With uncertainty rife at all levels at Barcelona the end of this season could finally be the right time for Lionel Messi to leave the club and prove the doubters wrong that he can apply his extraordinary talents elsewhere.
Even before football was put on hold because of the coronavirus chaos, Barcelona had been lurching from one crisis to the next.
The sacking of Ernesto Valverde in January brought to an end an era that was not without its success (including back-to-back La Liga titles), but which saw the club stray from the free-flowing footballing principles so cherished by the Nou Camp faithful.
Beyond that, Valverde’s exit – and his subsequent replacement by the as-yet uninspiring Quique Setien – was the catalyst for a very public row between director of football Eric Abidal and club captain Messi, after the former suggested that some players had been guilty of effectively downing tools towards the end of Valverde’s tenure.
Then followed the embarrassing episode of Barcelona directors being forced to deny accusations that they had hired a firm to post derogatory comments on social media about key figures – including Messi and teammate Gerard Pique – in a bid to undermine their reputations and burnish those of the upper echelons at the Nou Camp, including under-fire president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
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Even as the Covid-19 pandemic rages on and with no football to talk of, Barcelona have still managed to dig themselves deeper into a hole. When the step was eventually agreed for a 70 percent cut to player salaries to ease the financial blow of the crisis, Messi responded with a dig at the suggestion that players had been reluctant to agree to the step.
Again, another rare public outburst from a man so used to keeping his counsel.
The tumult did not stop there, as last week outgoing vice president Emili Rousaud fired a parting shot by claiming that “someone has put their hands in the till” in the awarding of social media contracts.
Barcelona snapped back at those claims on Monday night, announcing that they would be taking legal action against Rousaud and also revealing an overhaul of the board of directors.
Official Club Statementhttps://t.co/Kzpx17pHyI
Boardroom backstabbing at Spain’s top two of Barcelona and Real Madrid is nothing new of course; there have been enough power struggles and cloak-and-dagger chicanery down the years to make a Netflix series to rival House of Cards.
Intrigue at board level also does not have to spell doom on the pitch. Barca and Real Madrid have often thrived down years in spite of accompanying tumult behind the scenes.
Once play does finally resume after the coronavirus crisis subsides, Barcelona will find themselves defending a two-point lead at the top of the La Liga table. They are also still in Europe, where they will need to build on a 1-1 first leg draw with Napoli in the Champions League last 16 (should that competition be played to a conclusion).
But appearances can be deceiving. The arrival of Setien, a devout Cruyff disciple, was feted as a return to the pure, passing-obsessed DNA of the club. So far, and even thought these are early days, Setien’s tenure has largely been underwhelming.
Barcelona’s league standing has been embellished by the shortcomings of Real Madrid as much any improvement in their ranks. In the penultimate game before La Liga was suspended, they suffered a 2-0 Clasico defeat at the Bernabeu, signaling the task that Setien has on his hands.
Recruitment in recent seasons has often misfired expensively and spectacularly. Messi is said to have been angered by the board’s failure to resign Neymar from PSG last summer, while prime examples of exorbitant flops include Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele – the latter of whom has admittedly been unfortunate with injury. The jury is still out on Antoine Griezmann.
Signings such as those have enhanced the impression that Barcelona have strayed from their philosophy of looking first and foremost to their La Masia stable of young talent to stock the first team.
Long-term stalwarts such as Messi, Pique, Luis Suarez and Sergio Busquets are all the wrong side of 30, and there are questions over others being big enough to fill their boots.
If Barcelona are remodeling themselves in the boardroom and dugout, they will need to do so with the same urgency on the pitch.
All of which brings us to the question of Messi and his future at a club he has called home since age 13.
The tumult at the Nou Camp this time around seems deeper and potentially more damaging than at any other time in recent years, not least because it has dragged in the name of their talisman.
Messi recently dismissed as “fake news” the notion that he could be set to leave Barcelona and move to Inter Milan. But at 32, he is in the twilight years of his career. He may have two or three seasons left at the top level before considering whether to hang up his boots or cash in by heading for the riches of China or the Middle East, or move closer to home in the American MLS or a nostalgic stint at boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys in his homeland.
The easiest choice of all would be for him to stay in his Catalan comfort bubble and see out his playing days at a place where he will always be worshipped. There is a certain quaintness about being a one-club man and the notions of loyalty and devotion it conjures up. Barcelona fans will pray that Messi remains as the calm amid the current storm as the club aims for a reset. They will also look to him to help nurture young talent in the team such as the precocious 17-year-old forward Ansu Fati and Dutch midfielder Frenkie de Jong, 22.
But the more selfish neutral observer will see the potential for Messi to be dragged further down into the current Barcelona mire caused by stagnation on the pitch and boardroom intrigues off it.
These next two or three years will determine whether Messi’s career finishes with a bang or fizzles out in a way unbefitting of someone whose place is already secure in the pantheon of all-time greats of the game.
The lazy comparison is of course with perennial rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who has enjoyed big-league success at Manchester United, Real Madrid and now Juventus. Messi’s fans won’t like the notion that he needs to move on elsewhere to prove he can do it in another of Europe’s big leagues. After all, he has put teams to the sword across Europe on a regular basis on Champions League nights.
But remain at Barcelona, and the nagging doubts will nonetheless remain as to whether he could have cut it week in, week out in England, Italy or Germany. People will always have that to use in the debate against him, six-time Ballon d’Or winner or not.
Messi will also never be short of suitors in each of the big European leagues. Even if the Covid-19 carnage trims big-money transfers, Europe’s biggest teams would always make room on their balance sheets for the Argentine magician. A quick glance at the potential options would suggest Manchester City may be hindered by their looming Champions League ban, but somehow skirt that and they would be in prime position given the Pep Guardiola link. Other teams in England would have the money, as would the likes of Bayern Munich and possibly even some of the bigger clubs in Italy (although seeing Messi and Ronaldo together at Juventus is admittedly a stretch).
By his own admission Messi considered moving on from Barcelona in 2014 due to circumstances off the pitch, when he was charged with defrauding the Spanish tax authorities.
“In 2013/14 I did want to leave Barca. There was a situation that went beyond what I felt for the club,” he revealed last year. “At that time, with the mess of the treasury, I wanted to leave, not wanting to leave Barca but wanting to leave Spain. I felt mistreated.”
That was a rare occasion in which Messi has suggested his future could be anywhere else other than Catalonia. Since those revelations last October, Messi could not be blamed for finding himself with similar thoughts. His name has been dragged into bitter boardroom wranglings, and performances on the pitch have been patchy.
Winning La Liga for a third successive season would offer some succor, but not much if it is accompanied by more disappointment in Europe.
So if the good ship Barcelona ship continues to spring leaks, why should Messi be the captain to go down with it, taking the remaining years of his career with him? He’s done more than enough through the years for the club, and beyond the most bitter Barcelona fans, jumping ship now would not be seen as an act of betrayal.
The end of the current, turbulent campaign could be the ideal time for him to finally make the break from Barcelona, and offer millions of fans outside of Spain the joy of seeing his brilliance week after week.
By Liam Tyler