“Where there’s Messi, there’s hope.”
Easy to write those words before a key Champions League match before which everyone in the game had Bayern ripping through FC Barcelona like tissue paper.
“Where there’s Messi, there’s hope.”
So what now?
In the wake of the news that he has informed the club that he wants to leave, what now? In many ways that phrase rings true. The sporting project at FC Barcelona is a wreck, dashed on the rocks of hubris, stupidity, back luck and mismanagement at both human and institutional levels. But no matter what, there was Messi, loyal (almost, as it turns out) to a fault, to make everything better. Now that he’s told the club he wants to leave, what is left?
This isn’t like Ronaldinho. The Brazilian was a shell of himself, his best matches left on nightclub floors in Barcelona and Brazil. Pep Guardiola came in, didn’t see any way the player could do anything to help his new project, and that was that. He didn’t make any bones about it, didn’t say things such as Koeman has about Messi, about wanting to build the new project around him. Just, “See ya.”
And the symmetry is weird. Ronaldinho took Messi under his wing, helped him, in many ways helped him take flight. Now both are leaving under new managers at the end of disastrous seasons, but for different reasons: one because his manager didn’t want him, the other because he didn’t want the people running the club. None of us did. But where some of us only got to write screeds about poor management, human and sporting failures, the greatest player in the history of the game is speaking in the clearest way possible: You guys suck. I’m out.
What next? Who knows. It’s impossible to imagine how weird the coming season will be without Number 10 strolling the center of the pitch, waiting to spring into action, the weird feeling of uncertain certainty as he stands over a free kick, the wailing as he almost beats four defenders, only to be thwarted by the fifth. Messi isn’t just a player. Messi embodies the possibility that something good will always happen. You don’t get many athletes like that.
When Michael Jordan got the ball during a Chicago Bulls game, everything stopped. You didn’t know what was going to happen. A mundane jump shot that rippled the bottom of the net almost seemed a letdown, unless you looked at the shot and its mechanics, realized that he jumped about two feet off the floor as casually as tying his shoes. Something was always going to happen when he got the ball. There is no other player in football right now for whom that is true. It is only Messi. It isn’t just hope. It’s anticipation, the feeling of “Okay, what’s going to happen now?” No stepovers or other tricks, just stops, starts, dribbles and a sharklike path to goal. Stop me if you can.
That it became easier to stop him in open play just meant that he adapted to find other ways to kill you: free kicks, corners, assists, key passes. Messi is the best scorer and creator in the game, even in his dotage. But Messi is also the modern FC Barcelona. Ronaldinho set the stage and Messi lit it up, but in a very different way. The loss to FC Barcelona is incalculable. Those friendlies are now a lot less lucrative, the U.S. or Asaian tours suddenly relegated so, “Um, sure, okay … maybe” status. Sponsorships, everything predicated on having the best player in the history of the game wearing your shirt is gone.
But that’s just the fiscal stuff. And you don’t even have to be a fan of players — I’m not — to feel sad and unmoored. Messi has been with the club since he was a frightened child from Rosario, taking growth hormone treatments. He grew up with the club, grew up with the cadre of other great players who formed the most amazing class of football graduates that history will ever see.
We will hear that “no player is bigger than a club,” and those statements will be right, even if they feel for supporters like maybe, just this one time, there should be a legal addendum that says, *except for Messi. In the history of great players in a great game, the mind strains to think of a player who embodies more about a club, for whom it is impossible to imagine a club being without or the player being without the club than Lionel Messi and FC Barcelona.
And now hope has gone from the feet of a genius to, most likely, the hands of lawyers as the club and the men who run it are going to make one final, Pyrrhic decision in disputing whether Messi has the right to leave unilaterally. It’s a mean, stupid, awful thing from men who don’t surprise. All they have ever thought about is money. Why should now be any different, even as hope and beauty want to walk out the door.
Hope is a weird thing, because in the hands of some individuals, it’s more than hope. It’s belief, an almost certainty that they will, somehow find a way. Nothing said that more clearly than “Where there’s Messi, there’s hope.”
What you have when hope is gone is grim determination. Barça isn’t going to cancel the season, or stop playing football because Messi is gone. Players will come and go, managers will do their job, life will go on. But everything will be irrevocably different in a way that is impossible to describe, even for the most casual culers. For those of us who were loving the club amid rumors of this wee wunderkind from Argentina, who saw him bound onto the pitch like a ball of energy for his first team debut, who saw all of that promise become reality, there is a sense of being unmoored, like nothing makes sense any more.
Even those of us expecting him to leave next season are left unhinged. How can you not be? So what now? Right now, who cares? There are people whose jobs it will be to scramble to drawing boards. Maybe they have already been considering this possibility and have contingency plans. But how the hell do you have a contingency plan, as a supporter, as someone who loves a club, for something like this? Men did this. Selfish, inept, scheming men making bad decisions on every managerial level did this. You can be angry, you can be sad, you can hope they resign, leaving the club in a tidal wave of shame. Everything that we hear says that Messi simply lost hope, which might be the saddest thing of all.
Did he come to the decision at halftime of the Bayern destruction, when the picture from the dressing room showed a disconsolate man? Maybe. But whenever Messi lost hope, whatever was the final straw that drove the most loyal man in a greedy, ugly game that worships money like a disgusting idol to finally lose hope, makes everything that much sadder. Messi played the game like a child, even now, every step full of childlike wonder. He never scored a goal and ran to be by himself, that, “Look what I did” that we see so often. It was always with teammates, like, “Wow, guys, this is SO cool!” And then he looked to the sky to celebrate with his grandmother.
The actions of businessmen destroyed that hope, that joy, made that player, the man who married his childhood sweetheart, go, “Enough.” Football will go on, but right now it feels like somehow it shouldn’t. At least not for a while. Because we culers no longer have hope, and it takes a while to come back from that.