F.C. Barcelona cannot say it was not warned.
It is not yet a year since the last time a curt communiqué from Camp Nou declared that Lionel Messi’s long affair with the only club he has ever played for was over, and yet here we are again, the greatest player on this planet and also, according to all available evidence, any other, slipping from its grasp. To come so close to losing Messi once might be regarded as unfortunate. To do so twice looks an awful lot like carelessness.
Of course, the memory of the last journey down this road is sufficiently fresh, and it is still difficult to imagine Messi in any jersey other than Barcelona’s for a reason. Barcelona is more than his team; it is his home. His bond to it is not simply contractual; this is not just a business arrangement.
His children cried, last August, when he announced he would be leaving, when he filed the paperwork to complete his decree nisi, and that was enough to persuade him to stay. It looked for all the world as if he would go; his most ardent suitor, Manchester City, was waiting, pen in hand, for his signature. He stayed because he could not, when it came down to it, leave.
Perhaps it will work out that way this time, too. Perhaps there is some sliver of hope for Barcelona’s fans to cling to still: that it is an act of brinkmanship; that the club’s brief statement Thursday on its website declaring that it was the “clear intention of both parties” for Messi to remain, to see out his career in Catalunya, laying all of the blame for the breakdown of talks on the cruel regulations of La Liga, preventing Messi from being registered as a Barcelona player until the club has cut its swollen wage bill is a sign that this is just a play.
“Both parties deeply regret that the wishes of the player and the club will not be fulfilled,” it read. Perhaps Barcelona is putting the pressure on. Perhaps the authorities will buckle, offer the club a workaround, make an exception just this one time, as they have done all the other times that either Barcelona or its twin, repelling pole, Real Madrid, is in trouble. Perhaps Messi will stay, again.
Or perhaps not. The circumstances are undeniably different this time. Barcelona has announced that Messi will be leaving: that did not happen last year. It has published a video, the best bits of possibly the most remarkable career in history boiled down somehow into seven minutes — you could do seven hours and still only be scratching the surface — to thank him for his service. More important, Messi is not even technically, as he was last August, under contract. His deal at Barcelona expired at the end of June. He is a free agent, and he does not need a burofax to prove it.
It is this, no matter how it plays out, that is the most curious element of the whole farrago. Whether this is all a negotiating ploy with La Liga or not, there is no clear explanation as to how Barcelona found itself in a position where it was forced to use it.
Barcelona knew full well that Messi’s contract was running down. It had nearly a year, between the moment his family intervened to persuade him to stay last summer and June 30, to convince him that the club was his future, as well as his past. And it did not. It allowed discussions to drag on. It allowed the clock to tick. It must have known that, all of a sudden, he would count as a new signing. It must have known that, all of a sudden, it had a colossal problem on its hands.
There are two ways to read that. One, the most likely, is as the latest installment of the chaos and incompetence that have plagued Barcelona for years, that have allowed the club to squander a legacy that Messi did so much to enhance. For much of the last nine months, Barcelona existed in limbo, torn between an outgoing president and an interim one, distracted by an election campaign. The incumbent, Joan Laporta, has had only a few months in the position, and he has spent a surprising amount of that pledging fealty to a Super League project that is a monument to Real Madrid’s hubris. It is possible, probable even, that Messi’s contract got lost in all the politics, and that Barcelona just assumed it would be able to do what it wanted if required.
Or, alternatively, almost conspiratorially, it is not entirely unimaginable that this is the way it was always going to pan out. Or, at least, that this is how it had to end. Barcelona cannot afford to pay Messi. Not anymore. It certainly cannot afford to pay Messi and employ a squad fit to provide a supporting cast for his talent. But nor could it sell him. It could not refuse to extend his contract; the political fallout would be too devastating. He could not walk away, not of his own volition, not having toyed with the idea so publicly once before.
This way, everyone gets what is needed: Barcelona can start again, financially, if not emotionally. Messi gets to play for Manchester City or Paris St.-Germain — or, at an outside chance, Chelsea — and have the kind of twilight his career more than deserves. And nobody has to take the blame because all of that can be pinned on La Liga and its oppressive insistence on proper financial governance.
It is a compelling theory, if not necessarily one that survives the barest scrutiny. Barcelona had been planning to unveil Messi, re-signed and resealed, later this month. It had added one of his closest friends, Sergio Agüero, to its squad, apparently at his insistence, this summer. These are the actions of a club flailing around to make things work, not the 4D chess moves of some Machiavellian puppet master.
Whatever the reason, the outcome is the same. For years, Barcelona has been troubled by the presence of so many tourists in the towering stands of Camp Nou at its league games. Occasional visitors tend not to sing, you see. 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 little passion and authenticity into what had become a passive experience, an audience rather than a crowd.
Perhaps, in time, it will come to miss those sorts of problems. Many of them, after all, had been drawn to Barcelona by Messi. Many — not all, but many — had made their pilgrimage to see him as much as the team that existed around him because they knew if he was playing, the trip and the cost would be worth it. There was no game that his presence did not elevate, no fixture that he did not garnish with something exceptional. The quiet of the stands was the quiet of anticipation, as though it would be rude to disturb a master at work.
It will be quiet somewhere else now, and in the absence of that quiet there will, in Barcelona, be only the most crushing silence. And no matter what excuses the club tries to peddle, no matter how many fingers it points, it will have only itself to blame.