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AP Interview: Barca president preparing for post-Messi era

The Associated Press — By JOSEPH WILSON - Associated Press

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Even though Lionel Messi is still going strong, Barcelona's club president has already started to look ahead to that unwanted day when the club's all-time great steps off the Camp Nou field for the very last time.

Josep Bartomeu told The Associated Press in an interview on Friday that "we are preparing this post-Messi era."

"In the next coming two or three seasons our leader will continue to be Leo Messi," Bartomeu said at Camp Nou Stadium. "But it's true that there are other young players who are coming. Players coming from abroad, but also players coming from our La Masia (academy). And we are very happy because we are preparing this post-Messi era."

Messi is Barcelona's all-time leading scorer with 609 goals in 697 games and has led it to 34 trophies. He remains the team's undisputed leader, its best scorer and passer of the ball. His place in the hearts of Barcelona's fans is only shared by Johan Cruyff, the former player and coach credited with establishing Barcelona's attacking style that Messi has exploited to perfection.

ALWAYS MESSI

While confident over the future, Bartomeu and fans also have concerns over how the Catalan club will cope when the 32-year-old Messi starts to slow down. Bartomeu said that goal No. 1 for the club's transition plan is to ensure that Messi retires in a Barca shirt, and also stays linked to it after his playing days are over.

"Leo Messi's contract finishes in 2021. But surely it will be the will of all parties involved, if he feels strong and with ambition, to extend this contract indefinitely," Bartomeu said.

"I always make a comparison with Pele. Pele was a man of a single club (in Brazil) ... I have no doubts that after Messi finishes his career as footballer he will remain linked to this club for the rest of his life."

With striker Luis Suárez, defender Gerard Pique and midfielder Sergio Busquets all over 30, Barcelona is faced with the task of replacing a generation of winners.

BUILDING BRIDGES

Bartomeu cannot run for re-election in 2021 when his term runs out according to club regulations. To lay the foundation for the club's future, he has brought in players to complement its homegrown talent.

Bartomeu said that while having big hopes for Antoine Griezmann and academy product Ansu Fati, he is confident that Netherlands midfielder Frenkie de Jong "is going to establish an era of his own at Barca" and carry on its emphasis on strong midfield players who are precision passers.

The 56-year-old Bartomeu is an executive in a company that manufactures jet bridges for airports. As a club executive, he oversaw Barcelona's football operations from 2010-14, a period which included the last two years of Pep Guardiola's extremely successful coaching stint and Tito Vilanova's fight against throat cancer that finally took his life. Bartomeu became club president in 2014 when Sandro Rosell resigned. He won re-election a year later.

Under his presidency Barcelona has won the Champions League, four Spanish league titles and four Copa del Rey titles.

He has continued fostering the economic expansion of the club, which announced in September that it is on course to become the first sports team in the world to surpass 1 billion euros ($1.15 billion) in revenue this season. Bartomeu plans for his legacy to also include the remodeling of Camp Nou, already Europe's biggest stadium with seating for 99,000.

LOSING NEYMAR

Bartomeu has been criticized for not stopping Neymar from leaving for Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, robbing Barcelona of its heir apparent to Messi.

As for Barcelona's failed attempt to buy back Neymar from PSG this summer, Bartomeu appeared ready to move on.

"After what happened this past summer, (Neymar) is still with PSG," Bartomeu said. "So we must have the utmost respect toward a club and its players."

Barcelona's costly efforts to replace Neymar have yet to pay off on the field. The club broke its transfer record by paying 125 million euros, plus add-ons, for Philippe Coutinho, only to loan him out 1 1/2 years later. It spent another 105 million euros, plus add-ons, for Ousmane Dembele, who has yet to establish himself as a starter.

"Arriving at Barca and triumphing isn't easy," Bartomeu said. "Ousmane has had bad luck with injuries, but we have lots of trust in his talent. (Coutinho's) adaptation wasn't so easy. This year we opted for a loan to Bayern Munich. But Coutinho is a world-class star."

VALVERDE BACKED

Barcelona has had a lackluster start to this campaign, the third under coach Ernesto Valverde. Its focus is on avoiding another humiliating defeat in the knockout stages of the Champions League like those of the last three seasons.

Bartomeu, however, backs Valverde.

"This season we have brought in young players who have to help us get through those stages," Bartomeu said. "We think that Valverde is the ideal coach to lead this blending of a generation of players of a certain age who have been so successful with that of up-and-coming players.

"It is important to create this bond, this union, to make a new team and this new group that will carry Barca forward. And Valverde has this ability."

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