Barcelona cannot say that it was not warned.
Not a year has passed since the last time a brief statement from the Camp Nou declared that Lionel Messi’s long adventure with the only club he has ever played for had ended. Yet here we are again: the best player on the planet, according to all the available evidence, is slipping out of reach of his squad. Coming so close to losing Messi could be seen as unfortunate. But being in that situation twice seems a lot like carelessness.
Of course, the memory of what happened last time is still fresh and it is difficult to imagine Messi with another shirt that is not the Barcelona one. Barcelona is more than its team; it is your home. Your bond is not simply contractual; This is not just a business deal.
Last August, his sons cried when he announced he was leaving, when he filed the paperwork to complete his separation from the club, and that was enough to persuade him to stay. Everyone believed that he was leaving; his most insistent suitor, Manchester City, waited, pen in hand, for his signature. In the end he stayed because, when the time came, he couldn’t leave.
Maybe that will happen again. Maybe Barcelona fans still cling to that shred of hope, but it is a risky act. The club’s brief statement on its website saying that “the clear intention of both parties” was for Messi to stay to finish his career in Catalonia, blaming all the blame for the breakdown of the talks on the cruel La Liga regulations that prevent him from Messi registers as a Barcelona player until the club cuts his bulky salary bill seems like a sign that this is all a gamble.
“Both parties regret that in the end it was impossible to fulfill the wishes of both the player and the club,” the statement read. Maybe Barcelona is pressing. Perhaps the authorities will give in, and offer the team an alternative or make an exception as they have always done when Barcelona or their great opponent, Real Madrid, are in trouble. Maybe Messi will stay again.
Or maybe not. It is undeniable that the circumstances are different. Barcelona have announced that Messi will leave: that did not happen last year. He has posted a video with the best fragments of what is possibly the most remarkable race in history to try to summarize it in seven minutes (you could do seven hours and its trajectory still could not be covered) and thank him for his work. Unlike last August, the most important thing is that, technically, Messi is not even under contract. His contract with Barcelona ended at the end of June. He’s a free agent and doesn’t need a burofax to prove it.
That is, no matter how it ends, the most curious element in the whole mess. Whether all this is a negotiation tactic with La Liga, or not, there is still no clear explanation of how Barcelona got into this situation.
Barcelona knew very well that Messi’s contract was about to end. Almost a year passed between the time his family stepped in to persuade him to stay last summer and June 30 to convince him that the club was his future as well as his past. But it was not like that. The discussions were allowed to drag on. The clock was allowed to advance. They must have known that, suddenly, Messi would count as a new signing. They must have known that they would suddenly have a colossal problem on their hands.
There are two ways to read that. One, and the most likely, is that it is another problem generated by the chaos and incompetence that has plagued Barcelona for years, and that has allowed the club to squander the legacy that Messi fostered in so many ways. For much of the past nine months, Barcelona lived in limbo, torn between an outgoing and an interim president, distracted by an election campaign. The incumbent, Joan Laporta, has only been in office for a few months and has invested a surprising amount of time in the Superliga project, a monument to Real Madrid’s arrogance. It’s possible, even likely, that Messi’s contract was lost amid all that politicking, and that Barcelona simply assumed they could do whatever they wanted if necessary.
Or, alternatively, almost conspiratorially, it is not impossible to think that this situation was going to present itself sooner or later. Or, at least, that’s how the end will be. Barcelona simply cannot pay Messi. Not anymore. He certainly can’t afford to pay Messi and hire a suitable team to provide a supporting cast for his talent. But he couldn’t sell it either. He couldn’t refuse to extend his contract; the political consequences would be too devastating. But he couldn’t walk away, of his own free will, having raised that idea publicly last year.
In this way, everyone gets what they need: Barcelona can start over, financially, though not emotionally. Messi can play for Manchester City, Paris St. Germain or, on a long shot, Chelsea, and have the twilight his career deserves. And no one has to take the blame because all of that can be attributed to La Liga and its oppressive insistence on proper financial governance.
It’s a compelling theory, but it doesn’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny. Barcelona planned to keep Messi and re-sign him later this month. This summer he brought in one of his closest friends, Sergio Agüero, apparently at his insistence. These are the actions of a club that cares about making things work, it is not the chess strategy of a Machiavellian puppeteer.
Whatever the reason, the result is the same. Barcelona has been worried for years about the presence of so many tourists in the impressive stands of the Camp Nou in their league matches. Occasional visitors tend not to sing. They are there to observe the atmosphere, not to generate it. At one point before the pandemic, the club created a new singing section to help improve the situation, to inject a bit of passion and authenticity into what had become a passive experience, an audience rather than a crowd. .
Perhaps, in time, those problems will end. After all, many of those people had been drawn to Barcelona thanks to Messi. Many – not all, but many – made a pilgrimage to see him with his team because they knew that if he played, the trip and cost would have been worth it. There was no game that did not rise with his presence, he adorned all his plays with something exceptional. The silence in the stands was the silence of anticipation, as if it were rude to disturb a teacher while he did his work.
Now there will be silence in another place, and in the absence of that silence, in Barcelona there will only be an overwhelming silence. And no matter what excuses the club managers try to give, no matter how many leaders they name, only they will be to blame.
Rory Smith is the Senior Soccer Correspondent based in Manchester, England. It covers all aspects of European football and has reported three World Cups, the Olympics and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith