Lionel Messi has made the right decision by formally deciding to leave Barcelona this summer and the club should let him walk away with the grace befitting his status as their greatest ever player.
After weeks of speculation which reached fever pitch after Barcelona’s humiliating Champions League defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich, Messi formally told the club on Tuesday that he intends to leave this summer.
Messi is said to have informed officials at the Nou Camp of his decision by fax, activating a clause in his contract which allows him to unilaterally walk away at the end of each season.
While in theory the clause had to be activated in June, the player and his team are said to be arguing that this can now be extended due to the coronavirus-enforced hiatus during the season.
The news that Messi intends to leave the club he has been at since moving to Spain as a 13-year-old signals the end of a footballing era – but is also the right decision.
Barcelona fans cannot say they haven’t been warned.
This year has seen a steady trickle of stories to highlight just how frustrated Messi has grown with life at the Nou Camp, and just how fractured his relationship has become with figures at the club.
Messi responded with anger back in February at claims from Barcelona sporting director Eric Abidal that the players had effectively downed tools under manager Ernesto Valverde, leading to the Spaniard being sacked and replaced by Quique Setien. If that was the case, name names or keep quiet, Messi had effectively told Abidal.
Then followed the embarrassing saga in which Barcelona officials were forced to deny they had waged an online campaign to undermine the reputation of key figures linked to the club – including Messi – in a bid to enhance their own standing.
Even when the team weren’t playing football during the Covid-19 break, relations grew even more tense with Messi hitting out at how wage cuts had been handled.
Once they were back in action, things steadily deteriorated as Barca struggled under Setien, ultimately relinquishing the La Liga title to Real Madrid despite holding a two-point lead at the resumption of play.
Messi openly criticized Setien, questioning the team’s chances of winning the Champions League.
As it turned out, Messi’s fears were prescient. Just when Barca fans might have thought things couldn’t get any worse, there came the historic humiliation at the hands of Bayern.
If Messi had yet to make up his mind after that most chastening of defeats, he seems to have become convinced in recent days that his future lies elsewhere.
He cut short his holiday last week for a meeting with new Barca boss Ronald Koeman, reportedly a tense affair in which the Dutchman told Messi that “the privileges in this squad are over, you have to do everything for the team.”
To compound matters, Koeman told Messi’s long-time strike partner and close friend Luis Suarez that he had no future at the Nou Camp in a supposedly terse telephone conversation this week.
Suarez’s exit is part of Koeman’s attempts at rebuilding Barcelona from the rubble of a disastrous season, but Messi must have finally taken a look around and understood that he did not want to be a part of it.
After all, this is a player who at 33 is approaching – if not already playing in – the twilight of his career.
Despite an embarrassment of domestic success, Barcelona are without a Champions League title since 2015, instead watching on as bitter rivals Real won three on the spin under Zinedine Zidane.
Barcelona’s failures on the European stage have become incrementally more painful and for Messi personally, it is just not good enough.
Koeman’s Nou Camp rebuild may bear fruit eventually, and the Dutchman certainly has young talent in the ranks with the likes of precocious forward Ansu Fati and midfield playmaker Frenkie De Jong.
But Barcelona are stepping into the unknown, and Messi cannot afford another season of failure as the clock ticks down on one of football’s most distinguished careers.
Instead, the time is right for Messi to take his talents elsewhere in search of personal fulfillment, and to ensure his remaining years on the football pitch are put to their best possible use in a team which challenges at the very top, and more importantly where he feels appreciated.
There will certainly be no shortage of suitors, from the likes of Manchester City – a seemingly perfect fit with former Barca boss Pep Guardiola at the helm – to French money-men Paris Saint-Germain.
The most glaring comparison in Messi’s career has always been with fellow serial winner Cristiano Ronaldo.
Proponents of the Portuguese star’s claim to GOAT status have always pointed to his willingness to push himself out of his comfort zone, from his homeland, to England, to Spain, and then on to Italy.
Messi’s brilliance, on the other hand, has at club level always been confined to a Barcelona shirt.
There is a certain quaint kudos to being a one-club man, but not when relations and mutual mistrust become as taut as they appear to be at Barcelona.
Why stay just for the sake of it?
Barcelona will, of course, try to talk Messi out of leaving. They would be mad not to have one last stab at keeping him at the club. There is also the inevitable talk that his transfer request is a power flex by Messi, designed to drive out unpopular forces who run the club.
But failing that, and an ugly legal battle will loom over the terms of any exit, with the club seeking to avoid Messi walking away for free before his contract officially expires next summer.
Messi’s release clause is set at a cool €700 million ($830 million), and any legal wrangle would rest on whose case is stronger regarding the supposed exit clause which allows Messi to unilaterally decide to leave the club at the end of the season, and what effect the Covid-19 crisis had on whether that particular clause closed (or closes) this year.
But even if they do stand to miss out on a transfer fee amid these most testing of times, Barcelona and president Josep Maria Bartomeu – already the target of intense fan anger – should be mindful of who they are dealing with.
This is a Nou Camp deity, the club’s all-time top scorer and a man who has helped Barcelona to a staggering 10 La Liga titles and four Champions League crowns, among other assorted accolades.
As former Barcelona captain Carles Puyol tweeted on hearing the news on Tuesday: “Respect and admiration, Leo. All my support, amigo.”
Barcelona should heed that message and not make this more painful for the Nou Camp faithful than it already is.
Messi does not deserve the ignominy of a protracted, ugly exit from a club he has served so well. If he really has made up his mind to leave, then he has made the right decision.
Barcelona should accept that and finally start planning for life without Messi.
By Liam Tyler