This summer’s must-see TV isn’t going to be the latest pop culture phenomenon to hit your favourite streaming service. No, scheduled for the end of the 2020-21 season is a saga that began more than 12 months ago and one that stands to capture the attention of football fans around the world. Indeed, while the drama of Lionel Messi’s desired exit from Barcelona came to the fore in the summer of 2020, this is a story that goes back much further.
Messi has been variously the great hope, icon and saviour of his team since his official first team debut. That came on October 16, 2004, at the tender age of 17 years, three months, and 22 days old – the youngest player to represent Barcelona at the time. Fittingly, the setting was away at Barca’s cross city rivals Espanyol and his team would win by a solitary goal.
Messi arrived at La Masia from Argentina aged 13. That debut against Espanyol was the first of hundreds of appearances. Now, after unparalleled success Messi stands at a crossroads in his twilight years. Should he stay or should he go?
For some time, Messi has single-handedly carried Barcelona. He’s scored and created the goals. His standards haven’t slipped. Since the old guard of Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta stepped aside, it has been the magical Messi acting as Barca’s symbol of excellence and fountain of wisdom.
But, in the last couple of seasons, it has become increasingly clear that Messi is feeling the huge burden of expectation – and naturally so. Before, while he was still the shining light of a stellar cast, he at least had some more-than-able sidekicks to distribute the pressure. Nowadays, Messi is part of a Barcelona squad paling in comparison to even just a few years ago and in great need of rejuvenating – but the club’s financial straits mean that is unlikely to happen. Instead, this is a team increasingly reliant on the ageing Messi, and the pressure has shown.
Last summer came a moment many thought impossible – Messi asked to leave Barca. His request was fuelled by a desire for a change of scenery, potentially to reunite with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. Messi tried to engineer a way out of Camp Nou but was thwarted by his contract, which his entourage felt allowed him the right to move. Barca argued otherwise and even as Messi’s lawyers suggested they had the upper hand if it became a matter for the courts, Messi backed down, preferring to leave on more amicable terms, if possible. So he stayed, but the clock was ticking.
After a difficult first few months of the season, where Messi clearly was jaded from that mentally draining summer episode, coupled with his side’s poor form under Ronald Koeman, there are signs that player and club have patched things up for the short-term. From languishing near the relegation places to reaching La Liga’s top three, Barca and Messi have upped their game.
Nevertheless, there are the occasional flashes that suggest all is not totally well. Messi received the first red card of his career, for violent conduct, in January’s Spanish Super Cup Final defeat to Athletic Bilbao in Seville. It was a five-goal thriller, Athletic nabbing the trophy 3-2, but it capped another sorry episode in what looks like being a poor season for the Catalans.
So what does the future hold for Messi and Barca? Well, there are a number of plotlines to follow. Firstly, it is clear that Messi still wants to leave, a feeling of a job done after 33 trophies, including 10 titles and four Champions Leagues. There’s nothing left for Messi at Barca, and if the club is riven with in-fighting and banking on him to drag them to more silverware, it’s not hard to see why he wouldn’t be interested in that. Messi has made almost 800 Barca appearances and scored more than 650 goals. In his wake he’s dropped more records than a DJ. Maybe the time has come to produce fresh hits elsewhere, while he still can?
Now, as his contract ticks down, Messi has more control of his destiny this year and soon he’ll be the most sought-after free agent in football history. There are a number of factors at play as Messi weighs up his options, and finances are one of them. Not the money Messi will be offered by the game’s super clubs – he could effectively name his price – but rather the finances at the club he looks like leaving behind. Barca are in a dire financial situation, haemorrhaging significant sums due to the pandemic, their astronomical wage bill and impending and much-needed stadium upgrade. Releasing Messi would take a big wage off the books, but at the same time, leave a gaping hole in the squad which is already lagging behind Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid in the title race.
There is talent, of course. Antoine Griezmann, Ansu Fati, Frenkie De Jong and, if they can stay fit and in form, Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho could be the basis of the midfield and attack in the post-Messi years. But there’s no escaping the fact that Messi is irreplaceable – you can’t simply swap in another forward when arguably the greatest to ever play the game moves on. It was bound to happen – Messi has to retire at some point and Barca no doubt hoped it’d be after a career spent in their colours – and a smooth changing of the guard, the talisman passing the baton to the next in line, would have been preferred.
Perhaps a more stable club could have convinced Messi to stay, but Barca are in the midst of a presidential election and the back-biting, sniping and manoeuvring that inevitably surrounds it have cast a pall over the club too. The club’s 41st presidential election was postponed from January 24 to March 7 due to the pandemic and Barca’s off-field future remains uncertain.
There are three contenders left standing – former president Joan Laporta, as well as Victor Font and Toni Freixa. They will battle it out to succeed Josep Maria Bartomeu and each has designs on persuading Messi to stay, but that will be easier said than done. The only upside for the incoming president is that, while Messi may leave on their watch, everyone knows the seeds were sown under Bartomeu and he will be blamed for Messi’s exit.
What are the chances of a late about-face? It can’t be completely ruled out. After all, Messi had one foot out the door in 2020 and stuck around. But he will write his own final act.
If Lionel Messi were to leave Barcelona, where is he most likely to end up? He’ll have clubs queuing up to tempt him to wear their colours, but some destinations are more likely than others.
Lionel Messi seemed to have his heart set on a move to Manchester City last summer but for a disputed contract and stratospheric €700m release clause to stop him in his tracks. Manchester and Messi seem the favoured marriage for the attacker, to link up with Pep Guardiola and friend Sergio Agüero.
The other of the more likely destinations. Messi shares a close bond with Neymar and fellow Argentine Angel Di Maria, and the dugout is now occupied by compatriot Mauricio Pochettino. And PSG have courted Messi for some time, dating back to the Qatari investment of 2011.
Inter are in the midst of some boardroom upheaval themselves as Suning field offers for the club but if at all possible, the ownership would surely break the bank for Messi. After Cristiano Ronaldo left La Liga for Serie A, it wouldn’t be a shock for Messi to do the same.
Newell’s Old Boys
Newell’s Old Boys would be the romantic option, a chance for Messi to return home. Born in Newell’s home city of Rosario and a lifelong fan of the club, Newell’s were Messi’s original club but he left for Barca long before playing a competitive game, having scored almost 500 goals at youth level.
Another Inter, but this time stateside. In an interview aired over Christmas on Spanish television, Messi spoke of his love for the United States and hinted at a desire to one day play in the MLS and live in the country. Could David Beckham’s pulling power extend to reach Messi?