Now that cooler heads have arrived, Messi’s way out is much easier

Messi sent that free kick way over the wall.

It was a glorious saga while it lasted, the club icon standing up the deeply inept, selfish, devoid of humanity or managerial nous board to say, “Had enough. I’m out. xoxo, Leo.” Everyone loved it. The nattering nabobs who made a living off of screeching at every lapse in time, “MESSI IS LEAVING!” were giddy. The ones who hated the board and its president were giddy at the idea that Messi was, like Jean Valjean, going to help storm the ramparts.

Rumors flew hither and yon, that there was a special meeting called of the board. (There wasn’t.) Bartomeu was going to resign. (He didn’t.) Everybody and their mamas were going to resign. (They didn’t either.) Messi has agreed terms with City. (Nah.) Jorge Messi is going somewhere. (He isn’t.) Messi is going to make a statement. (He hasn’t.) Bartomeu said he would resign if Messi would publicly commit to the club. (Haha!)

And now, reality. Bartomeu and the board are standing firm in their refusal to sell Messi, who has made clear his desire to leave the club. Everybody is pointing a gun at everybody else, but one has empty chambers, one is missing the firing pin.

That this situation is deeply, unspeakably stupid is about par for the course for a team and club that only seems to be able to find properly working guns when it’s time to shoot itself in the foot. After all that, here is where it stands: Right where it always has. Messi is an FC Barcelona player, the board is deeply inept at human management, and that’s that.

We would have hoped that Messi had better labor law advisers than tax advisers, but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Does he have a legal leg to stand on? Uh, not according to most things that you read, including this excellent breakdown in The Athletic.

Does he have a moral leg to stand on? That’s a much stronger one. He wants to leave, the board can’t really make him stay, play and be happy and if they are too difficult, he will just finish this season, then leave on a free. That they are sitting tight and playing hardball makes that stance tantamount to, instead of pointing the gun at their foot, pointing it directly at their head. Everybody, but everybody, is on Messi’s side, even grumps like me. Let him go be happy, and facilitate that path. But this is where it gets complicated.

Bartomeu and the board have a personal guarantee against losses. It’s why every Barcelona president leaves with the club in the black, by whatever hoonery is necessary. When Laporta left the club, Rosell came in, screamed skullduggery and fiscal shenanigans, then chased Laporta for the money they claimed he owed for leaving the club not *just* in the black, but in the red. So much, much red. So much that red was just one of the colors that the club couldn’t use to make copies, such was the depth of austerity at the Camp Nou.

Those personal guarantees, combined with the exceptional fiscal effects of the COVID-19 shutdown, means the club will report losses of somewhere between 200-200m. Ouch. Not surprising, but still … ouch.

The latest, after so much scattering and screaming and who knows what the hell is true, is that Messi and his folks want to meet with the club to work out an amicable solution. Because as any lawyer will tell you, you NEVER want to go to court. Judges and juries are too unpredictable. The board doesn’t want to go because they could end up losing Messi on a free or worse, making him mad enough to stay for the season, then leave on a free first chance he gets. Messi doesn’t want to go to court because he could win his freedom, or he might end up having to make a choice between ponying up his full clause if he wants to leave, finding someone willing to pay that clause, or gritting his teeth for a season. Now both sides will sit down to work out the path to departure.

This is what should have happened in the first place.

Look, that 2-8 beatdown sucked. It hurt. We can only imagine how much it hurt Messi. And reactions are sharp. They say that the worst time to do something, anything, like send a Burofax, is when you’re sad and angry. Not because the feelings aren’t real, but because often the reaction isn’t one that should be measured. Messi wants to leave, and nobody blames him. But all of the hysteria that transpired served only to paint everybody into a corner. In the case of the board, cornered rats are dangerous. They have Messi over a barrel, but Messi has them over a bigger one. Or does he? He can leave on a free next summer by invoking the clause that he wants to invoke now. And that would be that.

The board doesn’t want an unhappy Messi on the team, and they don’t want him to leave on a free, so they have to get something for him and are banking on bluster, like they always do. They must think their legal case is strong enough that they can dig in. Or they believe that Messi will want to go badly enough, and a potential suitor will crave him badly enough, that a deal can be worked that will make up the losses they are going to have to stand for. Say, getting about 400m for Messi instead of the 700m of his clause. Or just enough to balance the books. It’s not very difficult to think that this is their hope, since they know that they can’t keep a player who doesn’t want to play. No club can. But you play the game of chicken. “You can’t leave, and if you want to, the clause is 700m.”

Messi still comes out smelling like a rose, because he’s Messi. But Messi should have thought this all through. Now and only now, are cooler heads prevailing.

Some are speculating that he will start the season as an FC Barcelona player. No way in hell that happens. And the board already has a selling price in mind, and would assuredly prefer straight cash to any combo platter of money and players. You can apply cash directly to the gaping wound in the budget. The board can also say, now, “We tried to keep him, but we finally had to do what the player thought was best, which was to leave the club that we thought he loved.” And a few people will fall for it, because a few people always do fall for it. The rest of us will know better.

A litany of mistakes by the board led to Messi getting fed up enough to want to leave. But as painful as it is to admit it, the board is playing this one right, for the cash that they need. And they will do anything, endure anything, to get it. Bartomeu knew he could make his offer to step down, knowing that Messi was never going to take it, because that just isn’t now Messi operates, not to mention the whole “dictator” thing.

So where we are is exactly where we were a week or so ago: Messi is unhappy and wants to leave. The board doesn’t want him to leave. If he does leave, and leave he will, it will be for the right price.

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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.