Nobody expected the news that broke last Thursday evening. Just 24 hours previously, Barcelona supporters and everyone else connected to the Spanish game were going to bed expecting to wake up to news that Lionel Messi’s renewal with Barcelona had been made official.
A five-year deal had been agreed, respected outlets maintained, two years of which would be spent at Barcelona and the final three spent in the United States, where the Argentine would serve in an ambassadorial role for the Catalan club.
That didn’t happen. Rumours emerged late on Thursday afternoon, gathered pace, and were then made official in the early evening. Messi had left Barcelona, a club statement read, despite agreeing a new contract with the institution he joined as a teenager and had spent his entire career. La Liga’s economic and structural obstacles were to blame.
No sooner had the statement been released, however, that many began to suspect an ulterior motive. Was it a power play by Joan Laporta, some wondered, a last-ditch attempt to force Javier Tebas and La Liga’s hand to loosen their salary cap and help Barcelona retain one of the greatest footballers to have ever played the sport? The wording of the statement, where La Liga were explicitly blamed, certainly suggested so.
The speculation around Messi’s next move sparked a spike in online football betting in a way no other player could.
Laporta gave a press-conference on Friday morning where he explained the rationale behind the decision. Quickly it became evident that allegations of conspiracy were wishful thinking on the behalf of Barcelona supporters who didn’t want to face the reality of their talisman betrothed to another. When asked whether there was still a chance that Messi could stay at Camp Nou, Laporta said he didn’t want to inspire false hope.
Messi leaves Barcelona not just as one of the greatest players in history but as the greatest player in the world active today. His contract expired at the end of June, in the middle of the Copa America. Messi was unplayable throughout the tournament, providing four goals and five assists in seven games as his beloved Argentina went on to beat Brazil in the final in Rio de Janeiro and lift their first title since 1993, one that Diego Maradona, the man Messi will always be measured against, never achieved.
The Argentine appeared a different person in the aftermath of that achievement. He’d won it all at Barcelona, including ten La Liga titles and four Champions League titles, but had failed to deliver success for his beloved Argentina. Maradona led them to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico almost single-handedly, cementing his legendary status back home.
Messi, as he left Argentina as a boy, didn’t have that same connection, and had lost three Copa America finals as well as the small matter of the 2014 World Cup. Exorcising those ghosts were titanic, evident in his light-hearted social media activity following the victory, where he granted the public access to a private side of him never before seen.
This relief will make the Messi of this season all the more interesting. He’s not done yet at the elite level; the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is around the corner, where he’s sure to be eyeing up one last opportunity to equal Maradona’s victory back in 1986.
He won’t be at Barcelona, we’re led to believe, which realistically leaves either Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain, the two clubs with the prestige and financial strength to accommodate such a move. PSG have since emerged as the favourites and look set to announce the deal in the coming week.
Football purists will undoubtedly be sad to see Messi leave the club he joined as a boy, but it’s undeniable there’s a certain intrigue there regarding how the Argentine will adapt to a new environment. Time will tell.