When you witness a player with a talent like Lionel Messi, you tend to hope they can go on forever. Unless you are a Real Madrid fan, that is. However, Messi turns 34 in June, and it is clear that he cannot go on forever, particularly at international level. Sure, some might point at Zlatan Ibrahimović, who is driving AC Milan towards an unlikely title bid this season at the ripe old age of 39. But even the enigmatic Swede had to stop playing for his country five years ago in an effort to prolong his career.
Messi has a complicated relationship with Argentina fans. They like him, of course, and they are certainly glad to have him. But if you have watched any of the brilliant Maradona documentaries, you will appreciate that there is still only one king of Argentine football, and his name is Diego. Things might have been a little different if Messi had delivered a World Cup (Argentina went agonisingly close in 2014), although he still might have that chance in Qatar next year.
Nevertheless, a Messi retirement poses a problem for Argentina. Not just due to the fact they are losing one of the greatest players in history, but that there seems to be a lack of a new generation pushing up to replace him and his contemporaries. Players like Sergio Aguero and Angel Di Maria, who will both turn 33 before the end of the domestic season, probably have one more World Cup left in them. Argentina have some talent in their squad – that’s always going to be the case for a football nation – but the youth talent is, well, somewhat underwhelming.
Other Nations Boast Better Young Talent
To put it into perspective, consider this statistic: Of the top 15 Argentinian players ranked by transfer value, three of them are aged 25 and under – Lautaro Martinez, Angel Correa and Giovanni Lo Celso. If we do the same for English players, we can see that 11 of them are aged 25 and under. France has ten and Italy has eight.
Of the players currently in the Argentina set-up, Lautaro Martinez (23) might seem the most likely to replace Messi. Of course, Messi is irreplaceable, but in the sense of being Argentina’s main attacking threat. The Inter Milan striker burst onto the scene when scoring 7 goals in the club’s 2019/20 Champions League and Europa League campaigns, including becoming the first Inter player to score at the Nou Camp in 50 years. Martinez is a good player, but it remains to be seen whether he can become a great one.
Some Hope for the Future
Who else stands out as attacking talents in the Argentina squad? Few else with the talents of Martinez, never mind Lionel Messi. The likes of Lucas Alario, Lucas Ocampos and Joaquin Correa are talented, but will never be considered world-class. Paolo Dybala has managed two goals in 29 appearances for the national team. Some of the younger players like Nicolas Gonzalez (22) have plenty of potentials, but there is nowhere the level of excitement as there is around, for example, England’s Mason Greenwood or Spain’s Ansu Fati.
On the plus side for Argentina, the team has several young defenders who could go on to have stellar careers, and they have five players listed in The Guardian’s Next Generation list for 2019 and 2020. Of the attacking talents, Matias Palacios and Dario Sarmiento possibly represent the best hope for the new generation of players. But as it stands right now, when you read one of those articles talking about the next Lionel Messi, he’s probably not going to be Argentinian.