A few Saturdays ago in La Liga, we witnessed something truly rare. Lionel Messi was subbed off while playing for Barcelona in a league or Champions League match.
It’s the first time it has happened in 2020/21. It only happened once in the whole of 2019/20, and once the season before that. In 2017/18, he wasn’t subbed off at all in either competition. The general rule is that if Messi starts the game, he finishes the game and what’s more, he seems to want to play more football as he gets older.
But after 65 minutes of the 4-0 hammering of Granada, despite being on a hat-trick, the board went up and Ronald Koeman replaced him with Martin Braithwaite. There was no incredulous look, no anger, nothing from the captain. Just an acceptance that the match was effectively over and there are other battles to face in the future.
This is new. Koeman has been clear with Messi that now he is 33, he needs to manage his body far better. He has rested him completely from away matches in the Champions League against Dynamo Kiev and Ferencvaros. And this substitution not only shows that Messi is beginning to understand his mortality, he’s keen to prolong his career for as long as possible.
It’s something that Cristiano Ronaldo was forced to accept, too. The Portuguese has been subbed out three times in Serie A and CL, already more than in his previous two seasons and we are not even halfway through. The punishing schedule, despite Ronaldo’s superhuman fitness, is meaning that players of a certain vintage, and their fitness advisors, need to be smart.
Ronaldo and Messi don’t need to be smashing up lower-tier teams until the bitter end, as much as they would like to for their numerical totals. They need to preserve their bodies for when it really counts. Ronaldo knew it, Messi is realising it. And it means that when we think about conventional retirement ages, we may have to think again.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic is setting the standard, still playing, and scoring, in Serie A at 39 and doesn’t look as if he has plans to go anywhere any time soon. Zlatan, with his black belt training, has looked after his body exceptionally well. There’s no reason Messi at 33, with his style of play and the range of skills he has available, shouldn’t be looking at reaching a similar age if he wants to. There’s no doubt at all that is what Ronaldo has in mind.
Players are receiving more advice on nutrition and body preservation than ever before, and a key part of that is avoiding niggling injury. Messi’s muscular problems of his teens are a distant memory and he never really misses matches because of minor complaints - the same as Ronaldo.
There's technology moving into the market for injury detection; artificial intelligence companies, such as Zone7, can predict incidence of injury and customise training regimes based on their recommendations. In short, they seek to assist sportspeople in staying fit for longer. And they believe that avoiding injury will become a key factor in players reevaluating the length of their careers.
Athletes understand their bodies better than ever. They understand how to look after themselves, know what they are capable of, and, in the case of Messi in particular, manage their energy usage in real time. He slows the pace in the match so that he can be dynamic when it really counts.
If players want to play deep into their 30s and even beyond, technology is becoming sophisticated enough to maintain optimum fitness over extended periods. Which is why, when we think of when Lionel Messi might hang up his boots, it may be quite a bit further into the future than we expect.