It was always thought that the Argentine would end his top-flight club career in Catalunya but the stage is now set for a bitter court battle
Lionel Messi wants to leave Barcelona. It’s a statement that is both shocking and unsurprising.
Even after the humiliating 8-2 Champions League loss to Bayern Munich, many refused to even contemplate such a scenario.
Deco said he struggled to imagine Barca without Messi. Samuel Eto’o quipped that if his former team-mate did leave, they’d have to change the name of the club.
“Messi is Barcelona,” the Cameroonian told TyC Sports, and it’s certainly felt like that for a long time. He’s more than just the captain; he’s the face of the club, a symbol of the city.
He’s been in Catalunya since he was 13; the belief was that he would end his top-flight career at Camp Nou, his second home.
Messi’s exit has been coming, though.
Sweeping the sentimentality of the situation to one side, his desire to walk away is perfectly understandable.
Barcelona are a mess, a club in utter disarray.
Bartomeu insisted after the Bayern debacle that they were merely suffering from “a sporting crisis – not an institutional crisis.”
That claim only further upset Messi, as it suggested that the players were somehow solely responsible for the situation Barca now find themselves in; that it was only they who were underperforming.
The reason why Barca are now so weak on the field, though, is that they have been run so poorly off it.
Since Bartomeu’s election in 2015, they have wasted nearly €1 billion (£895 million/$1.2bn) on flops and the coronavirus outbreak brutally exposed the club’s perilous financial position, as well as the bitter divide between the boardroom and the dressing room.
During talks over the players’ taking a pay-cut, Messi sensationally claimed that someone within Barcelona was deliberately trying to cast the squad in an unfavourable light via leaks to the press.
This came just a couple of months after Messi felt compelled to come to the defence of his team-mates, whom former technical director Eric Abidal had accused of playing a part in Ernesto Valverde’s dismissal as coach.
That whole episode enraged Messi. Bartomeu elected to sack Valverde with the team still on top of La Liga, even though he had no successor lined up. The president, thus, had to settle for Quique Setien, a coach who had never won a major trophy in his career.
The results were predictably disastrous, culminating in that historically bad defeat in Lisbon.
Messi, of course, had repeatedly warned the club that they had no chance of winning the Champions League playing the way they were. And he was right.
They couldn’t even get the better of a Real Madrid side in transition in La Liga. As Messi pointed out after a humiliating loss at home to Leganes, Barca hadn’t so much lost the title, as gifted it to their bitter rivals.
There was an inevitability about their battering by Bayern, the obvious outcome after years of gross mismanagement and reckless spending.
Gerard Pique tried to see one positive amid the devastation, pointing out that the need for widespread structural form had, at least, been made abundantly clear.
However, while Setien was sacked and Abidal stood down, Bartomeu, crucially, refused to resign. When he spoke last week, he was defiant and utterly delusional.
He dismissed talk of Lionel Messi leaving the club, telling BarcaTV, “He wants to end his career here. I regularly speak to him and his father. He’s part of our project.”
Bartomeu’s statement immediately provoked memories of former vice-president Jordi Mestre claiming that Neymar was “200 per cent staying” at Barca while the Brazilian was finalising his move to Paris Saint-Germain.
And, in hindsight, that transfer was the beginning of the end for Messi and Barcelona. The departure of his natural heir, and good friend, affected Messi deeply. It was at that moment that he began to lose trust and faith in Bartomeu.
The president publicly pursued Neymar for a couple of years but without ever coming close to re-signing the forward, much to the frustration of Messi, who openly wondered whether the club had really done everything within its power to make the deal happen.
Messi, then, has just had enough of all of the broken promises, press leaks and politicking.
He’s realised that Bartomeu will not walk away, not least because the president would be held responsible for Barca’s budgetary deficit if he were to quit before his tenure comes to an end next year.
Bartomeu wants to put the club back on an even keel financially in order to protect his “legacy”.
At 33, though, Messi cannot afford to spend another season playing for a team that is likely to require a lot of rebuilding. His peak years have already been wasted and he desperately wants to make the most of what time he has left at the very highest level.
The fans will be naturally devastated by Tuesday’s news; some have already descended upon Camp Nou to call for Bartomeu’s head.
Passions are only likely to be further inflamed, too. This won’t be a clean or amicable break-up.
Given the club are disputing Messi’s claim that he is entitled to leave for nothing because of a clause in his contract, this could descend into a nasty divorce, one that could easily end up in court.
Messi’s Camp Nou career wasn’t meant to end like this, with furious fans protesting outside the stadium. It should have concluded in celebration rather than recrimination.
Instead, the most beautiful era in Barcelona’s history has turned ugly.
The supporters will understandably pray that there will be a dramatic U-turn; that a resolution can yet be found.
But that looks impossible under the current administration.
Messi may love the club, the city and its people but he no longer wants anything to do with Bartomeu’s Barcelona.
And who can blame him?