Is Lionel Messi the last one-club man?
They don’t call it news for no reason. When things stay the same, people become bored. Something different, something new, must happen to keep people engaged. In real life, capitalism and democracy help that along. Everyone wants the latest smartphone, self-driving car or to try the latest trending cuisine. And when life isn’t working the way you like, you can elect someone new to make it worse. In football, which I’m sorry to confirm is not real life, your club of choice will never change but there’s always a new kit, manager or, thanks to the transfer market, players.
For all that, there are times when we tire of keeping up with developments, when we wish things would just stay the same. That’s why we respect the one-club man. Here’s a fella who knows what he wants, has it, and isn’t interested in discovering something better. How could there be?
It’s not easy to be a one-club man. Forces work against you.
Teams want to win. If you’re not good enough, they’ll sell you to buy someone who is. Gigi Buffon stuck with Juventus through Calciopoli, accompanying the Old Lady down to Serie B and escorting her back to the top flight and a seven-year Scudetto run. When he grew old and couldn’t prevent Real Madrid from continually crushing the Bianconeri’s title hopes, the team called time on their relationship with the iconic keeper, forcing him to make a move to Paris Saint-Germain.
Players want to win, too. When they are tied to clubs that have little to no chance, they will seek a move. With Xabi Prieto retired from Real Sociedad, there may be no Matt Le Tissiers left in the world. In fact, Buffon wasn’t really a one-club man, at all. He accepted a transfer from Parma to Juve in 2001.
Buffon’s young namesake, Gianluigi Donnarumma has the chance to play out his career at San Siro for AC Milan. His agent is the notoriously Machiavellian Mino Raiola, however. Agents are another force for change. They have no interest in players remaining loyal to clubs. How will they pay for that bungalow in St Barts, the chalet in Montreux, and the tall supermodel to keep them company on the long flights between? Raiola and Donnarumma have already held the Rossoneri to ransom over a pay raise one and the netminder is still a teenager. It’s difficult to see that ploy working as constantly as it has for Lionel Messi.
Milan are not Barcelona and Donnarumma is not Messi. The Italian club no longer sits at the game’s pinnacle and a goalkeeper will neither take nor keep them there.
Messi is extremely fortunate. Born with an immense gift but a physical limitation, the club found him and financed the care and treatment he needed. As a youngster in Rosario, Argentina, his pituitary gland wasn’t producing the necessary hormones for him to grow. Left to his fate, he’d have been lucky to be 5’ 2” and would have no muscle. Defenders would have eaten him alive. At 5’ 7”, he is now much bigger in every sense of the word than he ever could have been without Barca's intervention. He has just enough size and more than sufficient speed and strength to dominate the game. Fairytale is a word overused in sport but when you consider Messi’s circumstances, it’s certainly applicable. If you prefer the superhero analogy, he is the game’s Captain America. Esteban Rogeros, Capitan Barcelona. I’m not sure how Cristiano Ronaldo would feel being cast as the Red Skull. The Portuguese superstar was never a one-club man, though. His villainy or heroism is a debate for another day.
The point here is that Messi is the calm eye in a perfect storm. He can write his own ticket. Whether or not he makes the right choices, he can play football when, where and against whomever he likes.
Age may dissipate that storm. Still desiring to play when he is no longer critical to Barcelona’s success, he may follow Buffon’s lead. That too remains to be seen. In the meantime, he remains a true one-club man, having been with Barcelona since childhood.
So few manage to do it for an entire career. Le Tissier did. More recently, Ryan Giggs played two decades for Manchester United. Francesco Totti and Carles Puyol were Roma and Barcelona men respectively and exclusively. Philipp Lahm’s bid with Bayern was ruined by a two-year loan to Stuttgart. Both Andres Iniesta and Xavi moved on from the Nou Camp although Sergio Busquets hasn’t ever looked like leaving. Steven Gerrard went to Major League Soccer.
Among younger stars, Jesse Lingard has the look of a player who may do the same at Old Trafford, but it is so early in his journey. Injury kept Jack Wilshere from doing it with Arsenal, although he gave it a game 17-year run before signing with West Ham this summer.
If there is someone other than Messi and Busquets carrying the torch so near the finish, hoping not to be the last, I’m overlooking them. Help me out here.