A fascinating soap opera is looming on the horizon. Scheduled to be released this summer, this must-see TV involves a player who has been the icon, hero and saviour of his team since his debut. That came on October 16, 2004, at the tender age of 17 years, three months and 22 days old. The youngest player to represent Barcelona at the time. Fittingly, the opposition was away at their cross-city rivals, Espanyol. His team would win by a solitary goal 1-0.
A player entering the famous doors of La Masia from Argentina aged 13. Now, after unparalleled success, comes a crossroads in his twilight years. Should he stay or should he go – the dilemma for Lionel Messi.
Lionel Messi at a Crossroads
The Evolution of Lionel Messi at Barcelona
For some time, the Argentine has single-handedly carried Barcelona with goals, glitzy assists and greatness. Since the old guard of Carles Puyol, Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta gracefully stepped aside, it has been up to the mercurial Messi to be the team’s beacon of hope and fountain of wisdom.
However, in recent seasons, it is increasingly clear that Messi is feeling the weight of the world. And naturally so, such is the huge burden of expectation. Before, he was still the shining light of a stellar cast. At least he had some able sidekicks to distribute the weight of pressure. Nowadays, this Barcelona squad looks forlorn and in great need of recycling. It is a team heavily reliant on its record-breaking star, and the pressure is showing.
The Manchester City Move That Never Was
Last summer, a moment world football thought impossible became a reality: Lionel Messi making a request to the Barcelona board to leave the club – fuelled by a desire for a change of scenery, mainly Manchester, and a link-up with Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Having tried to engineer a way out of Can Barça, the Argentine was thwarted due to a legally binding contract in favour of Barcelona. Subsequently, he was unable to leave on a free transfer that he thought was legitimately possible. His lawyers suggested they had the upper hand in legal proceedings should the battle go to the courts. Yet, Messi clearly wanted to leave on amicable terms from the club which has given him his life and legacy in footballing folklore.
The Two Faces of Lionel Messi at Barcelona
After a difficult first few months of the season, with Messi jaded from that mentally-sapping summer episode coupled with Barcelona’s poor form, there are signs that both player and club have patched things up in the short-term. From languishing near the relegation places to La Liga’s top three, Barcelona and their star act have upped their game.
But the signs of Messi’s negative demeanour are still apparent, as was the case when he received the first red card of his Barcelona career for violent conduct in the Spanish Super Cup final. It was insult, added to injury, as Barcelona lost the final to Athletic Bilbao in a five-goal thriller, 3-2. It capped another sorry episode in an overall poor season for the Catalans.
Recently, Messi was involved in his team’s Champions League last 16 first-leg tie against Paris Saint-Germain. The Argentine scored a penalty but his side were convincingly beaten 4-1. Food for thought for Messi perhaps, seeing his future in a different shade of blue and red.
The Future is Blue and Red?
So what does the future hold for Messi and Barcelona? Well, many storylines are ongoing in this narrative. For one, it is clear the player himself would like to leave. Almost a feeling of job done with a club record 33 trophies, including ten La Liga titles and four Champions League trophies.
At Barcelona, it is a case of been there, rode it, done it and got the t-shirt; many t-shirts in his case, with over 500 appearances in Barcelona colours. During his 18 year-strong Catalan career, Messi has scored an eye-watering 455 goals, dropping more records than a DJ. Indeed, he has produced many a melodic masterpiece to become one of the best footballers of his generation. Maybe the time has come to produce fresh hits elsewhere?
Now, as his contract ticks down, he has more control of his destiny this time around. He is currently the most sought-after free agent in football history.
Another factor is finances. It is known Barcelona are suffering from a dire financial situation and haemorrhaging millions of euros due to the pandemic, astronomical wages, which were well documented in a recent report, and a new stadium upgrade in the pipeline. Therefore, releasing Messi would alleviate some of that deficit. But it would leave a huge gaping hole in the squad makeup, with the current Barcelona playing staff above average at best.
Sure, Barcelona have in their ranks an international wealth of talent to call upon including Antoine Griezmann, Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembélé, Phillippe Coutinho and Frenkie de Jong.
However, it is abundantly clear that losing arguably the greatest player of all time, the Argentine would be irreplaceable now for Barcelona. It has to happen someday, but the club hope that day is not soon. There is no talismanic figure to pass on the baton and declare a smooth changing of the guard.
The All-Important Presidential Election
There is another factor at play: the club’s upcoming 41st presidential elections. Having been postponed originally from January 24 until March 7 due to the pandemic, the future power at the club is still uncertain.
There are three main protagonists looking to take the hot seat. Former president Joan Laporta, Victor Font and Toni Freixa. Barcelona’s three amigos if you will. All are on the final ballot to replace the outgoing Josep María Bartomeu, all with designs to convince their on-field leader to stay put and steer Barcelona to a new dawn. But that will be easier said than done.
How Barcelona fare on the field between now and the end of the season and with Messi watching developments off the field too will determine which course of action the Argentine takes. Messi holds all the cards in the negotiations and the final decision is in his favour.
Assessing Messi’s Options
If the iconic Messi was to leave, where is he most likely to end up? There would be no shortage of takers to scoop the biggest transfer of the summer.
Set his heart on a move to Manchester City last summer but for his stratospheric €700 million release clause to stop him in his tracks. Manchester City and Messi seem the favoured marriage for the attacker to link up with Pep Guardiola and his close friend Sergio Agüero. The lure of Premier League football, playing in iconic stadiums such as Anfield and Old Trafford, might prove too enticing to turn down.
The other likely destinations is Paris Saint-Germain. Messi shares a close bond with Neymar and fellow Argentine Ángel Di Maria. The possibility to link-up also with countryman Mauricio Pochettino could turn his head. In addition, the club have long courted the legendary figure. His signature would prove to be the icing on the cake for the project to snap up Messi.
Flushed with money from Chinese business Suning Holdings Group, Inter Milan have the financial muscle to bring Messi in with an attractive financial package. The team have improved in recent seasons with a highly talented squad challenging for Serie A. The opportunity also to face long time rival Cristiano Ronaldo once again is one to seriously mull over.
Newell’s Old Boys
It would be a case of back to the future. A romantic option would be to return home to where it all began; to go back to his original club while still at a top level. A lifelong supporter, it could be an option in the future. But for now, it seems Messi will stay in Europe and elite-level football.
Another Inter, but this time, Stateside. In an frank interview aired on Spanish television last Christmas, Messi spoke of his love for America. He harboured the thought to one day play in the MLS. Could this open the door for David Beckham’s Inter Miami franchise to add some A-list star billing? He would also find a compatriot there with Gonzalo Higuaín in their ranks.
The Legacy of Lionel Messi
However the story goes, the link between Barcelona and Lionel Messi will last forever. A legacy left of tangible trophies, goals galore, amazing assists, terrific trickery and enduring memories. It is immeasurable the success of Barca’s number ten during his career and is a true club legend.
This may be his last hurrah in Barcelona colours, so savour him while you can. We are watching a living legend producing the most beautiful works of art the likes of which we may never see again.
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