of the season, and again in the recent El Clásico defeat to Real Madrid. The Villarreal match was a breath of fresh air for everyone. After such a traumatic few weeks, which saw Luis Suarez depart and Messi barely hide his contempt for his treatment, the energy and verve Barcelona played with was a sign of rebirth; exactly what Ronald Koeman needed in his first game. Ansu, who has already made his full Spain debut, was central to that. Excitement has been tempered somewhat since.
He broke through last season, and the novelty which came with that was always likely to wear off at some stage. It wasn’t particularly headline-grabbing that he netted a brace, not in an earth-shattering sense anyway; the clamour to find out who he is has been and gone. Perhaps it wasn’t expected, but it was accepted; everyone took it in their stride. That says everything about his talent; he was only 17 when he appeared, the same age Messi was when he began to command attention, turning 18 on October 31.
Hopes are obviously high, despite a knee injury ruling him out for several months, but there is very little reason to put pressure on him at this stage. In fact, it should be actively discouraged; everyone at Barcelona was thrust into panic mode when they thought their worst nightmare with Messi could come true. It still could. They are not ready for that, but if this summer did anything, it focussed minds. The president, and entire board, widely viewed as architects of the club’s decline and certainly the main target for Messi’s wrath, resigned last week.
Messi was lucky to grow up at Barcelona when the club was at its peak with an efficiency for allowing young players to flourish and develop a winning mentality. Corporate greed, among other things, has changed the landscape for the present and the future, but in Ansu Fati, they have a player who can grow into something special.
He has the potential to be a generational talent; nothing has phased him so far. But Barcelona must not allow past mistakes to rear their heads and derail his progress; as a young player, his path must be structured in a way that allows him to grow away from taking on too much pressure too early. If that is done, though, then the long-term future in a post-Messi world may not be as dark as first feared.