KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Lionel Messi has told Barcelona, formally and officially, that he wants out. Now. For Free.
The long-dreaded nightmare for Catalan fans came true with the decision of the 33-year-old, his family and advisers, to submit the essential documentation. This was for real. Not the irritated, impatient tip-off for a friendly journalist to spark enough yet speculation to keep president Josep Maria Bartomeu on his toes.
Bartomeu is being labelled by some observers as “the worst president in Barcelona’s history.” That may be generous to some barely-competent predecessors but to go down as the president who could not keep the greatest player in the club’s history would be damning enough.
Messi has told the club he wants to leave immediately even though his contract does not expire until the summer of next year and his termination clause is €700m. Barcelona captain wants to activate a cause which allows him to terminate the contract unilaterally at the end of this season.
This has alerted, most notably, Manchester City, Internazionale and Paris Saint-Germain.
Barcelona’s lawyers have pointed out that the early-release clause expired on June 10. However Messi and his associates claim this date has been rendered null and void by the three-month extension of the season enforced by the Covid-19 crisis.
Messi, in a further sign of a defiant desire to cut all ties with the club immediately, will not attend pre-season medical tests next Monday before the resumption of training the next day under new Dutch coach Ronald Koeman.
The final straw for Messi is understood to have been Koeman’s decision to dispense with close friends – and fellow South Americans – Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal.
No-one has won as many trophies as Messi at Barça (34) and no-one has scored as many goals (634). Only Xavi Hernández played more games (737 compared with Messi’s 767).
A key breach in the club’s relationship with the player was the failure to buy back Neymar back from PSG. Barcelona collected an irresistible €222m world record fee when the Brazilian left in 2017. But he soon realised his mistake and Messi urged the club to buy back Neymar last year.
Barcelona, having already agreed the purchase of €120m Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid as cover for injured Suarez, had no money left. However Messi and several other senior players suspected that the board did not do everything in their power to force a deal.
The next flashpoint exploded in January when Bartomeu decided to sack coach Ernesto Valverde. Bartomeu had wanted to act last season after the Champions League debacle against Liverpool but had been persuaded to stay his hand after consulting the senior players.
Messi, for example, had spoken up publicly in support of Valverde, insisting that blame for the four-goal Anfield upset lay with the players not the coach.
Finally Bartomeu sacked Valverde in January, prompting a public war of words between Messi and Eric Abidal, the technical secretary. Abidal then brought in Quique Setién whose relationship with Messi was never more than strictly professional.
The pandemic brought more trouble. Barcelona proposed that the squad take a pay cut and the players’ initial delay in responding prompted critical whispers from within the boardroom. That did not go unremarked by a furious Messi and his team-mates when they did agree a pay reduction.
Last, but very much not least, came the 8-2 disaster against Bayern Munich in front of a worldwide TV audience in the Champions League quarter-finals. Even then it was obvious, from Messi’s demeanour on the pitch, that the ultimate storm was brewing.
Bartomeu has always insisted that Messi would play out his career in the city where he has lived for the past 19 years and where all three of his children have been born.
He may have no option but to concede a parting of the ways with the sort of bitter grace which Real Madrid managed when their own veteran inspiration and record-breaker, Cristiano Ronaldo, headed off to Juventus two years ago.
For Messi to remain in major competitive action the choice of destination appears limited to Manchester City, Internazionale and PSG.
City have the money, the squad strength and personal appeal in manager Pep Guardiola and old Argentinian friend Sergio Aguero. Messi has always said it was under Guardiola that he most enjoyed his football. For City and Guardiola after the recent disappointments in Portugal, Messi could be the missing piece in a Champions League-winning jigsaw.
The money for a nominal, maybe €100m fee plus Premier record-busting wages would not be a problem.
Inter’s Chinese owners have long dreamed of signing Messi and recreating, in Serie A, the high-profile Messi-Ronaldo rivalry. They are ready to offer him a four-year contract and might tempt Barcelona with a part-exchange offer involving Lautaro Martínez.
PSG have old friend and team-mate Neymar and dream of parading a superstar attacking trio of Messi, Mbappe and the Brazilian. As with City, money is not a problem for the Qatari-owned perpetual French champions.
Never mind the opinion of Barcelona’s lawyers, the ball now is very firmly in Messi’s court.