Messi told Barcelona he wants to leave, and this is why they should let him go
5:32 PM ET
Graham HunterSpain writer
- Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.
It's incredible to think about, but there's precedent for Barcelona and Lionel Messi ending up in court over their latest battle, which escalated Tuesday when he informed the club he wanted to leave after nearly 20 years of service. That the positions adopted by both parties -- the wounded genius vs. the modern version of the Keystone Kops -- mean that unless someone blinks they'll end up back there again is, literally, astounding.
From Josep Bartomeu, through departed football "brain" and sporting director Pep Segura, plus the hapless Quique Setien, his assistant coach Edu Sarabia and now, the surviving "technical secretary," Ramon Planes, I can't quite imagine how they've got the gall to look themselves in the mirror tonight, tomorrow or in the coming months. They have, cumulatively, taken Leo Messi's love and devotion for the club which he's made great, and pretty much soiled it.
However, here we are. The fact is that my argument, given it involves accurate historical precedent, good guidance, maturity and vision, will probably be ignored by Bartomeu and his acolytes, but here goes nothing.
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When Joan Laporta's board decided in 2008 that Messi was "too important" to the velvet revolution that was taking place at Barcelona, now that they'd promoted a B-team coach named Pep Guardiola to the first team, for him to be allowed to tilt at the Olympic football gold medal for Argentina in Beijing, the conflict was drawn-out, ill-judged, ill-tempered and ended with a ruling in the club's favour by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The definitive legal jurisdiction.
Back then the club's president, who has always been an arch-critic of this board and their leader, Bartomeu, was in a situation that felt, to him, as "rock and hard place" as the current one does to those in power at Camp Nou. A couple of trophy-less years, an atrophied squad and the risk, which in 2008 felt like a huge risk even to Guardiola, of promoting an un-tested boy-wonder at the expense of a proven winner like Jose Mourinho -- Laporta desperately wanted the new season, which included having to qualify for the Champions League, to begin with Messi in the first team. Not at risk of injury in China.
Guardiola took one of the all-time great risks of modern football and, just in the door as the big boss, defied his employers, told Messi he must go to China, argued Laporta into unhappy acceptance, and then then reaped the benefits when the proud little Argentinian dazzled at the Olympics, won the gold medal and then returned to explode like football's version of a mighty atom for the following 12 years.
Admittedly, if Barcelona now abandon their right to point at Messi's contract, which lasts till the end of next June, and avoid a legal battle to enforce their contractual superiority, it's not as if Messi's going to go away for a few weeks only to surge back full of gratitude. This, if he leaves, is the end -- in playing terms at least. But Messi's "burofax" to the club Tuesday asks not simply that he be allowed to leave, i.e. via a club purchasing him at a reasonable rate, it suggests that he still has access to a "get out of jail free" clause in his contract that actually expired last May.
Should "Team Messi" choose to argue that idea out in court Barcelona are, currently, committed to fighting back. And so, I think, my comparison with the acrimonious summer of 2008 holds good.
What Pep Guardiola witnessed in 2008, even when Messi was just 21, was a guy who was broken, vastly down in the dumps and likely to carry a grudge. Guardiola saw it, understood it and made a massive wager that whatever happened in the Olympics that year, it could barely be worse than depriving Messi of something he not only deserved, but that he knew he deserved.
What's the scenario for Barcelona's power-brokers in 2020 if they force Messi to stay against his will or, worse still, go to court to enforce their right not to grant him either liberty or liberty at a fair price?
The pragmatists who say "still, no one is bigger than the club even if it's Messi" can be discarded as knowing absolutely zero about this situation or its protagonists. Messi, unhappy, at half-effort, negotiating mid-season with a host of clubs, perhaps stripped of the captaincy and locking antlers with a new, hard-nosed, lacking-in-subtlety coach like Ronald Koeman, is a disastrous prospect.
Not that he should be allowed to go simply because he'll sulk, of course; I'm not advocating that. He should be allowed to go because he deserves to be maximising his last couple of magnificent years in a competitive, demanding atmosphere where daily excellence is demanded of every single employee. More than that: he should be allowed to go, either for free or for a token price, because Messi is so massively above your common or garden superstar that the footballing public -- by which I mean fans, fellow players, coaches, media, sponsors and any single constituency that loves our sport -- deserve to see him thriving, happy, devastating, committed, successful and tested for the next three or four years.
The next 12 months, especially if this board remains in post until the mandatory elections next summer, promises to be, for Messi, a waste of golden time.
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What makes all of this so much more disastrous for Barcelona and anyone who cares a jot for the club is that the board has been staring into oncoming headlights, like a particularly dopey and stubborn rabbit, for many months. To lose one superstar, Neymar, due to a complete lack of ability to either interpret a situation or do anything about it, can be regarded as careless, but to repeat the pattern with the greatest player ever is simply ineptitude on a gargantuan scale. By which I mean that when, in October 2016, Neymar rejected a contract improvement, which would have meant a vastly increased buyout clause (up from the €222m that was written in his contract), Barcelona's board seemed completely unaware of the fact that this was a clear message: "I INTEND TO LEAVE IN THE NEXT SUMMER TRANSFER MARKET." Capital letters intended.
Right up until PSG deposited the €222m at La Liga offices in Madrid and whisked Barcelona's playing genius off to the French capital, the Camp Nou hierarchy continued to behave like the Emperor with "new clothes." Everyone else knew they had been denuded, but they were boasting of wearing peacock-feathered suits. That this scenario is repeating, just three years later, and with an all-time powerhouse talent (and asset) like Messi, defies belief. In fact, if there was football justice in the world, it should be a criminal offence, even if it only resulted in probation or tidying up roadside litter.
When Messi's people negotiated his last contract renewal in 2017, they bargained hard enough that they achieved a clause stating how every summer, from May 2018 onward, he'd be allowed to leave for free if he simply told the club before the end of May that he wanted to quit the club.
Sid Lowe reacts to reports that Lionel Messi has made his desire to leave Barcelona official.
Again, how much clearer did the Camp Nou executives need it to be that it was already in Messi's mind that a time, like this week, might come when the club's ineptitude and the self-interest of certain office holders, would force him to say "I'm too good for you -- I'm leaving." From the moment Messi's entourage left Bartomeu's office in 2017, he and his acolytes should have been using just about every working hour to put in place players, strategies, habits, decisions and attitudes that guaranteed Messi was happy and would remain at the club until he retired. Instead, they've performed so badly that they've sickened the guy. They've made him discard both his love and loyalty of FC Barcelona -- things he's declared repeatedly and pugnaciously.
It's akin to the Pope declaring himself an atheist or Manchester United fans voting Leeds their second favourite team.
There will be a tumult of angry opinions to follow. Everything from "Messi is disloyal" and "he can't dictate terms to the club," to "President Bartomeu must resign" and "immediate elections are vital!" But let's not lose sight of the fact that this man, irrespective of which club you love, has lit up our lives over the past 15 years.
Messi is up there, at least, with Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Rafa Nadal and Roger Federer -- name your sport, name your legend. Messi matches them. In fact, I defy you to argue that your life hasn't been better, brighter, jauntier, more fun, after watching Messi during his time at Barcelona. Don't let that be obscured.
Two of the few things that the skeptics have thrown at Messi have been his preference, until now, for being a one-club man, an argument against him that I've always found spurious. Only the greats excel when they pass their entire career in the same place, doing the same things but remaining utterly imperious.
Then there's the World Cup thing. No, he hasn't won it, but yes, the Champions League is now a far more important, far more prestigious tournament and the nonsensical idea that Maradona won his World Cup single-handedly has been a boring trope.
However, no one will deny that Messi yearns for that trophy. As much to prove his love and dedication for Argentina, I believe, as to satisfy any personal lust for glory. Right now, I'd bet you anything that the way in which Barcelona, on Monday, discarded Messi's best friend in football, Luis Suarez, had an influence in him making this move so rapidly. But I'd also bet that what lies at the heart of his disgust with standards at the Camp Nou is his desire to train and play at an ultra-competitive football club every week between now and when Argentina, hopefully, compete for the 2022 World Cup. His last, I'd guess, as a competitive international footballer.
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So, where to next: Manchester City? PSG? Inter Milan? Inter Miami? I don't know what his preference is, but this move hasn't happened without him, mentally at least, choosing where he'd like to be when the season starts again.
Man City? Well, it's a safe haven, and in a league he'd love, albeit that I'm sure Guardiola, given his wish for City to press teams high, would actually be the author of a City move for Messi. That would be the owners, and who could argue with their intentions?
PSG: if they could unite Messi, Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Angel Di Maria in the same team, then by god anyone not transfixed by that prospect needs help.
Inter Milan: not the right league, not the right club, but an outfit that has tried so, so hard over the years to get Messi.
Inter Miami: No, just no. The city and the project might interest him, but the standard, both of teammate and of opposition, doesn't fit with what he needs right now.
Anyway, he's got a big match to win first. One in which, if they've got any decency, Barcelona's board will save themselves tens of millions of euros by gracefully conceding and saying "we screwed up Leo, we accept it's time for you to leave, thank you, good luck and god bless." Sadly, though, the Camp Nou Keystone Kops are more likely to run around crashing into one another and letting the situation get worse, not better.