Lionel Messi was not happy. The Argentina international had tried to leave Barcelona himself this summer, only to be forced to back down when it became clear the club would not sell their greatest ever player for less than his enormous release clause of £637 million ($814 million). However, Barcelona was willing to let Messi’s team-mate and best friend Luis Suarez leave for a cut-price transfer fee in order to get his hefty pay packet off the wage bill.
Suarez was heavily linked with a move to Juventus since the middle of August, but that move was complicated by regulations restricting Italian sides to two non-European Union players in their squads. Juve had already signed Arthur (from Barcelona) and Weston McKennie ahead of the 2020/21 campaign, so they decided to get creative in their pursuit of Suarez. The intention was for the striker to pass an Italian language test in order to obtain a passport – Suarez has never lived in the country but qualified for citizenship via his marriage to an Italian – and thus circumvent the regulations.
However, amid allegations that the 33-year-old cheated during his examination, the move collapsed. Instead, four days after Juve withdrew their interest, Suarez signed for Atletico Madrid for a fee of just £5.5 million ($7 million). That prompted Messi to give his very public verdict on the transfer.
The Barcelona captain wrote on Instagram:
How hard it’ll be not to share each day with you.You deserved to depart like what you are: one of the most important players in the club’s history. Not for them to kick you out as they have done. But the truth is nothing surprises me anymore.
Messi already has numerous grievances with the powers that be at the Camp Nou, and it is understandable that the sale of his friend for far below his market value would irk him. However, there is reason to believe Suarez’s switch from Barcelona to Atletico Madrid is that rarest of things: a transfer that suits all three parties.
Barcelona’s seismic 8-2 thrashing at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals was one of the most ignominious defeats in the club’s history. It was hardly a one-off either: in each of the two previous campaigns, Barca was eliminated from Europe’s foremost competition in embarrassing circumstances, throwing away substantial first-leg leads against Roma and Liverpool to exit the tournament with their tails between their legs.
Quique Setien, despite only being appointed as manager in January, was sacked soon after the Bayern debacle, but everyone knew the issues ran far deeper than the man in the dugout. Barcelona had no coherent strategy on or off the pitch, and they were increasingly reliant on individual magic from Messi to overcome opponents they had previously swatted aside with a minimum of fuss. The style of play was no longer particularly attractive or innovative, and the recruitment strategy was excessively focused on high-profile stars and well-known names.
None of this was the fault of Suarez, who was rightly described as one of the greatest players in Barcelona’s history by Messi. The Uruguayan scored 198 goals in 283 appearances for the Blaugrana, meaning Messi is the only player to have found the net more often in the Catalan club’s colors. Suarez’s goals helped Barcelona win four La Liga titles, four Copas del Rey, and a Champions League during his six years on the books, and he also formed one-third of arguably the greatest attacking triumvirate of all time alongside Neymar and Messi between 2014 and 2017.
Even so, it was clear that Barcelona needed to renew their squad this summer. From a financial point of view, the wage bill was unsustainably large – in part because of Messi’s significant salary. Indeed, while the Argentine might have been unhappy to see Suarez seek pastures new, it would have been near-impossible for Barcelona to fulfill all three of Messi’s demands: enact significant changes to induce an on-field improvement, retain players like Suarez and Arturo Vidal who were close to him off the pitch, and continue to pay him £500,000 ($638.5 million) per week.
On the field, meanwhile, there was also an argument for Suarez to be replaced. That is in no way a reflection of his own contributions – after all, the former Ajax and Liverpool marksman scored 21 goals in 36 games last term. But with Messi rightly considered undroppable, the presence in the front three of another 30-something forward left Barcelona short of speed and dynamism at the top of the pitch. New manager Ronald Koeman included Ansu Fati in his starting XI for the 4-0 victory over Villarreal on Saturday and we can expect the youngster to be involved a great deal more often in 2020/21.
The transfer also suits Atletico. Suarez’s scoring record in La Liga is superb, and Diego Simeone – perhaps more so than any other manager on the planet – will appreciate the Uruguayan’s combination of graft and craft, not to mention his willingness to dabble in the dark arts from time to time. Atletico have boosted their chances of winning the La Liga title – they are currently available at +700 with DraftKings Sportsbook – by acquiring a man who played a key role in four such triumphs at the Camp Nou
And the move should benefit Suarez too. He still gets to play in the Champions League and for one of La Liga’s leading lights. Away from the pitch, he can remain in a country where he has already lived for six years and in which he feels comfortable. If his debut on Sunday is anything to go by – two goals and an assist in just 20 minutes as Atletico demolished Granada 6-1 – Suarez will feel right at home at the Wanda Metropolitano.
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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