The talk around the Messi departure is weird, almost as if people are steeling themselves to accept it by pre-slagging not only the greatest player to ever don the Blaugrana, but the greatest player in history.
There’s a lot that we don’t know, and even more that we don’t consider as we stake out our psychic space during this travail. But consider this: What must it have taken for Messi to come to this decision?
That’s a difficult one to get our minds around, a man who has shown nothing but complete and utter loyalty his entire life, looks at the only home that he has ever known and decided. “I have to leave.” In many ways it’s like a kid leaving a damaged home for a better life, only with hundreds of millions involved. And we will never know why Messi is choosing the path that he has chosen, but I think that we also have to be careful about our reactions and considering them.
Some are saying that he is choosing to leave because of how the club treated Luis Suarez, and even choosing to believe what is a clear bit of propaganda. Other say that he is leaving because he hates Bartomeu, a bit of wishful thinking that feeds yet another need for affirmation. It’s all speculation, but we can infer a lot from Messi’s past behavior, beginning with him lashing out at the board for its failure to not build a better sporting project.
Messi has fired many shots across the bow of this board, all related to him wanting to win. And let’s be clear, Messi wants to win. For every person who says that a “Club de Amigos” meant that dictatorial Messi put his foot down to keep Luis Suarez in the lineup ignores a number of simple facts, most notably that the team doesn’t have anyone who can do what Suarez does when it comes to putting the ball in the net. Nor do they have anyone who enables Messi’s game the way that Suarez does. These two realities make the Uruguayan’s being a lineup fixture make so much sense, more sense than anything else.
Because Messi wants to win, had there been another option, even as we sit, ignorant, in our chairs, banging away on keyboards soft and hard about what we would do, don’t you think Messi would have embraced it? It’s a safe bet that nobody needs to tell such a keen analyer of the game about the deficiencies in the current Barcelona No. 9. Cant run, can’t press, can’t, can’t, can’t. But he can put the ball in the net, and that helps the team win. So Valverde played him, then Setien played him. We screamed, but reality is a colder, harsher argument. Suarez was it.
Messi wants to win. The current problem is that the people who run the club based their ideas of how to run it solely on the fact that they never considered, even for an instant, that Messi would leave. Sure, they put the clause in the contract that he asked for, because why not? He isn’t going anywhere. He’s pledged his future to the club, no other club could pay him more money. He grew up at Barça, a club that has helped him become the monument to athletic magnificence that he is. No way he leaves.
And so, when Messi said, “we need a better sporting project,” they didn’t do it, didn’t take it seriously. People honestly believe that becaune the board didn’t sign Neymar, Messi decided to leave. Nope. If anything, Messi decided to leave because it was clear, at long last, as he sat, disconsolate among the wreckage of his team and their Champions League chances, that this board wasn’t going to do the one simple thing he asked of them.
They acquired baubles, thinking that shiny things would keep the prince happy, even when those things weren’t what he needed, what he could play with. They signed Coutinho, a fantastic player perfectly suited for the position Messi plays. Same with Griezmann. They signed Dembele, a player who, like Neymar, needs the ball at his feet to give of his best. But the ball is at Messi’s feet, or oozing its way around the midfield. They signed Griezmann, who has the same problem as Coutinho in that his ideal slot is already occupied.
The board did more than fail Messi at the one thing that he asked of them. They rewarded decrepitude and lack of flexibility with tenure. Alba, slowing and never a defensive colossus at his best, got a fat renewal for five years. Busquets, who should have been fitted for a gold watch a season ago, had the money truck backed up for him. Players for whom replacements should have been being sought to firm up the planks of a sporting project that anyone could see was tottering like a top-heavy Jenga column, were instead allowed to decay in place. And team after team took advantage.
And Barça Twitter blamed Rakitic.
Nobody on the team could run except for Nelson Semedo. Bayern destroyed Barça because as with Liverpool, everybody on the team could run. And press. And capitalize on errors. At the end of that match, if you’re Lionel Andres Messi, what are you thinking about your future at a club that has failed you time and time and time again, with a series of increasingly shame-slaked European disasters?
The board was thinking, “He’ll give it one more season. We can fire another manager, not fix the sporting project in any real way, because our talisman, sporting and fiscal, will stay.”
As a problem solver, Messi does a lot of things. When teammates shovel him the ball, screaming “Save us, Leo,” he doesn’t push it back, saying, “Save yourselves. We can do this together.” Should he have, as a captain? Messi isn’t that kind of a player. His teammates knew it, the peoplw who made him captain knew it, we all knew it. The team hasn’t had that kind of a leader since Mascherano left. Messi wasn’t going to magically become that player, and there was space for one. Pique? Chose not to. Busquets? Nope. The two most senior players next to Messi looked at a void and went on with business as usual.
And still, nobody thought he would leave. How could we? He’s endured worse. Where else is he going to go?
The men who failed him are at fault. Some of them work in calfskin loafers, some of them work in space-age football boots. Messi almost single-handedly won the Liverpool tie at the Camp Nou. It took a lot to squander that. He led the team to victory at home against Roma. It took a lot to squander that. Defensive ineptitude, lauded, world-class players flinching in the face of pressure and the specter of failure are also at fault. Liverpool won the tie at Anfield on a play that would shame a schoolboy footballing side. Since the treble season, FC Barcelona in Europe has been a mounting scale of disaster, like one of those cataclysm movies where you see a volcano rumbling and go, “Oh, shit … ”
It’s impossible to put the blame on Messi for being, finally and at long last, fed up enough to leave home. People will try, will say that he should have found a better way, that he’s screwing the club, etc, etc. But every argument made in support of that is like origin theory: there’s that one ball of matter in Josep Bartomeu. The squad languished. Players that people thought were answers such as De Ligt were allowed to go elsewhere. Yep, the kid wanted the sun and the moon. But if that’s what it took to make the project better, you do it. What did Joan Laporta do when Guardiola came to him and said, “I want Ibrahimovic.” “Yep.” And when Inter Milan giggled and said, “Uh, we want Eto’o and a pile of cash,” probably thining Barça would never be that stupid, Laporta said, “You got it. What my man wants, my man gets.”
You can’t watch that team play and not see that the sporting project needs an overhaul, has needed one for years now. You see, but you don’t act because above all, you are confident that the best player in history won’t leave home. Hubris and foolishness cost them Thiago Alcantara, and you’d think they would have learned from that about Clauses of Damocles, but nope. Because arrogant men not only make poor decisions, but believe those decisions won’t come back to bite them.
That Messi has chosen to leave is astonishing, seismic, impossible to consider even as his father is flying to Barcelona to meet with Bartomeu to facilitate his son’s departure.
What must it have taken for Messi to get to this point, and what makes anyone think it would be something as simple, as petty as a friend being signed, or being told by a coach that he was surplus to requirements for the new season. Messi plays the game with childlike wonder, but he isn’t a child. He understands the nature of business. What bothered him more than friend being told to go, is the reality of where those goals were going to come from, and did the decision cause even more damage to the sporting project. Is Messi that simple and petty? It would stun me if he was. Not signing Neymar indicated a lack of interest in improving the sporting project, which means a lack of interest in competing at the level demanded by the best player at the club.
And finally, at long last, after yet another European meltdown, the third manager in a year and no moves of any significance being made in the transfer market by the club to which he has pledged his sporting life, enough was enough. Was it one thing? Nope. Is Messi at fault? Well, he activated the clause, but who can blame him after all this? It stings. It’s a rebuke for those who love the club, follow the team, want to see the possibility of magic. Could he have chosen a better, smoother way? Maybe he tried. Or maybe he thought, if all those shots across the bow didn’t work, it’s time for a broadside blast amidships.
Some are going to try to lay some of the blame on Messi. But for me, the men who had the simplest of tasks failed. They failed their stewardship, failed the club’s socis and supporters, failed the team, failed Messi, And now the bill has come due. And Messi wants out. Can we blame him? No. We can try, we can lay various attributes on him, claim weird dictatorial powers, but we can speculate that Messi was happiest at two times at the club, when Guardiola built a team, a winning, unbeatable team that he was a part of, and when he, Suarez and Neymar formed a juggernaut of goals. In both instances, Messi was part of a team. Not THE team. If we look at the most likely destination, Manchester City, he almost certainly feels, particularly given who manages that side, that he will again be part of a team.
A man leaving home to fulfill his dreams is one of the oldest fairy tales in the book. Whether the ending is happy or sad depends on who’s holding the book.