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