Lionel Messi should only get better with age as Barcelona's leading light
If there's a downside to being Lionel Messi, it probably manifests itself in contract negotiations. Earlier this month, less than a year away from free agency, he signed an extension tying him to Barcelona through 2021.
Ordinarily, you'd expect a GOAT candidate running down his contract to foster endless media speculation. Is he looking for a new challenge? What does he want from the club? Can somebody make him an offer that can't be refused?
Not here, and not Messi. It was about as anti-climactic as it can reasonably get in these circumstances. An object at rest remains at rest. This is a guy who was with the same woman -- the mother of his children, whom he has known since he was 5 years old -- for 10 years before getting married on July 1, just a few days before signing his new deal. He turned 30 just over a month ago and yet, if you can somehow ignore the hair and the beard, he looks like the little guy we see scampering across the pitch in his early YouTube videos.
Messi doesn't change. He changes things around him.
At least, until now. Because while age may be just a number, 30 is 30. Maybe he's heard time's winged chariot hurrying near. Odds are, like Rocky, he knows that "time is undefeated" and he too one day will have to bow his head and say "no mas."
We're not there yet. And he knows he can do his utmost to ensure that day is as far away as possible. But it will come, most likely slowly. And he's prepared.
For those of us who love watching him play, it's going to be a treat because age doesn't scare away a footballer's skill-set all at once. A clever player knows how to use his experience and intelligence to cheat time, squeezing as much as he can out of his body. And there is such a thing as aging gracefully.
Assuming he is like other athletes -- and yes, that's a big assumption -- his explosiveness will go first. That first step, the shake-and-bake, won't be quite as crisp or as lethal as it was. Neither will his acceleration into space, that ability (non-sensical as it sounds) to seemingly move quicker with the ball than without it. Recovery times between games will lengthen not because he'll lose stamina, but simply because every physical exertion destroys muscle and it takes the body longer and long to fix itself.
At some point, he'll lose strength too and be faced with a dilemma: build muscle to retain it -- and lose agility and quickness along the way -- or retain that athleticism without the physical force?
Depressed? Don't be.
Because the stuff that made hundreds of millions fall in love with him -- the subtle, delicate touch that allows him to make that leather sphere go just where he wants at exactly the speed and vector he wants -- won't abandon him. Not for a long time anyway, probably until well after he retires.
And the vision and creativity in his game, the ability to read players and movements quicker than his opponents, might even improve with experience.
At some point, you'd expect him to decamp from the wing he made his own -- or, at least, his familiar starting point -- into a different role. He may begin operating as a genuine front man, free to move wherever his mind takes him but always within range of a shot on goal given his innate ability to anticipate both where the ball will go and to get his finish off, even in penalty box rush hour traffic. Or, he may slot into the hole, in the traditional "number ten" role, or perhaps -- as his old coach Luis Enrique deployed him last spring -- at the top of a diamond, with two wide men and a center forward ahead of him, creating space for him and ready to benefit from the assists and magic Messi is bound to dispense.
As he moves into his third decade as a professional, there are the twin challenges ahead of him. One is winning a Copa America or, better yet, the World Cup with Argentina and killing the silly debate over his status in the history of the game once and for all. That's the easily identifiable goal and he'll still be in his prime when he gets a chance to do that, whether in Russia next summer or in Brazil in 2019.
The other is more difficult to pin down and define, as it involves a metaphorical quest of Ponce de Leon type proportions. But it involves mastering his changing body and mind, re-calibrating his style of play and discovering the role that best channels his immense talent on the pitch.
We're only going to get a few more seasons of the Messi we know. And then we'll get a different one. If he can nail the formula for aging gracefully, that older Messi -- while perhaps not as dominant -- will be no less special.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.