How Argentina are trying to convince Europe's top wonderkids to become their Messi replacement

Lionel Messi Argentina 2022 World Cup QualifiersGetty/GOAL

As hard as it may be to believe at times, Lionel Messi will not be able to keep going forever.

At 34, the Paris Saint-Germain and Argentina wizard continues to delight the world with his unique skills on an almost weekly basis.

But he is mortal – despite many indications to the contrary – and, at some point, he will have to hang up his boots and call time on his glittering career.

The good news for his home nation is that the Albiceleste are already preparing for that dreaded day.

Indeed, they are leaving no stone unturned in their search for players who might one day step into Leo's daunting shadow.

On Sunday, Argentina released their latest squad list for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.

The usual suspects were all present and correct: Messi, of course, alongside new national hero Emiliano Martinez, Copa America saviour Angel Di Maria and the rest of what has become a settled, intensely tight-knit team over the last two years under the watch of coach Lionel Scaloni.

But there were also a few surprising, indeed unfamiliar names.

Fans everywhere turned to Google to study the likes of Alejandro Garnacho, Nicolas Paz, Tiago Geralnik and Matias Soule – part of a group of seven youngsters who not only play outside Argentina, but in several cases were born thousands of miles away from the South American nation.

The appearance of these fresh faces is no accident, but rather the result of an exhaustive, year-long scouting project coordinated from the highest levels of the Argentina national team set-up.

In 2021, the Argentine FA rolled out its International Scouting Department. At its head is Juan Martin Tassi, owner of a Doctorate degree in Sports Science from the University of Extremadura in Spain and previously fitness coach for several top Argentine teams.

Under his watch, and working alongside youth division coordinator Bernardo Romeo, the Department has currently identified no fewer than 300 youngsters under the age of 20 in Europe who would be eligible for the Seleccion.

“That number keeps changing,” Tassi explained in an interview with Doble Amarilla, “and perhaps in a month we're talking about more than 400.”

The day-to-day work of the Department consists of scouring Europe for potential stars of the future, mapping the clubs and region where they are prevalent and identifying which of the youngsters could make it at the highest level, as well as making contact with the players themselves and their clubs to sound out their interest in one day representing Argentina.

"In our case,” Tassi continues, “we are lucky in that in most cases the kids eventually show they are interested in taking a call or conversation about being part of the national team.”

The example of Garnacho, who celebrated his call-up with a sublime goal on Wednesday to help Manchester United through to the FA Youth Cup final, confirms Tassi's theory.

The 17-year-old was born in Madrid to a Spanish father and Argentine mother, and in 2020 joined the United academy after shining at Atletico.

A pacey, direct left-winger with a vicious shot, the teenager has previously represented Spain at youth level; presumably why the Albiceleste have moved quickly to try to tie him down as one of their own.

Others on the list also have a strong connection to the nation despite being born and living overseas.

Brothers Valentin and Franco Carboni, aged 17 and 18 respectively and part of the Inter youth set-up, are the sons of Ezequiel, who played for Salzburg and Catania in Europe, while Tenerife-born Real Madrid youngster Paz's father Pablo played 14 times for the Albiceleste and was part of the nation's 1998 World Cup squad.

Perhaps the most celebrated of the seven is Luka Romero, who is also from a footballing family – he was born in Mexico while Argentine father Diego was based there – and has spent almost the entirety of his life in Europe.

Romero caused a stir when he made his Liga debut at 15 for Mallorca and, still just 17, has appeared in the Serie A with Lazio this season.

Eligible for Argentina, Mexico and Spain, he has already represented the former at Under-15 and 17 levels and looks destined to follow Messi's lead and choose the country of his parents' birth.

One famous anecdote told by Sergio Aguero describes the moment when he was introduced to the young Leo when the pair were preparing for the 2005 Youth World Cup and admits that he did not have the faintest idea who the Barcelona youngster was.

Once Messi took to the training field his talents clearly became evident, and Argentina went on to take that title in storming fashion; while the current Paris Saint-Germain ace additionally struck a lifelong friendship with his U-20 room-mate.

However, it is an indication of how much things have changed in the intervening 17 years that such a situation would almost be unthinkable today.

Scouting and research methods have improved one hundred-fold in that time period, meaning that, for those prepared to put in the hard work and look, scores of potential stars can be tracked down and monitored almost from one's living room.

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Finding them, though, is only the first part of the challenge, and the inclusion of Garnacho, Romero & Co. in the senior squad, even if they are unlikely to play, represents a significant commitment from Argentina in their battle to beat out Europe's top nations.

Argentina also have an ace up their sleeve in this charm offensive: the world's greatest footballer, idol to millions across the world.

And let us be honest: how many of us, wherever we were born, could pass up the chance not just to train with Messi for a week, but perhaps one day join or replace him in the Albiceleste line-up?