Lionel Messi is an unquantifiable magician of world football – the magnum opus of the world’s most played and watched sport, Messi makes the onlooker suspend disbelief and his rendition of footballing symphony is the most beautiful part of the beautiful game.
Football’s greatest vocal poets have run out of superlatives in describing the genius of Messi over the last 15 years. It is as though the footballing gods summoned their best craftsmen and flew to a fabulous country impartially far – a land by the mountains where the sun is greeted by the singing of birds, where the sky turns from yellow to gold to orange, red, scarlet and purple, where the hue of rainbow is a painter’s transcendence and from the cleft of every rock originates a crystalline stream. This dreamland is perhaps where Messi was carefully handmade with love, affection, and detail before being sent to Argentina to be found by the footballing temple that is Barcelona.
And that would be his home – from a tender age of growth deficiency to subtle body feints and elusive gazelle-like forays into the opposition goal, Messi and Catalonia seemed to be inseparable. For 20 years of his life, Messi belonged to Barcelona and Barcelona belonged to Messi, not just in contractual ownership, but a close bond of the heart. He was so much Barcelona that some would even question whether he was Argentine – theirs was not just a footballing association but a very personal relation. If Camp Nou was paradise, Messi was its god in chief.
So, on August 25, when Messi communicated his intention to leave Barcelona, the tremors cut across the footballing world and spilled into society’s macrocosm. The very thought that Messi would even consider leaving Barcelona, let alone actually acting upon the idea, was more than anyone could stomach. The enormity of that can, to an extent, be quantified by Messi becoming the most googled query in a pandemic-stricken world.
The ensuing two days would unfold a can of worms that revealed that Barcelona’s paradise was not just in trouble, but it was broken and if its god is to be believed – it even ceased to exist. Long ago.
Messi sends burofax but Barcelona and La Liga stand firm
News broke in the evening of August 25 that Messi had made an irrevocable decision to leave Barcelona by activating a clause in his contract that allowed him to unilaterally annul his ties with the Spanish club and leave for free. The club captain had sent a legal notice to his club in the aftermath of an embarrassing 8-2 defeat against – eventual winners – Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
The quarterfinal defeat was merely the instigating point of unrest that was brewing since February over the club reportedly hiring a PR agency that had criticised present and former players of Barcelona including Messi. It was supposedly an exercise in cleansing the image of club president Josep Bartomeu, the long-term villain in public eye for his role in turning Messi’s love for the club into frustration beyond reconciliation. In March, Messi had refused to extend his contract beyond 2021 as he felt that the club lacked ambition and foresight in building a project that would culminate in success.
Barcelona responded by claiming that they want their talisman to stay and that the date to activate the free release had passed. Thus, if Messi would stand firm on his decision to leave, it would be through the €700 million release clause. La Liga backed this stance as club and league were intent on keeping their most priced asset.
This caused mass furore in Catalonia and great unrest the world over. Those who could, gathered in protest against the Barcelona board outside the stadium and the rest took to internet to voice their opinion – mostly in support of Messi and speculation over his next destination.
Rumour mills go into overdrive and Manchester City emerges favourites
Every media outlet started reporting on Messi’s possible destinations with Premier League, Ligue 1, Serie A and even MLS popping into discussions. But Messi isn’t easy maintenance.
The Barcelona star’s contract is reportedly worth £60 million in wages and there are other variables such as image rights which moves his cost in the region of £100 million per season. There is a belief, from Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus, that a good chunk of this cost can be offset by the commercial benefit Messi would bring to any club.
There is greatness in Messi. Even at 33, he remains the single most influential player on a football pitch – his ability is still unsurpassed. In fact, he is still untouchable and can single-footedly turn a game on its heads. Statistically, aesthetically and through years of internalization, there is no greater spectacle – perceived or otherwise – than watching Messi. The commercial deals would thus go a fair way in countering the Messi cost.
The affordability, if a transfer fee would be involved, was still a major factor and that is why Manchester City came out favourites. This is because of their ownership by the City Football Group who have 10 clubs and multiple projects in their portfolio. There was a media suggestion that if Messi were to move to City, they could come to alternate agreements over his wage structure to meet FFP guidelines.
Settled out of court, temporarily
On September 4, Messi announced that he would not leave Barcelona and continue to play for the Spanish club because he did not want to fight a legal battle against the club he has grown to love. He said that the decision he arrived at was difficult for him and his family, but he felt let down by the board and thus exercised his want to pursue his dreams to win somewhere else.
A dejected looking Messi spoke about his family, how Barcelona would always be his home and that his children could never fathom leaving. But his decision to move was because of his will to win and has to stay at the club because Bartomeu communicated to him that he would only be allowed to leave if someone triggered the massive release clause.
He launched a scathing attack on Bartomeu saying that the president had promised a project but did not stay true to his words. Messi also said that he wants to compete for the best trophies and the lack of a project at the club meant that it was impossible to do so at Barcelona.
Between the lines – Messi just wants to win, as anyone would ever want…
Anyone who has ever played any sport at any level would understand that ideally, the aim is to win. Yes, compete. But eventually, win. Nobody ever plays sport to lose and the enjoyment eventually comes from winning which makes the journey rewarding.
It is no different for Messi – he just wants to win. Nobody ever becomes a professional sportsman without possessing the hunger to win every second of every minute they are on the pitch. Some are just more vocal about it, like Ronaldo, some others are quieter but the intensity and will to win remains equally strong.
And what Messi wanted from his board was for them to aid in creating the best possible opportunity for the team to win. That is a very simple want and it is the job of the board to create a winning project. Barcelona is just that kind of football club (or business), similar to the likes of Real Madrid in Spain, Juventus in Italy, Bayern Munich in Germany, and those in England. This is where Messi believes his mistake lay – not in wanting to leave for free but in trusting Bartomeu to build a team capable of “competing”.
Looking at Messi give his interview stating he would stay at Barcelona is enough evidence that his burofax was a genuine choice made solely on footballing criteria and one that caused him a lot of hurt.
Whether his claim for a free move was legitimate is now a futile discussion and whether it was correct, is bound to be influenced by disposition towards him. But it is clear that that Messi just wants to be a part of a project that justifies his footballing ability. He is the world’s best football player and honestly, that is all he needs to be. His decisions otherwise need not resemble the perfection he displays on the pitch. Messi is not the most expressive, not the most outgoing and is not the most articulate.
In fact, the way things panned out may not be to everyone’s taste, but it still does not take away from the fact that Messi feels he deserves better. And it does not take a football pundit to understand how it feels to go through the painful human emotions of betrayal and serving sans reciprocation. Yet, out of reverence for the club, he chose not to fight the legal battle and instead give another year of his career to them.
Messi has been a part of Barcelona’s absolute peak as the architect and centrepiece of almost all the magic; and through its lows it has been Messi who has carried them to wherever one man could in a team sport. He is 33 years old and in footballing terms, that is entering sunset. The next two seasons are perhaps his last chance at competing at the levels only he can before his powers begin to wane. And his only wish is to be able to use his ability in winning trophies.
But Barcelona’s board will not grant their greatest servant a last wish – one which his heart so genuinely desires, his contribution so justly warrants, and his ability so fittingly deserves.