If you were Lionel Messi, what would you do next after rescuing Barcelona?
Imagine you are Lionel Messi. What's in your head?
(You're not really, of course, but this is a journey into imagination and speculation, with a bit of wonder and puzzlement thrown in, an experiment in seeing the world through his eyes. And it will inevitably be based on flawed inputs because there are only two groups of people who can really hope to have any sort of insight and to even have a clue, you really need to be a member of both. One is those close to him: friends, family, teammates. The other is those who have been in his position, burdened with larger-than-life greatest of all time responsibilities to their club and to their country. You can count those on two hands and there is no overlap in the Venn diagram. So if you're a "just the facts, please" type of person, go read something else.)
You turned 30 this summer. You know the clock is ticking. but you want to squeeze as much as you can out of what is left. You know you can still do it and right now, so does everybody else.
This was probably Barcelona's worst summer since you moved into the first team and the season began with a 5-1 aggregate drubbing in the Spanish Super Cup at the hands of Real Madrid. So what did you do? You loaded the whole team on your back and carried them. In the past four games in all competitions -- all of them Barca victories with clean sheets -- you scored eight of their 12 goals while hitting the woodwork no fewer than six times.
When the going gets tough, you're the in-house, video game cheat. You did it again in the Champions League on Tuesday against Juventus, the side that shut Barca down for 180 minutes in the quarterfinal last season.
For most of the first half, things were fairly even. The visitors sent their front men to press high, harassing Marc-Andre ter Stegen's build-up play while keeping the back four low and dense: a sort of human quicksand for you and Luis Suarez. So right before the half, you seized the ball, did a couple of shimmies and uncorked a shot beneath Medhi Benatia and to the left of Gianluigi Buffon, far enough out of his reach.
The goal broke the ice and sent your Barca team on the way to a 3-0 win. It also broke Juventus' spirit, who bumbled through a disastrous second-half that brought back memories of Cardiff, though that may have more to do with the bianconeri's mental fragility right now. Still, just to be safe, you scored another goal and set up Ivan Rakitic for his strike. Game over.
It's not that yours is a one-man team -- far from it -- it's just that as your new boss Ernesto Valverde put it, "when Messi gets the ball, anything can happen. It's a lot easier that way."
You've given Valverde a huge boost, in fact. While plenty believed he had the tools to do so, he never coached at this nose-bleed level. This is his big break and yet, like the rest of you, he's had to endure a horrendous summer. Not having the immediate pressure of results (largely thanks to you) makes it a heck of a lot easier for him to settle into the big chair.
The victories also help your president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, though that's just a by-product. Even as tens of thousands fill petitions calling for his removal, you're staying at arm's length from both sides. He misrepresented the facts when he said, earlier this summer, that you had extended your contract, which expires on June 30, 2018. You could have called him out on it then and there, but you didn't. Exposing him in the summer, when he was getting to grips with the Neymar debacle and scrambling around to recruit reinforcements at great expense (succeeding with some, like Ousmane Dembele, but failing with others like Philippe Coutinho and Angel Di Maria) would have, above all, hurt your club, your team. And you want to be a team player.
But being a team player doesn't mean being a patsy, either. And that's why the contract still lies there, unsigned, even though Bartomeu went to great lengths to say everything is agreed and that your dad, your brother and the president of the Lionel Messi foundation have all signed.
If anything, the message is even clearer now. It's great that all these guys have signed Bartomeu's contract but they're not going to be the ones lining up alongside Suarez and Dembele.
The blank space on the contract speaks volumes. It also gives you enormous power. Not because anyone realistically thinks you'll leave, but because of the optics of sitting down with Bartomeu as you put pen to paper.
"That photo [of Messi and me at the signing}? It'll happen..." said Bartomeu to Catalan broadcaster TV3 on Tuesday night. He needs it to happen. You know that. But you also know that you can wait to put pen to paper all season long; heck, you can run your contract down, become a free agent and wait until the last possible moment (some time in August 2018) and that, in terms of club politics, would be a game-changer.
You have the power to give Bartomeu your blessing or stay silent, let the petition play out and wait for others to come on to the scene. Or, indeed, demand changes at the club and in the way it is run. But... what changes? You're a footballer. A great one, but still: a footballer. You have that power but with it comes responsibility. Do you have the tools to exercise it? Do you want to take on what could end up being a seminal decision in the club's history, one that could impact the club you love and also the last few years of your career?
Those are big questions, questions above your pay grade, and as they bubble under, you can't help but wonder about what you care about most: what happens on the pitch.
You can tell yourself you'll be competitive even when you don't conjure up heroics on a weekly basis. Dembele will come good. Suarez is as hungry as ever. Andres Iniesta doesn't need to be the Iniesta of Tuesday night -- when he turned back the clock -- game in, game out: he just needs to do it in the big matches. Sergio Busquets is the usual metronome. Samuel Umtiti's skill set complements Gerard Pique's well. And if not, your old pal Javier Mascherano, "El Jefecito," can still offer the occasional boost. Rakitic, Jordi Alba, Andre Gomes, Paco Alcacer: all these guys had a very rough ride last season but you know they can be better than they have been. You've seen it with your own eyes.
You've been a part of better Barcelona sides -- far better ones -- but you also know there's enough here to compete. Sometimes, at the highest level, it's enough to stay in the game long enough for the magic to happen. Often, you provide it but there are others here who can do it, too.
Meanwhile, Argentina gnaws at you. You may need to carry them... again. With two games to go, you're fifth in the brutal thunder dome otherwise known as CONMEBOL qualifying. It doesn't matter how you get to Russia, it's just about getting there. Right now, you're fifth and that means a playoff: nothing to be scared of (with all due respect to New Zealand) though you could do without a trip to the other side of the globe and back. You've got Peru at home and Ecuador away. You could finish second or you could miss out on Russia 2018 entirely. The margin of error is very slim.
And yeah, it bothers you. You shouldn't be in this situation. Last time around, you helped Argentina as far as they could go without winning. This may not be your last World Cup (you'll be 34 by Qatar 2022) but will likely be your last one at the peak of your powers. Your relationship with your country's FA and media has been up and down. It has hurt you. You even briefly retired from the national side. You will retire as Argentina's top goal scorer and, probably, its most capped player. But having won everything there is to win at the club level, that World Cup goose egg will feel like unfinished business. Not even having the chance to make it right and watching Russia on TV? Well, you don't even want to contemplate that.
So you press on. You control what you can control... on the pitch. Off it, you stare down your tremendous -- perhaps unique -- power and you struggle, hoping that you will make the right decision at the right time in the right way. You're a footballer, not a politician, nor a club director. But increasingly, it's looking like you'll have to wear that other hat, too.
Gabriele Marcotti is a Senior Writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.