Messi debut anniversary: Ajax, Leeds, Newell's for swansong?
On the 17th anniversary of Lionel Messi's first Barcelona appearance, here are five teams we would love to see him play for next.
Lionel Messi first represented Barcelona's senior side 17 years ago, on November 16, 2003. It's difficult to adequately describe the impact and influence he's since gone on to have on one of the world's most illustrious clubs.
A six-time Ballon d'Or winner and long-established as Barça's all-time leading scorer, virtually every major decision that is made at the club ultimately appears to be taken with Messi in mind.
Perhaps the reality is different, but the way the Barça soap opera is played out in Spanish and Catalan media, one comes to assume it isn't just on the pitch that Messi pulls the strings.
It was this situation that made the pre-season tug of war between Messi and the club all the more damaging – while the player was adamant he could leave for free, then-president Josep Maria Bartomeu seemingly reneged on a previous agreement and stood firm.
Seventeen years on from his first appearance in the Barça team, during a friendly with Porto, it seems an opportune time to consider where Messi might go next if he allows his contract to expire next year.
So, just for a minute, let's imagine money is no object and Messi could play for anyone he chooses. What if the thrill of the game were more important to him than winning a fifth Champions League? What if he threw caution to the wind and went somewhere just for fun?
We've imagined such a scenario, and these are the teams we'd love to see him play for...
The link between Ajax and Barça goes beyond the basics of football: it's a shared ideology, a philosophical connection, a spiritual understanding.
From Johan Cruyff to Ronald Koeman, plenty of players and coaches have shared the love of both clubs, but Messi moving to Amsterdam would turn the romance up to 11.
Messi as the focal point of an Ajax side - who are beautiful to watch as it is - is a wonderful idea, and there is even the faint prospect of Luis Suárez going back to his old club to join him one day.
Plus, given the players they have signed from Ajax in the past - Frenkie de Jong and Sergino Dest the latest - Barça probably owe the Eredivisie club a transfer favour in return.
Gian Piero Gasperini's side captured the hearts of the football world in 2019-20, threatening a title challenge in Serie A and coming close to reaching the Champions League semi-finals.
They did all this on a modest budget, playing vibrant, attacking football, and all during a global pandemic that struck Bergamo and the Lombardy region harder than almost anywhere else in Europe.
The way Argentine Alejandro Gómez pulls the strings for Atalanta is a joy to watch, but imagine if Messi were doing it alongside him. Imagine them facing Cristiano Ronaldo and Juventus. Imagine Marten de Roon's Twitter feed.
Glorious, isn't it?
The GOAT and the Billy Goats - what could be better?
Cologne are going through some tricky times. Markus Gisdol did a brilliant job in steadying the ship in the Bundesliga last season and was rewarded with a new contract until June 2023, though they're struggling in the bottom three this term.
They might not have won the title since 1978, but they are among Germany's most esteemed clubs, with an ardent fan base and a beautiful home city. As unlikely as it would be in any scenario, if Messi could lead them to challenge the might of Bayern Munich, it would be an unforgettable story.
If not... well, they have a goat as a mascot, for goodness' sake. It's too perfect.
Newell's Old Boys
What could be more magical than Messi returning to where it all began? A lifelong Newell's fan, Messi was on their books as a youngster until they – and River Plate afterwards – were unable to pay for necessary growth hormone treatment.
Before then, as the story goes, Messi had scored nearly 500 goals in youth football for the club, and throughout his days as a professional he has been linked with a future move to Newell's prior to retiring.
As recently as last year Messi expressed doubt that such a "dream" could ever happen due to the needs of his family.
It is the move football romanticists will want to see and, while unlikely, Messi did leave the door open: "I will try to convince the family."
It might be too early for Messi to return to Newell's Old Boys, but what if he joined up with Rosario's other most famous football export in Yorkshire?
Leeds United are back in the Premier League at last, having swept all before them in the Championship in 2019-20 under the stewardship of Marcelo Bielsa and his big blue bucket.
The chance to help awaken a sleeping giant of the English game while playing for the man who inspired Pep Guardiola sounds like an opportunity that's too good to miss.
Plus, if he wanted to visit Sergio Agüero, Manchester is less than an hour away by train.