It started with a napkin and ended via burofax. And while Barcelona knew this day would eventually come, it was not expected so soon in a manner that Lionel Messi’s departure will benefit a European rival.

“The Culé has woken up stunned [after a] hammer [to the] temple,” wrote Spanish journalist Ivan San Antonio dramatically on Friday morning in assessing the current mood. “Dizzy, he has looked for a sink to cool off and, looking at himself in the mirror, has released a heart-rending cry when he sees a [Mike] Tyson tattoo on his face.” 

Barcelona fans have finally woken up from the night before with a stinking ‘Hangover’, no less than a decade after the popular sleeper hit comedy was released and Pep Guardiola won them six trophies in a calendar year.

There has been plenty of silverware between then and now, of course. A not-so-shabby seven La Liga titles, plus a second treble in 2015, for starters.

Yet it is the failure to deliver the Champions League since, coupled with a string of incidents backstage at the Camp Nou, which has led them to their current, harsh reality whereby the protagonist of these triumphs and the club’s greatest player of all time wishes to leave.

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In December, when Lionel Messi lifted his record sixth Ballon d’Or, all was calm. Or at least a lot calmer in comparison. 

“The people at the club know me,”he said in Paris. “They know there’s no problem beyond what the contract says. What I feel for this club goes beyond any signature or any role. So there isn’t a problem,” Messi insisted, when probed on his future with a June 30, 2021 expiry date fast approaching.

Rearing Messi from the age of 13, and paying for growth hormone treatment neither his family nor Newell’s Old Boys in his hometown of Rosario could afford, FC Barcelona famously secured the Argentine’s services when then-sporting director Carles Rexach signed him on a paper napkin during a meeting with agents Horacio Gaggioli and Josep Maria Minguella in late 2000.

Due to its important place in football history, the piece of material is guarded securely at the Credit Andorra Bank by Gaggioli, but is sadly set to be joined in Barca folklore by the burofax that Messi sent on Tuesday evening at 19.40 local time to finish a 20-year union with the Blaugrana.

His word already fairly credible, due to being the first reporter that broke news of Neymar’s departure to PSG in 2017, Esporte Interativo’s Marcel Bechler claimed less than 48 hours after the 8-2 drubbing by eventual winners Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals that the number 10 was considering leaving.

As part of a mass revamp, in response to their darkest night in continental history, Barca swiftly fired head coach Quique Setien, supplanted sporting director Eric Abidal with his right-hand man Ramon Planes, and called early presidential elections for mid-March.

At his presentation the following Wednesday, Koeman revealed he would touch bases with his skipper and the next day, Bechler’s scoop gained credence when RAC1 relayed that Messi had admitted he saw himself as “more out of the club than in”. 

Whether this is true or not, Koeman is meant to have angered Messi by stressing that the “privileges” stop with him. Driving this point home in his first interview with Barca TV+, the Dutchman is a self-professed straight talker who prefers not to beat around the bush and holds only brief meetings.

Dubbed the “sacred cows” by the local press, this is believed to be the best approach to tackle the locker room’s heavyweights, who wield far too much power and must share a portion of the blame for the club’s current predicament and underperformance in recent years.

But it is obviously far less than that which must be shouldered by president Josep Bartomeu.

Dodging the media at the unveiling of young forward Francisco Trincao midweek, and leaving Planes to field questions on Messi’s fate, there have been increased calls by fans worldwide for Bartomeu to step down, in addition to an official request from socio members.

Goading Messi into a game of chicken, TV3 in Catalonia reported that Bartomeu will indeed take a bow if the 33-year-old comes out and publicly states that the president is the problem, and that he will stay on in light of his resignation.

In a win-win for the controversial figure, Bartomeu can say that he at least tried if Messi rejects his ultimatum and leaves. While on the other hand, should he reverse his decision and Bartomeu exits instead, Messi is then shown to be the ruthless shot-caller he protests he isn’t with the authority that sees managers and presidents ousted at his behest.

With his father and representative Jorge scheduled to arrive from Rosario any day now, Messi’s camp have attempted to schedule a meeting with Barca top brass that has been rebuffed.

The burofax – more a Spanish-style recorded delivery than actual fax – specified an intent to utilize a clause in his contract that allows Messi to terminate at the end of each season, while the club argue that it became null and void on June 10.

Keen to avoid a legal battle, Messi is hopeful that the Catalans accept a player-plus-cash offer from Manchester City that will allow him to leave right away, yet Barca aren’t interested in such a proposal nor sitting down face-to-face unless it is to discuss an extension of his current deal. The only way they will sell him is through the triggering of his monstrous €700mn release clause, which even the likes of City and PSG with their bottomless pockets aren’t foolish enough to pay for a free agent in ten months’ time. 

Back to the supporters, they have understandably been made frustrated and desperate by the debacle. They feel let down by not just the potential fact that the 8-2 humbling by Bayern could be his last game for the club, but also that Messi, as skipper, still hasn’t addressed the defeat a fortnight on and remains tight-lipped on his future.

Meanwhile Barca must continue preparing for life with or without him as La Liga kicks off on September 12. Rumoured to be the last straw for Messi, Koeman told close friend Luis Suarez a day before his shock announcement that the striker is surplus to requirements at the same time Arturo Vidal, Samuel Umtiti, Junior Firpo and Ivan Rakitic received identical treatment.

Misfit 2019 signing Antoine Griezmann will be afforded more prominence in a central attacking role that does not see him suffocated on the left wing, while Frenkie de Jong moves into his more natural position as pivot at the expense of Sergio Busquets if Koeman does not use a pair in a tipped 4-2-3-1 formation. 

In addition to Pedri and Trincao, La Masia products Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati, two of few bright sparks in Barca’s first trophyless campaign since 2007-2008, provide promise.

There are others coming through the ranks too, such as the highly-rated Ilaix Moriba, and the club, cash-strapped with over €300mn lost during the pandemic pause, may be forced to look back inwards to its academy; just as it did in the late 00s when a Golden Generation formed by the likes of Messi, Andres Iniesta and Xavi provided unfathomable glory that has been difficult to maintain.

Even if Koeman is fired after a sole season, as guaranteed by presidential favourite Victor Font in order to install Xavi, his short reign could be looked back on fondly as a vital period of restructuring before a successful new cycle began.

Alternatively, though, and more likely, it may also spell the beginning of the end: when Bartomeu destroyed the superclub for once and for all, and the most challenging transition period since Sir Alex Ferguson retired at Manchester United was every bit as punishing as forecast.

By Tom Sanderson, in Barcelona