Messi, bright beginnings and ugly, awful endings

This is a guest post by Linda Hui, who you old-timers will recall as one of the most beautiful voices on this blog. The Messi situation has brought her out of retirement, which we are absolutely THRILLED about.

“If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”

Remember how it all began, all those years ago?

Maybe you remember the whispers about the kid in the youth teams, another one of those dime a dozen New Maradonas.

Maybe you remember that first chipped goal, the small, slight kid being carried on Ronaldinho’s back like a team mascot. Or that Gamper match, where he left Cannavaro and Vieira on their backs and Capello gaping.

Or the sight of a comet in yellow gliding over the potato field at Stamford Bridge, dominating a Champions League knockout game at 18. Or a Clasico hattrick at 19, the kid who wouldn’t let Barca lose. Or an epic dribble halfway across the pitch ending in a goal, Getafe players falling like ragdolls.

Even if it was much much later, certainly you remember how you felt, seeing him for the first time. Like a lightning strike. Or maybe a light coming on in a dark room.

Most certainly you know the story, trite now, and its remarkable details. The kid who didn’t grow, who had to immigrate off his own back at the age of 12, the contract signed on a napkin.
It was a modern fairy tale. (It wasn’t, really, but it’s close enough for pretending.)

The years since have been a fairy tale, too, a blessing none of us could have expected or imagined. When we come to write about all that Lionel Messi has done for this club, it will be an impossible task. He has been who he is for so long. Not just for 3 or 4 good years but more than a decade.

Easy enough to count goals and trophies, perhaps. How do you measure all the joy and relief and what-the-hell moments and happy tears and sense of infinite possibility?

Fairy tales shouldn’t end like this. It’s wrong. It’s inconceivable. But we’re here. So it’s worth asking how and why.

As a rule, Barca is a club used to dysfunction and crisis. Any periods of calm are the exception rather than the rule. Even so, the past 7 years or so have been remarkable, a permanent state of institutional crisis papered over by trophies and an endless flood of Messi goals.

The election of Sandro Rosell and his board in 2010 brought about a so-called austerity project, using Barca’s supposedly dire finances to justify controversial moves such as the first shirt sponsorship deal in the club’s history and banning the use of colour copies. Remember that word, austerity, because everything that is to come is a mockery of it.

Rosell and his board started off on the wrong foot with many by their open repudiation of Johan Cruyff and their vindictive pursuit of outgoing president Joan Laporta, who had cultivated close ties to Pep Guardiola and Messi, not to mention their public and ongoing rift with Guardiola which arguably led to his exit and has continued to this day.

The fractures in Messi’s relationship with the board became ugly and public during the 2013-2014 season, when Javier Faus, in an act of remarkably poor judgment, grumbled to the media about the need to frequently renew Messi’s contract. Messi was injured frequently during that season and ugly rumours about him began to circulate in the media outlets favoured by the board. For the first time, he seemed to have doubts, but a conversation with the dearly missed Tito Vilanova very shortly before his untimely passing removed them.

In 2014 Rosell was forced to resign in disgrace over an investigation into the signing of Neymar, handing the presidency to Bartomeu.

Shortly after that, FIFA imposed a transfer ban on Barca for breaches of their regulations regarding the transfer of under-18 players, a spectacular self-inflicted injury on the part of the club.

The 2014-2015 season was so disastrous for Bartomeu and his board that only the most spectacular success on the pitch could have rescued matters. Luckily for them, they got it.

Then there was the loss of Neymar.

The board responded to the humiliation of losing their Messi continuity plan exactly like a previous Barca board had when they lost Luis Figo – by going out and spending like drunks. The results were bleak in 2000 and bleaker the second time. The sporting directors hired to replace the fired Andoni Zubizarreta were not much more effective than if the transfer ban were still in place.

For his part, Messi responded to Neymar’s departure by taking the team on his shoulders and carrying them to another title. Increasingly in the Valverde era, post-Neymar and increasingly shorn of the Guardiola-era stalwarts, Barca threatened to become the cliché critics had used to attack earlier Barca teams – Messi and 10 others.

It was a cruel dream to pin on a man who is still human at the end of the day and past the peak of his powers by any conventional measure of a playing career. He was a tree that grew goals and victories and it seemed all the club knew how to do was shake him for more.

Most Barca fans have spent the last few seasons worried about the future, because we’re capable of hearing an oncoming train when the bells are blaring. Not so the club, apparently, as the past season proved.

First, the board spent an epically embarrassing summer pantomiming a pursuit of Neymar, an act so weak that the players saw straight through it.

Then there came the increasingly public fault lines, not so easily disguised when results on the pitch were mediocre:

Abidal blamed the players for Valverde’s firing, when Valverde had been backed by many in the squad. Messi fired back angrily, publicly, for the first time in years.

The board were accused of hiring an advertising agency to make social media posts praising Bartomeu, and apparently denigrating Pep Guardiola and even Messi himself.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in Spain, board-friendly media outlets alleged that the players were unwilling to take pay-cuts. In response, Messi and his team mates released a statement clarifying that they had agreed to a 70% pay-cut, some of which would go to pay the salaries of club staff, and denouncing the board leaks as what they were.

The end result of years of bumbling mismanagement, so-called austerity measures and unseemly scrambling to retain their positions was made starkly clear in the desperately bare-bones 13-man squad Barca was able to scramble together for the Napoli game. Messi and 10 others indeed.

Oh, and the books are a disaster, too.

Sid Lowe used the word “hatred” to describe the current relationship between Messi and the board on the Second Captains podcast. It is certainly an achievement of epic proportions by Bartomeu and co, bringing Messi to this point.

They broke him. They made him decide to leave home again, 20 years after the first time. This will be their ultimate legacy, beyond all the scandals and lawsuits and poor signings and even the trophies.

Pep Guardiola was once asked what he would say to the young Barca fan who was having their first experience of disappointment and pain, following Barcelona’s Champions League exit to Chelsea. He said: “welcome to the club – there will be many more times, too.”

Most of sports fandom is pain and disappointment. We all know that, or we lie to ourselves in order to believe otherwise. When it’s good, it’s usually fleeting.

It was magical fairy tale thinking to believe that this Barca with its poor squad and its institutional malaise could succeed. Messi made it easier to believe the fairy tale. Maybe he even believed it himself.

After all, thanks to him, we’ve defied the odds for so long.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.