“Esta es mi casa y no quiero irme, pero quiero ganar.”
“Pero” — but — four letters, a wee word that is sending shockwaves from the cover of Sport right up through the expensive leather soles of the people occupying the boardroom at FC Barcelona. Four letters that form a word uttered by Lionel Messi in an exclusive interview, one that came after the close of the transfer window, that came during a time when everyone is wondering about the state of the injury of a player who has heretofore been bionic, bouncing back from things with speed and determination.
“This is my home and I don’t want to leave, but I want to win.”
In another telling quote from the interview, Messi said that he didn’t know if the club did everything possible to bring Neymar back, before leaving them an out with, “but PSG is difficult to do business with.”
Plain and simple, Barça has a Messi problem, and one that is putting immense pressure on a board that can is facing renewed pressure from the likes of Joan Laporta, who pops up like dandelions, to remind people of how great life was under his tenure. There is also Agusti Benedito, omnipresent like a conscience, and the spectre of another attempt at a censure motion and now Messi, the biggest of them all, saying in essence, he isn’t getting what he needs.
Last season he stood in front of the Camp Nou, packed for the Gamper Trophy match, and pledged that the club would do all in its power to win Champions League, a pledge that fell apart in the hands of a defense that should have known better, should have done better, a coach who should have acted sooner and players who couldn’t rid themselves of the nightmares of a lost night in Rome.
In the summer, rumors flowed, and Griezmann came. Rumors flowed, and Junior Firpo came. But the biggest rumor of them all loomed, that Neymar wanted out of PSG and the dressing room heavyweights: Messi, Pique, Suarez, wanted him back, saw him as the solution. Nothing was ever said in public by any of them, so the rumor was just that, until Messi said in the interview that he would have liked Neymar to return.
A great many people are going to read a great many things into the Messi quotes and well, they probably should. It also makes the way the club debased itself in chasing a player that PSG was never going to sell for anything short of a price that couldn’t be paid, make a lot more sense. And at the end of it all, Barça still have a Messi problem.
Lionel Messi, the most fearsome competitor and the best player in the history of the game, is also the most loyal player of his caliber in the history of the game. There has been talk of his leaving in the past, and there will be talk of it in the future, but because of that loyalty it’s difficult to imagine him going anywhere.
The challenge with things that you love is taking them for granted, assuming that loyalty insulates you from truly having to care, truly having to put out, truly having to do everything. Loyalty can make us complacent if we aren’t careful. There is lots to unpack about this Messi interview, including the timing. It’s after summer window has closed, but long enough before winter window to make it clear that he expects something to happen. Statements this week from board members have indicated that there will be more rumors, more possibilities of something or other happening in January.
What is also interesting to unpack is a subplot that speaks to the confidence, or lack thereof, that the heavyweights seem to have in Ousmane Dembele, given the reality of what the arrival of Neymar would clearly mean. Club president Bartomeu has said that he believes Dembele to be “better than Neymar.” That is quite obviously the talk of a man who spent 140m+ for a player, so even if he doesn’t believe that, he has to say it. Money talks.
And certainly, adding Neymar and the potential goals that he brings is a lot easier than solving the problems behind the front line, which are significant, and would involve upsetting a few more apple carts than that of a willowy French talent. So get us more goals.
For the past two seasons in Champions League, a single away goal has stood between Messi, the team he is part of and a potential treble. And no, Messi isn’t going to uproot a life that he and his family have in Barcelona. Not at age 32, and particularly not accompanied by a stupefying salary that would be a king’s ransom for any club in football. But this is all logic, and football runs mostly on passion and emotion. The reaction to Messi’s words will be emotional, especially in light of the information that surfaced recently that the great Argentine has a contract proviso that allows him to leave Barça at the time of his choosing. More timing, more portents.
The Messi problem that the Barcelona board has is one of optics and accomplishment. The Valverde pathology can only sustain a fanbase for so long before the torch-carrying villagers start looking for another target. Messi might just have given it to them in the people who might not have done enough to bring Neymar to the club, in the words of its talisman. The Messi problem that the Barcelona board has is fraught with possibility, laden heavy with the notion, the question: what if Messi does leave? The blame won’t fall on teammates, or defenders, or even a scorned coach. The blame will fall squarely on the board, a lame-duck body that nonetheless doesn’t want to get run out of town on a rail.
How that board responds is going to be crucial. Defensive denials are not what are called for, or what are appropriate here, even if they know the complexity of a Messi departure, even as they realize that without a transfer fee, the magic of player amortization can soak up quite a hefty salary.
Elections are in 2021, which is a long time away. The January window is a lot sooner. It has been rare for blockbuster transfers to happen in the winter window because of players being cup-tied. Now that those strictures have been lifted, possibilities abound. PSG head Nasser Al Khelaifi has said that Neymar won’t more for a sum less than 300 million Euros, even as the rumors are already starting that PSG wants to sell the Brazilian in January.
Adding Neymar to the Barça roster won’t make any more sense in January than it did in August. But by January, much will be known, most notably how Dembele and Griezmann will adapt and add to the offense and defense of a team that needs help in both departments. And if there was pressure on Dembele before, it has just increased tenfold to form a neon sign that reads, “Produce or get out.”
FC Barcelona and its fanbase crave drama, and drama always comes, even when it has to be manufactured. This is real, even if its reality is of a different weight than its import. Messi is saying, “You, the board, isn’t doing enough for me. This is my home, but … ”
“Pero … ” four letters that suddenly speak loudly and forcefully. The response is yet to come.