“You would notice Messi’s departure,” said La Liga president Javier Tebas in stating the obvious back in June, when the thought of Lionel Messi actually leaving Barcelona was still implausible. We all could see and feel a stagnation within the side, sure, but to actually leave the club he joined back in 2001 as a 13-year-old? Tebas noted that while Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure to Juventus had no impact on the league, the 33-year-old Messi, who has spent his entire professional career in Spain, was different. It wasn’t about the finances or brand positioning, with the league’s television deals already in place. Above all, it was something intangible, in how he “always delights us.”
“I would ask him, please, to finish [his career] in our competition,” Tebas pleaded.
No longer a theory, Messi officially asked to leave Barcelona before eventually deciding to fulfill the final year of his contract (if nothing else, this was the summer that the world became familiar with the use of a burofax in Spanish law). His explanation was carefully nuanced: Messi returned to Barcelona not out of a desire to be a part of the team, but because he didn’t want to take the club to court over an impossible $700 million transfer fee. In a tell-all interview with Goal, Messi described his lack of inspiration throughout last season, consistently informing president Josep Bartomeu of his plans to leave this summer. The burofax was an official document of his restlessness.
And a move wouldn’t just benefit Messi, but the squad as well. His departure would allow Barcelona to get out from under the weight and history of Messi that tethered the player, squad, and club to his aging image. The situation showed the paradox of success, in how Messi’s gravity was so great as to paralyze growth. He said that the club needed new players and fresh ideas. Supporters sided with Messi’s reasoning. After 19 years with the club, he should be free to choose his own destiny.
Seemingly overstepping his bounds in giving his input on the transfer market, Tebas sided with Barcelona over the legality of enforcing the $700 million transfer fee. Of course, this was no ordinary transfer - this was Messi leaving Spain. Even his fiercest rivals backed Tebas. Sergio Ramos wished Messi to stay with Barcelona for the “sake of Spanish football,” emphasizing the unique star-driven theater of the league when saying that he “makes the Clasico more attractive.” Can one imagine El Clasico without Messi? He provided purpose, attention, and historic meaning to La Liga’s past decade. While he can no longer single-handedly carry a team for 90 minutes, his departure would still create a space impossible to refill, especially considering his pre-social media, pre-Twitter rise.
Somehow, for being arguably the greatest player in the most popular sport in the world, we actually know little about Messi. Partly due to his interiority, we also lack his documentation in an era before smartphones. His childhood highlights are sparse and blurred. The mystery only adds to his otherness.
We may never know the cause of the fracture between Messi and Bartomeu, but it had been stewing for years. Messi decided he wanted to leave even before Barcelona’s 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. That result was an emphatic cry for help in front of social media. Gerard Pique offered to leave the club out of embarrassment, describing no member as essential. It was as good a signal as any to refresh the team.
“The truth is there has been no project or anything for a long time, they juggle and cover holes as things go by,” said Messi of the Barcelona board.
How would you build around Messi? It was once the easiest question in the sport, before both time and the game moved on. Pressing is the defining contemporary tactic, though demanding an aging Messi to work off the ball seems almost vulgar. His teammates have spoken of the difficulty in playing alongside the weight of his otherworldly talent. Carlos Tevez said that Messi plays an entirely different sport from his teammates, with Paulo Dybala adding that every player must mold their game around his presence. Thus, sides must be constructed as much from their mentality as their ability.
Perhaps a more intriguing game: Barcelona have spent over $681 million the transfer market since selling Neymar in 2017. Those signings included high-priced players who have yet to find their feet, including Antoine Griezmann, Frenkie de Jong, Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele, Nelson Semedo, Malcolm, and Arthur. In a Football Manager world, how would you have spent that money? There are traces of the club backtracking on past efforts, most noticeably in chasing Inter’s Lautaro Martinez for a nine-figure sum (the 23-year-old signed for $27.5 million in 2018).
Barcelona lacked that dynamism and inspiration in the transfer market. It’s what Messi refers to as a “project” instead of purchasing the biggest names for high fees. An intriguing, quickly shot-down rumor involved a swap between the 29-year-old Griezmann for a 20-year-old Joao Felix from Atletico Madrid. Constraints inspire creativity, such as promoting youth academy players to make up for a lack of resources. What happens to a vision with an unlimited amount of funds?
After his appointment as manager in August, Ronald Koeman attempted to instill discipline into the side. He reportedly told Messi that his “privileges in the squad are over,” demanding that he play for the team. At least Koeman tried. Considering how the club, the league, and his rivals elevated his stature for years, and Messi’s veteran stage, it’s too late to reverse engineer the process. Though no amount of authority can overcome flailing attempts to rebuild a team, compounding over the years.
Koeman and Messi quickly moved on out of necessity. With the 2020 season beginning in early September, it’s too late to go back now.
Koeman reportedly plans to reshape Barcelona from their customary 4-3-3 formation to a 4-2-3-1 to reinforce their midfield stability. Messi will have a free role on the right of the attacking three, with Ansu Fati, Ousmane Dembele, and Griezmann filling in the rest of the attack. Frenkie de Jong and Miralem Pjanic will sit at the base of midfield, controlling the tempo (which perhaps signals the end of Sergio Busquets). The individual names are impressive. It’s up to Koeman to somehow elevate those nine-figure players beyond their singular parts.
And this - the storylines, the rumors, the narratives - isn’t over. We’ll go through the cycle again next summer as Messi’s contract expires. He’ll be free to leave then, to choose his own destiny, not bound to any legal battles. Until then, we’ll re-examine every match, result, and show of expression. Is Messi happy? Is he frustrated? Does a hand gesture towards Koeman mean that he will sign with Manchester City next summer? Or the restlessness could be of a simpler instinct. Messi said he wanted to leave Barcelona to experience something different after 20 years. The explanations could be as straightforward as boredom and a desire for a new challenge.