Everything about Barcelona the past decade and a half has been about pushing things until they break. Sometimes that’s good, as its dominance on the field has yielded an ungodly sum of league titles and four Champions’ League triumphs.
Off the field, it seemed Barcelona was always determined to see just how weird and incompetent it could be without damaging the on-field product. Since Pep Guardiola left in 2012, it’s cycled through four managers in six seasons, all the while collecting league titles like candy in late October. The board of directors continued its historic pattern of being a cubist representation of anarchy the whole time.
If reports are to be believed, they finally may have gone too far.
Over the weekend, Spanish radio station Cadena SER reported that Lionel Messi had broken off talks about extending his contract past the end of next season, and would leave the club when it expired. Messi has yet to comment on the report, which isn’t making any Barcelona fans feel any more secure.
It certainly has been a complicated, if not downright adversarial, season for Messi and the higher-ups at Barcelona. It started around the turn of the year when sporting director Eric Abidal suggested that certain Barcelona players had gotten previous manager Ernesto Valverde fired. Soon after that, President Josep Bartemou had to fight off claims that he had hired a firm to smear players, including Messi, on social media in order to further his re-election bid (don’t ask how this works. In the world of the Barcelona board and its election, the sky is green and sharks walk on land and smoke Parliaments).
The shutdown only made things worse, as Messi suggested that the board was trying to make the players look bad by hinting the players had to be forced into taking a 70 percent pay cut in order to keep the club’s other employees in a job. Messi said the players were always on board with the move.
This kind of vitriol has seemingly continued after La Liga’s restart, where reports of Messi and other players already tuning out manager Quique Setién have run rampant.
All of this is on top of Barcelona’s performance on the pitch being somewhere between “middling” and “ass.” While it has collected the last two league titles, it has almost certainly punted this one away to blood-rivals Real Madrid. That’s added to its last two spectacular crash-outs in the Champions League and its status as outsiders for this edition, which will pick up in August.
Which definitely has hurt Messi. After blowing a 4-1 first-leg lead to Roma in 2018 by losing 3-0 in Rome in the second, Messi promised Barça fans before the start of last season that another Champions League trophy was the priority. It was a departure for the usually incredibly-reserved Messi. Barcelona responded by blowing a 3-0 first leg lead to Liverpool in the exact same fashion as it had the previous season to Roma; a Cottonelle-strength midfield shielding a simply chaotic defense that had no answer to being ruthlessly attacked. And none of those issues have been addressed.
Quite simply, while Messi has defied the aging curve, the team around him either hasn’t or has not been strengthened by younger players rising to Messi’s level. It started with the sale of Neymar, a Messi favorite, and the galactic sum of money from that sale being wasted. Ousmane Dembele can’t go four minutes without something falling off of him, Philipe Coutinho was a complete disaster and sent out on loan to Munich, and Antoine Griezmann has been a misfit all season.
By himself, Messi has been just not-quite-good-enough to keep Barça at the heights it is accustomed. He’s either scored or assisted on 41 goals in the league this season. No other player in Europe’s top-five leagues can claim to have had a hand in 40 goals. And yet Barça is where it is.
And Messi is 33. The failure to find and build support around him is obvious. Griezmann simply does not fit. Arturo Vidal is old. Frankie De Jong hasn’t come anywhere close to the heights of his Ajax tenure. Messi couldn’t have been too impressed when young, promising midfielder Arthur was shipped out to Juventus for next season in return for another age- 30-plus player in Miralem Pjanić, whatever Pjanić’s obvious qualities are. It’s the sort of thinking that got Barcelona into this mess.
Where Messi could go is a whole other discussion. There are very few teams that could afford his reported $32M-per-year salary. The two obvious names are Paris Saint-Germain F.C. and Manchester City. The former at least allows a couple more cracks at Champions League glory, though the French league itself wouldn’t amount to much more than a vacation for Messi. City would present a whole new challenge, and with old friend Guardiola at the helm. But one, it’s a question if Messi wants to deal with the much higher-paced and energetic Premier League in his mid-30s. Two, City’s possible European ban hangs over everything like a righteous shit-cloud, which might also determine if Guardiola will even be there.
Juventus already splashed out for La Liga’s other generational star, Christiano Ronaldo, two years ago, and even if it was inclined to try and unite the two of them for the soccer version of a “Not In This Lifetime” tour, Juve presents some of the same problems Barça does. They’re old and probably at the end of their cycle. Ronaldo may be gone after next year, but Messi to Juve under any circumstance is highly unlikely (though a union of Messi and Ronaldo when they both need a Rascal to get around the field sounds like the most MLS thing ever so look for that down the line).
Opening up some possibilities is that, if Messi simply winds down his contract next year, no other team would have to stump up a transfer fee. It would just have to absorb his gargantuan salary. It sounds like something a sell-all-shirts-possible-no-matter-how-illogical policy club like Manchester United might consider. Maybe if Newcastle’s Saudi-takeover goes through that could be their welcome-to-the-world moment, though Messi is as likely to ply his trade on Tyneside as he is on the rings of Saturn. Very few other clubs could even consider it. Inter Milan maybe? That’s another huge stretch, and that’s about all the clubs you could envision making an attempt.
Messi has hinted for a while that he would like to end his career back in Argentina with his first club, Newell’s Old Boys. He’s backed off of that somewhat recently, and would certainly have to take a massive pay cut to uproot his family from Catalonia to Rosario.
As for Barcelona, it might have to do whatever it can to keep Messi around longer, even if it means offering up the head of its president (figuratively). Not recouping any kind of transfer fee would really put them behind the eight-ball, and it’d have to have some sort of death-wish to sell him this offseason to get anything back. Whether Messi goes for free or not, the team itself is completely boned without him. And the club’s funds being hamstrung by the shutdown, reportedly, means going on a spending spree to replace him through multiple players is unlikely (in fact, the club’s incapability to find the cash for a move for Messi-favorite Lautaro Martinez is another sticking point for Messi).
It has been suggested that this is a move by Messi to force the club to bring forward the election of a new president, and end the reign of Bartomeu early. Any candidate Messi backs, even if that person’s main job would be to navigate the post-Messi wake, is a heavy favorite to win.
It’s clearly a mess, and whether they meant to or not, Barcelona’s management and board have pushed the club to its breaking point. Whether they go past it up to No. 10.