Should the Barcelona No. 10 Shirt Be Retired When Lionel Messi Stops Playing?

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistNovember 18, 2017

BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 18:  Lionel Messi of Barcelona celebrates scoring his team's second goal during the UEFA Champions League group D match between FC Barcelona and Olympiakos Piraeus at Camp Nou on October 18, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images

It's rare that a span of games goes by without Lionel Messi giving Barcelona fans something new to salivate over, for which they are profoundly grateful.

There are several reasons for their appreciation of the majestic forward. Naturally, they pay to watch their side entertain, and Messi does just that. They also fervently back the team and expect victories in return, to which Messi contributes enormously. And the fans are also clannish, as well they might be, in proclaiming the Barca No. 10 to be the greatest player on the planet.

For some, that's the greatest now; for others, it's the greatest of all time.

Either way, when Messi calls it a day at the Camp Nou and departs the Blaugrana, he will leave behind one of the most memorable, justified and unmatchable legacies in football.

As great sporting heroes are often rewarded and acknowledged with special gestures on their final appearance or afterward, it bears questioning whether the Catalan club should be considering retiring the No. 10 Messi bears at the same time the player takes his last bow.

It would be a fitting tribute in many circumstances to honour perhaps the finest individual talent ever seen, certainly in a generation and perhaps of all time. But in Messi and Barcelona's case, perhaps this route has to be a course of action to avoid in the future.

                   

Acknowledging Genius

There will be those who are in favour of this potential honour.

Barcelona's Argentinian forward Lionel Messi walks away after posing with his fifth Ballon d'Or trophy before the Spanish league football match FC Barcelona vs Athletic Club Bilbao at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on January 17, 2016. AFP PHOTO/ JOSEP
JOSEP LAGO/Getty Images

Retiring Messi's shirt number would be a final point of declaration that there has been nobody of his ilk before, that he has been the standard-bearer for Barcelona in a period of success to such an extent he has raised the bar forever more and become the player against whom future stars will be judged.

One way or another, Messi will be honoured—he has provided perhaps the most exciting, unstoppable and brilliant on-pitch viewing since Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldinho's elite days came to an end.

Messi's final match will be mourned, not just by the Barcelona faithful but by the entire football-watching world.

No more slaloming runs, ridiculously quick footwork or escaping into space between defenders where none seemed to exist. No more goals, goals, goals.

There was already an outcry, enough to force a reconsideration, when Messi retired from international duty with Argentina in 2016. The fine margins Messi has encountered between continued last-gasp defeat and near-unparalleled success on the international stage mean he will perhaps be seen in a different light there when compared to his Barcelona feats. But at the Camp Nou, his name will forever reign supreme.

A decision to retire the No. 10 shirt in his honour would be met with applause and agreement by some sections of fans at least.

Alex from fan social account @totalBarca is adamant that it would be the right course of action: "That is the easiest question I will ever have to answer. Yes. Nobody has ever deserved a retired shirt more. Ever."

BILBAO, SPAIN - OCTOBER 28:  Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona celebrates after scoring goal during the La Liga match between Athletic Club Bilbao and FC Barcelona at San Mames Stadium on October 28, 2017 in Bilbao, Spain.  (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/G
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Emphatic, and not just on account of recency bias; a Barca future without Messi is difficult enough to envisage, but what about how to decide which player carries the burden of taking on his number? It couldn't happen, Alex said: "It will be impossible for me to see another human being wear that No. 10 shirt while playing at the Camp Nou.

"Messi is the single greatest thing to ever happen to this football club, and it would honestly not even be fair to another player to wear that number because they would instantly be compared to the greatest footballer there ever will be, and it's a comparison that nobody will ever be able to fulfil.

"Retire the shirt and maybe even retire the stadium, because I don't know if I can see another No. 10 play on the Camp Nou grass after Leo has retired!"

BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 01: A general view of the Camp Nou stadium during the La Liga match between Barcelona and Las Palmas at Camp Nou on October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. The match is being played with empty stands after the events occured in Cat
Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Perhaps inevitably, a Messi-centric fan account similarly feels that retiring the number is the way to go. Social account @WeAreMessi noted that others have come before the Argentinian but that he has escalated the possibilities like no other: "Yes, they should retire his shirt. He's phenomenal and an icon for FC Barcelona.

"Messi is the best ever to play football, and no one would be like him in the upcoming years. Ronaldinho changed Barca, but Messi brought so much more.

"By retiring his shirt, it shows how worthy he is even though that's not enough. A player like Messi can't be rewarded. Nothing would be enough. He is bigger than rewards. We will only witness one Lionel Andres Messi.

"The young Argentinian boy who made history and changed football."

High praise? For sure. Overstating the issue? Perhaps. But Messi has rewritten what can be done, and he must be acknowledged accordingly.

As a club icon, he ticks every major box.

He's a Barcelona youth graduate, he has been captain of the team, his goalscoring, the trophies he has won and the records he has broken all stand him apart as a singularly wondrous performer.

                   

Inevitably Against

Still, to retire a shirt is not a light manoeuvre, and more so in Spain.

Clubs have Nos. 1 to 25 available to issue to senior players; any additional youth players registered with B teams can have Nos. 26 and above. But Barca would effectively be giving up their right to have 25 players in the squad if they decided not to allocate the No. 10 elsewhere in future.

And it's not just about the laws of La Liga—far from it.

Johan Cruijff in action for FC Barcelona during the season 1977/1978 (Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
VI-Images/Getty Images

Barcelona didn't start with Messi after all. The club has boasted genuine greats throughout its history, players who defined positions or rewrote what it meant to play in the style of FC Barcelona. Those players have been rewarded and acknowledged in a variety of ways quite aside from the retiring of their shirt numbers, whether their departure was a sale, a retirement or one of a more final kind.

Perhaps most poignantly of all from a Barca perspective would be the case of Johan Cruyff.

Football lovers could argue all day over which players from different eras are better than others—and Messi vs. Cruyff is a tantalising theme for discussion—but Cruyff's influence on Barcelona extends far greater and broader than Messi's has yet.

Yes, Messi has no equal on the pitch. Perhaps like Cruyff in his day, in the eyes of some.

But following on from his playing days, spent also in the Netherlands and the U.S., Cruyff founded a dynasty at the club, an ideology that has persevered down the years.

His formation, his style of play, his determination that the club's academy should play a pivotal role in the future of the club—all those tenets, instilled by the Dutchman and passed on, refined and altered as needed down the years, arguably produced Messi for Barcelona.

Still, when Cruyff died in March 2016, there was no retiring of his shirt at the Camp Nou.

A picture taken  on March 25, 2017 shows the jersey of late Dutch football star Johan Cruyff during a ceremony for the first anniversary of his death at Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona.
Jordi Cruyff said he was very happy of the agreement reached with FC Ba
LLUIS GENE/Getty Images

Elsewhere, yes;  Ajax retired his famous No. 14 back in 2007. At Barca, he more commonly wore the No. 9 shirt—again, Spanish laws came into effect, demanding at the time that Nos. 1 to 11 be worn by starting players.

At Barcelona, Cruyff has a stadium-in-waiting named after him: the replacement for Mini Estadi, where the B team and others will play. In his home nation, Ajax's home ground was renamed after Cruyff and the Johan Cruyff Shield is the Dutch version of the Super Cup.

Everything symbolic, everything grandiose, everything in memory of the astounding talent and lasting legacy the Total Football proponent left behind. Not retiring a shirt number. So questions about which player was better aside, why retire Messi's shirt number?

               

Time-Honoured Fashion

As Spanish football journalist Alexandra Jonson recounted for B/R in a similar question posed for the Cristiano Ronaldo version of this scenario, denying possibility is tricky territory.

"I'm against it, especially retiring shirts between Nos. 1 and 11. For instance, had Diego Maradona's shirt been retired, Messi would never have played in the No. 10 anyway!

Diego Maradona of FC Barcelona in action for FC Barcelona on January 13, 1983 at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)
VI-Images/Getty Images

"Even if Messi and Ronaldo are exceptional football players, if we started to retire football shirts [regularly], we'd end up with only high numbers for the players left to play with." 

That's a point worthy of note, particularly in Spain, where there are limited shirt numbers allocated.

There's no telling what Messi may end up doing in his post-playing career. He could coach, he could recruit or he could opt for nothing football-related whatsoever.

It is on the pitch he has made himself stand out, though, and thus when his playing days are over, there should be some tremendous gesture of just how important he has been.

Barcelona aren't short of possibilities.

Xavi Hernandez was offered a massive farewell, something surely in store for Andres Iniesta as well as Messi when the time comes.

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MAY 23: Xavi Hernandez of FC Barcelona waves to the spectators after the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RC Deportivo La Coruna at Camp Nou on May 23, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Renaming the stadium might not be right, but a stand? Particularly one behind a goal that Messi plundered with such regularity? Perhaps. There's also his link back to the academy to consider; could Messi's name provoke quality players at La Masia to redouble their efforts to tread the same pathway in future? A Messi award for the graduate to get most senior game time, perhaps, or to show similar promise.

It might be a bit, well, English-language humour to rename the entire development La Messia.

If there's an appetite for the shirt number to be canonised in some way, leave it blank for a season. Don't immediately hand over the No. 10 when Messi leaves. Chances are, few would want it anyway and even fewer would be able to carry its weight.

Messi's goals, his trophies and his celebrations will be recounted around Barcelona for years to come. His records, some of them—such as being the club's all-time highest goalscorer—could be near-immortal.

Messi will always be a part of the club's history and lore and a face linked to the colours of the shirt.

But the number, the one that Rivaldo, Maradona, Ronaldinho and more besides wore beforehand, like the badge on the front, should always be in place after Leo Messi departs.

            

Quotes obtained firsthand.

Twitter.com/karlmatchett

Facebook.com/karlmatchett.football

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