For the past two weeks, the future of the soccer universe has been blurred with uncertainty. Either Lionel Messi—Schrödinger’s GOAT—would get his wish to become a free agent, likely then rearranging the sport’s firmament by reuniting with his former FC Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola at England’s uber-rich Manchester City. Or he would stay at Barcelona, the club where he had spent the past 20 years, in the city he has long said is the only place he ever wanted to play—the team he was now desperate to leave.
“It was a very difficult year,” the notoriously press-shy Messi told Goal on Friday. “I suffered a lot in training, in games, and in the dressing room. Everything became very difficult for me, and there came a time when I considered looking for new ambitions.” He complained about the club’s lack of direction, admitted it could not compete in the Champions League, and accused Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu of lying to him. It was an exit interview, a man standing on the bridge out of town waving a torch. Only he wasn’t leaving. Barcelona had won. He would stay and play for them for at least one more year.
How did it come to this? Messi—who is so good at his job that he could start contract negotiations by demanding custody of a first-born child and have the other parties ask “How many first-born children?”—had a clause in his contract stating he could walk away from Barcelona at the end of any season for free so long as he informed the club of his decision by June 10, 10 days after the season has concluded. Shortly after Messi and Barcelona lost their last game of this season 8–2 to eventual Champions League champions Bayern Munich, a third-straight embarrassing exit from the planet’s premier club competition, Messi told the club that he was triggering that option.
But, as you might have noticed, this year has been a little funny; Barcelona didn’t play its last game until Aug. 14. Barcelona argued that, objectively, it was August, well past the deadline. Messi and his people—most prominently his father/agent Jorge—rebutted that since the pandemic delayed the season’s conclusion, his deadline should be similarly pushed back. Messi’s camp, in other words, argued along the lines of a familiar 2020 joke: This year has actually gone January, February, March, March, March, April, April, May, so the star is within his rights to walk away. Could anything be more 2020 than this coming down to an argument about subjective versus objective time?
The official calendar won out. Messi could not leave for nothing. There were rumors that Manchester City was preparing to ship a cadre of talented players and more than $100 million to Spain if Barcelona would accept the deal, but the club was adamant that Messi’s full, $830 million release clause would have to be triggered before he could be moved. (There is perhaps an alternative branch of the multiverse in which the Saudi Arabian bid to purchase Newcastle were approved earlier this year, and the new owners—seeking to make an early splash—trigger the clause and go full Chicxulub meteor on the soccer world. But there are better alternate universes more worthy of pondering.)
You can understand why Barcelona’s instinct was to dig in. On the one hand, you’re not going to win in the court of public opinion versus the widely beloved greatest player of all time, even if you are leaking in the media about how your new coach got tough, and the megastar couldn’t handle it. On the other hand, who cares about public opinion when the widely beloved greatest player of all time is leaving you, especially when he might be the only thing keeping your team afloat.
Barcelona has never really recovered from Neymar’s hurried departure in 2017, which is a weird thing to say about a team that won two consecutive league titles after he left. Nevertheless, in hindsight, the Brazilian’s decampment for Paris Saint-Germain feels like the moment everything detonated; the three years since have seen the club trying to duct tape the house back together as it collapsed around them. Barcelona rushed into the $150 million purchase of Ousmane Dembélé shortly after losing Neymar, spent an additional $150 million to buy Coutinho from Liverpool in January of the next year, then spent a further $132 million for Antoine Griezmann. All three have disappointed. Dembélé has missed time with injuries. Coutinho was loaned away less than two years into his tenure. Griezmann looked miscast after finding that Messi had already claimed the set-piece chances and opportunities for improvisational brilliance that Griezmann took for Atlético Madrid and France.
That’s more than $400 million, three of the planet’s six most-expensive transfers ever, thrown at the wall without much sticking. There was a rumor before the Champions League final on Aug. 23 that if Bayern Munich won, Barcelona would owe a bonus payment to Liverpool as part of its deal for Coutinho—i.e., Messi’s team would have to pay the club that embarrassed it and went on to win last year’s tournament nearly $6.5 million more for a player whom the club had already loaned out to the team that embarrassed it and went on to win this year’s competition. This turned out not to be the case, but it was easy to believe because it felt so thematically true to the current state of Barcelona, all giant haymakers swung so far around the puncher hits himself in the face. “The truth is that there has been no project or anything for a long time,” Messi told Goal. “They juggle and cover holes as things go by.”
The club has brought in and pushed out multiple replacements for Xavi and Andrés Iniesta in the past half-decade. The big signing thus far for 2020–21 is another 30-year-old passing midfielder, Miralem Pjanic. Barça was given an emergency exemption to sign a player after the transfer window had closed in January due to a season-ending injury to Dembélé and used it to sign Martin Braithwaite, which, honestly … it’s probably just better if you go on not knowing who that is.
As a consequence of all these missed signings, the middle of the roster has been hollowed out. The team is an uneasy balance between talented but aging veterans and promising but developing youths, with very few players in their primes to bridge the gap. “I believed that the club needed more young players, new players, and I thought my time in Barcelona was over,” Messi said.
Through all the turbulence, the team’s constant has been Messi. The club is a Buster Keaton character, dimly wandering into a series of preposterous dangers and then skating out of them by dint of the impossible grace Messi supplies. He scored or assisted more than half of Barcelona’s goals last season despite missing time. He was the top goal-scorer in all of Europe for three consecutive seasons before this one. He is, on his own, a very high floor, good for that pair of titles and a second-place finish even during this past nightmare of a season. Without him, players like Griezmann might have had more freedom to star, but there’s no guarantee that would be enough to keep the bottom from falling out.
The question now is how to raise the ceiling. Messi is the only person in the world whose value over replacement players is guaranteed to be positive, but his lack of pressing effort these days exacerbates Barcelona’s defensive problems and complicates its offensive ones. When he’s the best dribbler and the best passer and the best goal-scorer on your team, where do you put him? Who do you put around him? How do you find a balance that takes advantage of those strengths in service of the system and still leaves room for him to go full-on Jimi Hendrix solo when the mood strikes him? More recently, Barcelona—as has long been true of Messi’s Argentina teams—has been too reliant on the latter, and that makes it too top-heavy against first-class opposition.
Granted, these questions would arise no matter where Messi decided to ply his trade. Perhaps he thinks Guardiola, who has found ways to build a system around him before, was in the best position to answer them. We may never know. Messi didn’t commit to leaving Barcelona when his current deal ends in 2021. It’s possible his long history with the club wins out over the recent past, particularly if things begin trending in the right direction. For the first time in his club career, Messi considered a new path. Recall that this is a man whose retirement from international soccer lasted less than two months. Whether he’ll return to Barça at the end of this season, whether there’s anything Barcelona can do at this point to keep him, there’s no certainty.