It is striking to think that when Argentina's captain made his professional debut, one of the Albiceleste's newest faces was just three months old. No fewer than 17 years separate Lionel Messi from Alejandro Garnacho, the promising Manchester United youngster who received a surprise call-up this week to join the national team for their upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Venezuela and Ecuador.
Garnacho, along with Lazio prodigy Luka Romero, brothers Franco and Valentín Carboni (sons of former Lanús, Catania and Banfield midfielder Ezequiel, who most recently undertook unsuccessful coaching spells at Lanús and Argentinos Juniors), Tiago Geralnik, Nicolás Paz and Matias Soulé will thus report to training with Messi and the rest of Argentina's World Cup hopefuls, although it is likely they will spend most of their time working with Javier Mascherano and the Under-20 team. All are dual nationals, and their call-up is a novel statement of intent by the Argentina set-up to assure their futures, after watching them and others closely through the new Department of International Scouting – that rare instance of AFA, the Argentine Football Association, acting effectively and with a measure of foresight.
While none of the contingent are household names, a couple are already making names for themselves. Romero hit the headlines in 2020 when he made his La Liga debut for Mallorca aged just 15, earning inevitable comparisons with the Argentina reigning No. 10 for his style of play and exquisite technique. In the days following the squad's release, though, it is the United man who has generated the most enthusiasm.
His star turn in the FA Youth Cup on Wednesday to send his club to the final, including a fine goal, did nothing to quell those expectations. Having already played for nation of birth Spain at youth level, Garnacho comes highly recommended. "He's a talented boy," United academy head Nick Cox told the Belfast Telegraph after his call-up."I think some of his performances have caught the eye. He's one of many talented boys we've got. We've been in constant dialogue with him about what he might do.
"This is pretty fresh news. He's yet to make a decision. I know he's proud of his heritage, he's proud of both countries. I think he's honoured that both countries have an interest in him. And, really, the take-home message for me is 'you’re doing OK if you've got two countries that are interested in selecting you'." Indeed.
While Garnacho spent the last week on top of the world, though, his new skipper suffered a nasty fall back down to earth. On Wednesday Messi failed in his first attempt to take Paris Saint-Germain to Champions League glory since signing last August, as the French side threw away a seemingly unassailable winning position in the space of a quarter-hour to go down to Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
The game encapsulated Leo's career in Paris to date: a handful of trademark sparkling moments coupled with an overall performance far below his intensely demanding standards, and the ongoing inability to strike up a consistent, fluent partnership with fellow superstars Kylian Mbappé and Neymar. The upcoming international break may well come as a welcome respite for the veteran, who has come in for harsh criticism in France in recent weeks; the Argentina faithful, meanwhile, could care less how he fares across the Atlantic Ocean as long as he arrives in peak condition for the main event in 2022, a potentially final tilt at the World Cup.
Hopes are still high that his crowning moment is still to come – and in the likes of Garnacho, the next generation of stars might already be in place too.