They say you can never go back. But this is football and you very much can. In recent years it feels like many big name personalities have done little else. Cristiano Ronaldo back at Manchester United, Carlo Ancelotti returning to Real Madrid, Frank Lampard doing another (and then another) tour of duty at Chelsea. Roy Hodgson is back behind his old desk at Crystal Palace. There has been an AC Milan revival for Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a return to Old Trafford for 1999 hero Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But recent events suggest that nostalgia just ain’t what it used to be.
Barcelona have spent most of the 20 months since Lionel Messi left the club trying to engineer one of these misty-eyed nostalgia trips. He’ll be 36 by the time next season kicks off, but Messi has never been bound by human standards anyway. The 2022 World Cup winner can still play and his comeback would be about so much more than that anyway. Think of it as a redressing of the balance, a return to the natural order of things. When the story of Messi’s career is written, there won’t be a picture of him in a Paris Saint-Germain shirt on the cover. Messi and Barcelona belong together.
But will they end up together? It would take an almighty effort on both sides according to La Liga chairman Javier Tebas. “Messi’s return to Barça is very complicated,” he said. “We have to see how that will evolve but several conditions would have to be met, Barça players would have to leave, there would have to be a reduction in wages. And then you have to know what salary Messi would have at Barça.”
Considering the compromises needed on both sides, it is difficult to see the transfer taking place. There are too many moving parts, from Messi turning his back on the final high-earning years of his career to Barca moving on multiple players to shoehorn in a short-term signing. Messi’s return makes all the sense in the world from an emotional standpoint. But Xavi’s side are about to win La Liga without him. Even if they weren’t, it is debatable that he can still bend a league to his will like he once did.
One of PSG’s former managers was being hotly-tipped for a reunion of his own. With Tottenham Hotspur needing a manager and Mauricio Pochettino being out of work, the equation looks a simple one. The Argentine is Tottenham’s greatest modern coach and the club is at its lowest ebb in a decade. Why would you not want to see if ‘Poch’ can recreate the magic?
Perhaps Spurs’ reluctance, and Barca’s lack of definitive action, is indicative of how many of these modern reunion tales have ended. Ronaldo left United under a Piers Morgan-belched cloud of fetid bile. Frank Lampard’s second spell as Chelsea manager is going even worse than his first one. Solskjaer didn’t last and only served to erode his treble gloss in the eyes of younger supporters.
Not every comeback story is a failure. Zlatan became a Serie A champion again at San Siro while Ancelotti added another Champions League to his mantle. Xavi looks set to lift his first La Liga title as a manager at Barcelona after winning eight there as a player. But the failures have been more high-profile than the successes and there is a discernible pulling back on nostalgia from the likes of Spurs and Barcelona.
Football is cyclical and no doubt we will end up with more emotional returns in the future. Steven Gerrard only ever feels one half-decent managerial appointment away from putting himself back in the Liverpool frame. If Everton keep plummeting then they might bring Lampard back there, given the fact that this will surely be his last dalliance with Chelsea. Perhaps Pochettino will upset the oddsmakers and go back to Spurs. But it definitely feels like there’s an identifiable trend away such heart-over-head indulgence. Leave your emotions at the door, nostalgia really ain’t what it used to be.
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