Argentina have shown that there’s life after Messi

Argentina have shown at the Copa America that the post-Messi era might not be so scary

The optimists might say that Lionel Messi will play in the 2026 World Cup. Others say this Copa America is his last big tournament with Argentina. Whatever happens, the reality is that the national team are already going through the transition period, even before No. 10 hangs up his boots. And it is looking good.

There was a time for Argentina when everything seemed to depend on Messi. While he’s unquestionably the best player on the pitch when available, the team used to struggle massively without him. Argentina reached three finals in three years (2014 World Cup and 2015 and 2016 Copa America) thanks to Messi, and qualified for the 2018 World Cup on the strength of his world class abilities. So what is going to happen when he retires?

For much of his national team career, Argentina had few alternatives. It is impossible to replace him, of course, but even tactical tweaks to make up for his absence didn’t seem to work. Age was another issue: there were very few up-and-coming stars.

But both the 2021 Copa America and the 2022 World Cup victories showed something different. Argentina looked more like a team and there was a feeling of a process behind it. The approach was always to make it as easy as possible for him to do his magic, but there had to be a Plan B.

Think about the 2022 World Cup: Messi was the best player for Argentina – he totaled seven goals, assisted three times and scored in every penalty shoot-out – but contributions from Emiliano Martinez or Julian Alvarez were equally important.

That dynamic has also been on display in Copa America. Messi has yet to score a goal entering the semifinals, and hasn’t been playing well. Whether it’s age or injury, the reality is that the No. 10 – while still being the smartest player on the pitch – is not capable of dribbling past half of the opposing team anymore. So that’s why the team switched to Plan B, taking advantage of the wealth of other excellent players available. Even when Messi didn’t play against Peru in the group stage, the team looked solid.

Now, Argentina has top-class players in every position. “Dibu” brings huge value for the team in goal; Lisandro Martinez and Cuti Romero are among the top defenders in the Premier League; Rodrigo De Paul, Enzo Fernandez, Alexis Mac Allister and Leandro Paredes become even better when they play for Argentina. Meanwhile, Lautaro Martinez and Alvarez have already proven themselves. Some of these players will reach the 2026 World Cup at the peak of their careers. On top of that, there are other youngsters with promise, such as Alejandro Garnacho and Valentin Carboni.

The on-pitch situation seems to be under control for Argentina. Although no life is better than a life with Messi, the post-Leo era is looking better than expected. Off the pitch? The situation is different. Nobody can replicate the leadership that Messi represents to the team (and to the rest of the world.) His current teammates – before sharing a pitch with him – were his fans. Everything revolves around Messi, and when he leaves, he’ll be irreplaceable in that aspect.

But no one wants to replace the off-pitch Messi. First, it’s impossible, and second, there’s no point. Practically speaking, someone else will have to take over (perhaps De Paul) as the new leader. But Messi will always be a leader in spirit. He’s an idol to countless fans and teammates, and he can leave knowing that his team – the team he loves the most in the world – will be in safe hands once he’s gone.


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