It's been said that sportsmen die twice, the first time when they retire. And when that sportsman is Lionel Messi, everyone else dies, too.
This might sound like a wild exaggeration, and of course it is... or is it? This week, at least, it didn't feel so far off. When Messi collected the Ballon d'Or on Monday night, voted the world's best player for the sixth time a full 10 extraordinary years after the first, he said something with a power that belied its banality, a simple truth. That day in 2009, he'd arrived in Paris with his three brothers; now, in 2019, he came with his three children.
"I am 32," he said, "and retirement is getting nearer."
No, please, no.
This was nothing new, no shock, and yet somehow hearing it, being confronted by it, a fact laid out so bluntly, was shocking. Everyone knew that he was 32; everyone also knew that few players play much beyond 34, if they even get that far. Most even knew that, according to France Football, his attempts to convince Neymar to join Barcelona included a line that ran something like:
Jorge Valdano, teammate of Diego Maradona and a World Cup winner with Argentina, says: "When they're playing, footballers never talk about the end of their careers for the same reason that human beings don't talk about death: because it frightens them." The worst thing, he says, is the "void." With Messi, what happened this week underlined that the end, the fear, is not just his; it belongs to everyone. The void is vast. All of which might be ludicrously overdramatic, but it was impossible not to feel that pang of sadness the second he said it, a wave of nostalgia washing in and then retreating. A part of something, of us all, slipping away with the tide.
"Time flies, it seems to go ever faster," Messi said. Soon, it will be gone.
Everyone knows that, but it was like they didn't want to see it. The reaction spoke of an unwillingness to accept, a desire to escape the inescapable, almost a panic. "Retirement" was the word that led every report, the end of an era. Psychologists genuinely do talk about retirement as a kind of death, especially for people in sports. Strip away all the noise and this is what really matters: Think about it, and though it was entirely normal, totally natural, no big thing, it was in fact the biggest. This was the most significant line Messi has ever said in public.
The former president of the Spanish government, Mariano Rajoy, was asked this week what the key to Real Madrid's future is. Rajoy is a Madrid fan. "Messi going to Australia," he said. Madrid being the future, he was suggesting, begins with Messi being the past. He forgot four Champions League titles in five years, perhaps, but there was something in it. It was a joke, but many a true word is said in jest, and it was one that reflected how significant Messi has been, how his professional passing might change everything; how a different time, a new and uncertain age starts the day that he doesn't.
Betis winger Joaquín, who plans to play until he is 40 or beyond, was asked about it. "Well, he hasn't got my physique," he joked, so he will be gone sooner. For some, there was a glimmer of hope in there, however fleeting. And what if Messi does have that physique? What if he could get it somehow? What if there was a way?
For Barcelona fans, the prospect of an imminent post-Messi era is an appalling one. And nor is this just culés. Suddenly confronted by it this week, as if reminded of their mortality, many foresaw just how appalling that prospect is, facing those fears. Too great, perhaps, too dramatic: Who knows? It may not be so bad, but fears that were ignored are not going away now.
Another example: Lionel Scaloni, the Argentina manager, said he hoped that this summer's Copa America might not be Messi's last. It's as if the lid had been opened, like they had finally spotted the elephant in the room, and now they can't not see it. Pandora's box spilling out Messi's retirement.
One measure of its significance is to look at how quickly Barcelona moved given those concerns. Listen to the things they said, the way they said them. At boardroom level, Barcelona have long been afraid of Messi, of being left exposed by him. He dominates everything for good and, it's worth adding, sometimes for bad too. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu has admitted that the first thing visiting directors ask him when they take up their seat at the Camp Nou before kick-off is almost always: Is Messi playing? This weekend, Mallorca's directors may, like so many others are doing now, ask how much longer he will be playing. Retirement is near, but how near?
However soon, it is too soon.
And where, Bartomeu and Barcelona wonder, does that leave them? How do you manage that? How do you get through it? How do you prepare for it? Can you ever? How do you maintain some control, prevent a crisis, stop people from losing faith entirely, limit the damage? Hold it off, for a start.
"Leo's got a long time left," Bartomeu said after the ceremony, not least because he had to. "I speak to him often and he still has a lot of football to play. He'll be here for many years." There was, he said, "Messi para rato" -- a lot of Messi left. That phrase was on the front page of both Sport and El Mundo Deportivo the next day, something a little needy, a little desperate in the headline.
In an interview the day after that, Luis Suárez said: "I think [Messi] was misinterpreted. First, he'd just been handed a new Ballon d'Or and he must have been happy and a bit nervous because he's human like the rest of us. I think there will be Messi para rato." There was an element of "calm the f--- down" to the two men's words; it was all a bit "don't panic," which told you how people were panicking. This was a response to desperation. There was a sense that their words were needed, but they could never have the impact that Messi's had. That lid couldn't be forced shut again.
It is in that context that the next announcement came. Barcelona had planned for a post-Messi future before: Neymar was the succession. Those plans were destroyed two years ago when he went to PSG. Now he wants to come back and, if that France football report is accurate, the idea -- in Messi's head at least, and surely not just his -- was a restoration of that plan. Then on Thursday, Barcelona announced that Ansu Fati had signed a new contract. The word everyone used was blindado: He had effectively been locked down, away from other clubs, his buyout clause going to €170m now, €400m in the summer. One editorial described him as having been "kept away from the vultures."
But it was more than that. "I hope I can be at Barcelona all my life," Ansu said. Like Messi, then, only his life is only just starting. Barcelona had been negotiating with Ansu virtually since he made his debut 101 days ago, an explosion of enthusiasm, a glimpse of the future, hope. No player has provoked so much excitement, perhaps because no player has emerged at quite the right time before. Barcelona were working to renew him, but the fact that they announced it now did not feel like a coincidence; it felt more significant than ever, a response to that new, dark reality. It may be overly cynical to think so, but there was something there. Something even in the fact that his advisor is Messi's brother, that Messi had effectively blessed him.
Barcelona needed this, a new succession plan the day after they were reminded that Messi's reign won't last forever. The King is dead and all that, the circle of life. Messi goes, Fati comes, but it won't be the same again. Nothing will.