It was a bombshell that stunned the soccer world. Towards the end of August, Lionel Messi sent a letter to Barcelona informing them that he wanted to leave the club. A clause in his contract allowed him to depart for free if he communicated his desire to do so to the club before June 10. That date had been and gone, but Messi and his representatives believed the clause was still valid as the coronavirus pandemic had altered the usual soccer calendar and pushed the season-end date back by around three months.
As soon as the news broke, several potential destinations emerged. Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Juventus were among those touted as clubs Messi could join. Not all of them would have been able to afford the Argentine’s enormous salary – he is said to be paid around $610,000 per week by Barcelona – but it was tantalizing for fans of those sides to picture Messi wearing their jersey.
Barcelona did not know what to do. They had only recently sacked head coach Quique Setien after the stunning 8-2 defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League. A majority of supporters wanted the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, to step down. The club was lacking direction, and all of a sudden they were forced to contemplate an unthinkable future in which their greatest ever player was strutting his stuff for a rival team.
In the end, Barcelona called Messi’s bluff. They reasoned that the club captain knew his argument about the validity of the release clause would not stand up in court, so they refused to countenance his departure. Reluctantly, Messi backed down.
Messi told Goal:
I thought and was sure that I was free to leave, the president always said that at the end of the season I could decide if I stayed or not. Now they cling to the fact that I did not say it before June 10, when it turns out that on June 10 we were competing for La Liga in the middle of this awful coronavirus and this disease altered all the season. And this is the reason why I am going to continue in the club. Now I am going to continue in the club because the president told me that the only way to leave was to pay the €700 million [buyout] clause and that this is impossible.
It would have been extremely difficult for Barcelona to let Messi leave on a free transfer. Bartomeu was already unpopular; being known as the president who let the club’s best player of all time depart for nothing would have seen his reputation plumb new depths.
Yet as hard as it would have been, perhaps Barcelona should have allowed Messi to go. The 33-year-old is still brilliant, but he has looked his age at times this season. Getting his salary off the books would have been a boost to the club’s finances, which are far from rosy. Emili Rousaud, a candidate to take over the presidency from Bartomeu in January, has declared Messi’s pay packet is “not sustainable”.
Events of the last few months will not have convinced Messi that he was wrong to seek pastures new in the summer. Barcelona have been massively inconsistent in the first half of the season, and the jury is still out on Ronald Koeman’s suitability for the managerial role at the Camp Nou. They are no better than third-favorites to win the La Liga title, with DraftKings Sportsbook offering +450 on a Barca triumph, and not widely fancied in the Champions League, where the same bookmaker listing them at +2000 alongside Borussia Dortmund.
The outcome of the presidential election may have a bearing on Messi’s future, but all the signs suggest the Argentine still wants to move on. In November he said he was “tired of always being the problem” at Barcelona. It will be hard for the club to deliver big-name signings next summer while also continuing to pay Messi’s salary.
Barcelona will not be able to stop the 33-year-old from departing at the end of this season. His contract expires in June, and he can begin negotiating with foreign sides as soon as the transfer window opens on New Year’s Day. Manchester City are the favorites to sign him, but major clubs across the continent will be crunching the numbers to try and find a way to make space for arguably the greatest player to have ever walked the earth.
Even though he is still an extraordinary player on his day, Messi’s best years are behind him. He is running less than ever before, conserving his energy for the moments when his natural ability can still swing a game in his team’s favor. He might only have a couple of seasons left in him at the highest level, but the likes of City, PSG, and Manchester United will not let that stop them from pursuing a move should it be financially viable.
Messi has spent his entire career at Barcelona. He signed his first contract with the club in December 2000, before relocating to Catalonia with his family the following year. Since graduating to the first team, Messi has made almost 750 appearances and scored close to 650 goals. He is a 10-time Spanish champion and has four Champions League winner’s medals in his collection.
Messi does not need to prove himself elsewhere. Even if he were to flop at another club, that would not tarnish his legacy. And if he shines while wearing another jersey, it is still Barcelona with whom he will forever be associated.
The prospect of watching Messi play the final years of his career in the Premier League, Ligue 1, Serie A, or the Bundesliga is tantalizing. The January transfer window is just days away from opening. Let the bidding begin.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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