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The trouble with having Lionel Messi is that whenever he’s unavailable, you suddenly become the team that’s supposed to have Messi but now doesn’t. And no matter who you are, that spells trouble.
For more than an hour on Sunday, things looked gloomy at the Camp Nou. Messi looked on sadly from the stands, as did his fellow forward Luis Suarez, as FC Barcelona looked very much like it would fail to win its second La Liga game of the season as well. With Messi and Suarez out, and speedster Ousmane Dembele also missing from the forward line due to his own injury, Barca kept crashing up to a solid but unspectacular Real Betis side, without ever breaching it.
Nabil Fekir gave Betis the lead in the 15th minute with a precise finish on a swift breakaway. And now a second loss in two was a real possibility, after Athletic Bilbao had upset Barca on the opening weekend with a late stunner from the 38-year-old Aritz Aduriz. In their last 10 La Liga campaigns, which included seven league titles, the Catalans had suffered two losses or fewer in an entire season a staggering four times. In two other seasons during that decade, they had lost just three games.
This type of start was incomprehensible. Messi or no Messi.
Just 10 days into the season, Barca already seemed to teeter. Such are the ludicrous standards of excellence in Catalonia, where the media cauldron is unsparing and has no patience at all for routine slumps. Manager Ernesto Valverde would have been on the hot seat. The new signings would have been questioned. The end of the dynasty would have been prophesied. If you don’t believe it, go back and read the press coverage after any time Barca lost a few games in the last few years.
But then the big summer signing Antoine Griezmann scored a scrappy equalizer before halftime and a beautiful curler just after:
And then Barca scored three more and won 5-2 and even saw fit to bring on a 16-year-old debutant, Ansu Fati, just because it could. And suddenly all was well and peachy. Griezmann drove home the point by flinging red and blue confetti into the air after his second goal.
Now, with Griezmann making a quick impact and things working out just fine, the rush for Messi to return is seemingly gone. Crisis averted. He might as well sit out another game against newly promoted Osasuna and take through the September international break to recover fully.
From gloom to glitter in the span of an hour. How quickly the anxiety dissipated.
It seems that the panic speaks to a larger anxiety about what life without Messi would look like. Hardly anyone would like to admit it, but the Messi era could really end any day now. He turned 32 in June. He’s played fully 15 seasons of professional soccer. On top of that, he’s played in four World Cups and five Copa Americas, meaning he’s essentially had no significant time off for nine summers out of his career. He’s played through five of the past six summers, appearing in major international tournaments in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019. (He might well play in the 2020 Copa America as well.)
Prodigies who play major first-team minutes as teenagers tend to age more quickly as soccer players. They tail off in their late 20s. Messi became a Barca regular just after turning 19. He made 36 club appearances in that 2006-07 season. He’s played as many minutes as just about anyone since then. Messi, like his rival Cristiano Ronaldo, has held up far better than any of the other generational attacking talents who came before him.
Pele was already retired from his national team and in decline when he was Messi’s age. Johan Cruyff had tried to retire but stuck around only because he was broke. George Best was a shadow of his younger self. Diego Maradona’s career had gone down in a cocaine-fueled haze. Brazilian Ronaldo’s knees were shot. And Michael Owen’s hamstrings had gotten so bad by that age that he prayed he wouldn’t have to sprint during games.
Messi is an outlier in every way, but his defiance of the number of games he has in those stubby legs is amongst the most significant. That’s why an unspoken fear takes hold whenever he gets injured, which is still no more often than the mortals around him. That’s why when Barca struggles without him, the talk suddenly turns to how Messi has masked the shortcomings in the rest of the squad for so long, papering over the cracks with his casual genius.
At some point, Barca will be without Messi, as it’s been so far this season. And when it is, it can only hope things turn out as well as they did on Sunday. But it must know that on most days they won’t.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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