Is Messi play­ing pol­i­tics at Barcelona or could City come to his res­cue?

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport | Football - Ja­son Burt Chief Foot­ball Correspond­ent Hard to take: Lionel Messi re­acts af­ter Barcelona’s 8-2 de­feat by Bay­ern Mu­nich

When is a threat to quit not a threat to quit? There was some dis­pute yes­ter­day morn­ing, ahead of an emer­gency board meet­ing, about whether Lionel Messi had ex­plic­itly told Barcelona that he wanted to leave this sum­mer. But no one is dis­put­ing the sen­ti­ment. The world’s best player is un­happy and wants change. And that may even in­volve the un­think­able: a change of club if his present one are un­able to fi­nally make the right changes.

Mes que un club? When it comes to Barcelona and Messi, this is more than just a player. It is ex­tra­or­di­nary to think that he is far big­ger than the Cata­lan gi­ants, who are in such a state of dis­ar­ray and mis­man­age­ment that no one can pre­dict where this is head­ing.

The per­ceived wis­dom is that Messi will use the sit­u­a­tion to try to en­gi­neer change at the very top of the club, where his re­la­tion­ship with pres­i­dent Josep Maria Bar­tomeu is frac­tured, and it goes far be­yond hir­ing a new coach or yet an­other sport­ing di­rec­tor or spend­ing more on trans­fers.

Pres­i­den­tial elec­tions are sched­uled to take place next year, and it may be that Messi is lever­ag­ing the threat that he might walk to bring those for­ward. That is a pow­er­ful, log­i­cal move, be­cause how­ever in­ept Bar­tomeu’s lead­er­ship has been, no man will want his legacy to be that Messi left Barcelona on his watch.

We have been here be­fore, of course, which is partly why the dom­i­nant the­ory re­mains that Messi is flex­ing his con­sid­er­able mus­cle to get what he wants and be that agent for change. At the same time, the fi­nan­cial moun­tain it would take to shift Messi, and in a Covid-in­duced eco­nomic cri­sis and with fi­nan­cial fair play lim­its in place, is huge.

In­deed, there are whis­pers that

Ju­ven­tus might want to move

Cris­tiano Ron­aldo on, hav­ing re­alised that the fi­nances of sign­ing the for­ward have not been over­taken by a big enough uptick in their rev­enues. In other words, it has not worked out fi­nan­cially.

In say­ing all that, it feels sig­nif­i­cantly dif­fer­ent this time for Messi in the wake of the 8-2 Cham­pi­ons League hu­mil­i­a­tion by Bay­ern Mu­nich, which was more than a de­feat: it was a re­quiem for an era. For this Barcelona it is over, and as Messi left the pitch in Lisbon, with the all-too-fre­quent sight these days of him with his head bowed, there was a sense that the only club he has ever played for were in dan­ger of squan­der­ing the fi­nal years of the ca­reer of prob­a­bly the great­est player the world has seen.

What an in­dict­ment that is of Barcelona. Al­ready Messi’s peak has passed; with­out a Euro­pean Cup in five years and with the ex­its be­com­ing in­creas­ingly painful – 3-0 to Roma, 4-0 to Liver­pool and now this.

Given the con­text and how much work it will take to re­build Barcelona, maybe it re­ally is time, af­ter cel­e­brat­ing his 33rd birth­day in June, for him fi­nally to move on be­fore it is too late.

So what next? Messi’s con­tract runs un­til next sum­mer, so the clock is tick­ing. There is a €700 mil­lion (£633 mil­lion) buy-out clause in his con­tract, but that is im­ma­te­rial, given Barcelona can hardly try to force him to stay given his sta­tus.

Messi could also sign a pre­con­tract to move to an­other coun­try – clearly he would not stay in Spain – next Jan­uary. Where would he go? Where could he go? Senior fig­ures at Manch­ester City have al­ways made it clear that if Messi ever de­cided to leave Barcelona they would be in­vited to be first in the con­ver­sa­tion to sign him. Not just that, but such was the depth of the re­la­tion­ship with Messi and his fam­ily, par­tic­u­larly fa­ther Jorge Ho­ra­cio, that they were con­fi­dent he would choose them. It may well be that both Messi and Pep Guardi­ola have imag­ined the success they could have al­ready en­joyed to­gether at City.

Messi has won the Cham­pi­ons League with­out Pep, but Pep has not won it with­out him, and the sight of the Ar­gen­tine in the Premier League would be defin­ing.

There will be of­fers else­where, but they are ob­vi­ously go­ing to come from a very shal­low pool of clubs – Paris St-Ger­main are a pos­si­bil­ity, but they would have to sell ei­ther Ney­mar (who wants to play with Messi again) or Kylian Mbappe, while there is a link to In­ter Mi­lan, al­though that seems less plau­si­ble. Of course the Far East would come call­ing, but it would be a crime against foot­ball for Messi to de­camp to the Chi­nese Su­per League.

So City are in a strong po­si­tion if the will is still there and if the fi­nances can be made to work. They are very big “ifs”, but it would be neg­li­gent of them not to at least keep close tabs on the sit­u­a­tion through their own Barcelona axis of Guardi­ola, chief ex­ec­u­tive Fer­ran So­ri­ano and di­rec­tor of foot­ball Txiki Be­giris­tain.

As with the hir­ing of Guardi­ola, City can of­fer fa­mil­iar sur­round­ings in an alien en­vi­ron­ment, with the cush­ion of vast fi­nan­cial sup­port – and am­bi­tion.

In a Machi­avel­lian way, it may also suit City – and Messi – if pres­sure was ap­plied on Barcelona. He may well get what he wants at the club if ul­ti­mately he does want to stay, while City’s in­ter­est may drain Barcelona’s re­sources fur­ther as they fight to keep him.

What­ever the out­come, it feels as if this is the clos­est Messi has come to leav­ing Barcelona and, what­ever the con­cerns of ri­val fans, it would be a ser­vice to English foot­ball if he could be lured to play in the Premier League. Cer­tainly it would be a missed op­por­tu­nity if a club, and maybe it does not have to be City, did not at least at­tempt it.

City can of­fer fa­mil­iar sur­round­ings, with the cush­ion of vast fi­nan­cial sup­port – and am­bi­tion

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