Messi stays, and everybody loses

As hostage videos go, the Goal exclusive interview with Lionel Messi in which the Argentine superstar announces that he is staying at FC Barcelona, is pretty bleak.

At the end of a ridiculous saga in which ill-informed people blundered about and vile men holding a legal whip hand stood their ground to gain a Pyrrhic victory, nobody is happy. And that should, honestly, include us supporters.

“This sucks, they lied to me, I have been suffering all last season, but I’m staying because it would be too crappy for me to try to force my way out,” is no way to have a club legend announce that he’s staying. It’s bleak, and unspeakably sad to contemplate. When this all began, the view of some of us was that the club should do whatever is necessary to allow a club legend and the best player in history to be happy. The logic of that contention should never be more clear than it is right now.

People chimed in with, “Why let him leave for free and strengthen a rival,” blabla. Because it was the right thing to do was clear then, and it’s even clearer now. Who in good conscience can keep Messi after that interview? The anti-Bartomeu contingent, which will never be more massive than after the bombshells that Messi dropped, are crowing about the damage that he did to the president of FC Barcelona. For me, it isn’t about that. It’s just sad that it has all come to this. He will leave on a free next June, after a bleak, joyless season under a lame duck board.

When we watched him shambling about the pitch during matches, and speculated that he didn’t look happy, how much did we not realize?

“The president always said that at the end of the season I could decide if I wanted to go or if I wanted to stay and in the end he did not end up keeping his word”.

Messi was unstinting in his criticism of the current president and board, about a sporting project that is going nowhere and just patching holes, about wanting to compete for all the prizes and them not being committed to a project that allowed that. Messi has spoken out about the board in the past in more oblique terms. This was the direct attack of an angry man, charging at those who did him wrong like he charges at opposing defenses. And at the end of it all, everything was clear amid the smouldering ruin of what was once a great relationship between a club and the player who it made, and who made it.

I hate it here, but I am staying because I can’t legally leave.

“I would never take the club of my life to court. That’s why I’m staying. All year I’ve been telling the club and the president that I want to go out and I thought it was time now.”

Nobody should want that.

People are rejoicing because Messi is staying. They shouldn’t be. No. We owe him more than that. Bartomeu was shady, which is no surprise. What is a surprise is that he didn’t resign immediately after watching that video interview, because how can you look in the mirror and decide to ride it out, to continue in the presidency that even the best player in the history of the game says you’re terrible at? Sure, you make the club money, and the books will be worked into something that will, at the end of this mandate, allow the board to escape without being persoanlly culpable for any losses. “The club showed a profit of one Euro. Yay for us!”

But presidents don’t just serve at the will of the electorate. There is, or there should be, a moral imperative that governs that mandate as well. It isn’t only doctors who pledge to do no harm. Presidents do as well, no matter how tacitly that is implied. My view of the abysmal abilities of this board and its president at managing humans is no secret. That it would do what the club’s talisman alleges is a nadir. It also violates everything moral about how a president is supposed to run a club. Comport yourself with honor, even as the past of these people is smeared with dishonor. At the end of it all, treat the best among us with the respect, dignity and honesty that he deserves.

There’s no joy in Messi staying with FC Barcelona. He’s being held hostage by lawyer stuff and a president who, according to him, shaded the truth. He was fighting for the life of the team to which he has lashed his life, and was too busy at the time the clause should have been invoked, to drop the sword of Damocles.

In the interview, Messi talked about the tears of his wife and children at leaving a city they knew so well and have come to love, of the difficult decision they hashed out and the ultimate support of his wife. When I wrote of us trying to imagine what he was going through, what he must have gone through to come to the decision to leave, this was part of it. And how he has to stay. HAS TO. I’m disgusted by that.

“For a long time there has been no project” is brutal, and truthful. And part of that absence of a project includes, like it or not, hanging onto players and memories because of rose-tinged delusion by a craven board willing to delude supporters who still think that “playing the right way” is the answer. It might be, but not with geezers, has-beens and never-will-bes. Messi could see that more clearly than any of us, not because he is the best in the game, but because he also wants to win more than anyone.

Bartomeu shouldn’t be FC Barcelona president by the end of today. He should resign immediately, should have already resigned after watching that interview. He has violated every fundamental tenet of his presidency except one, we can suppose: I’ll make the club lots of money. For sure, pre-pandemic, Barça was on target for a billion-Euro gross revenue total. How empty, how bankrupt that seems now, in the face of the words of Messi.

A number of things should come from this situation:

— Bartomeu should resign, along with the entire board.
— The person tasked with interim management should reach out to Messi and say, “Let’s talk about what you want and how I can facilitate that”
— The teammates of Messi, including those who feel protected by his shadow, should do a mirror check, examine how they failed him as completely as the board, and do what’s right for Messsi and the team
— Koeman should reach out to Messi as a supplicant, and try to build some sort of rapport with the Argentine

As it stands, this will be a joyless season. Messi will be a professional, and work his damndest at a Sisyphean task. And the men who have kept him at the club against his will, will sit in the box seats reserved for the officials like people with no shame, and cheer his exploits. They will think that they have done something good for the club. They will be wrong. At some point, doing the right thing is about being selfless. Where does stewardship of a club and looking out for the best interests of the club enter into the frame of doing the right, human thing?

Messi was signed to FC Barcelona on a napkin, in a restaurant. He went through growth hormone treatments, fought and scraped to grow, and grow into the player that he has become. The club has helped him, and he has helped the club. Yes, he has been paid countless millions. But compared to the joy he has brought, an argument could be made that he is underpaid. In the interview, he talked about wanting and deserving the right to be happy, to make his own decision about his happiness. How dare they take that from him?

People have talked about damage to his image, about whether he will have a captain’s authority in the dressing room. It’s all nonsense. His honesty in that interview lays all that to waste, for me. All that’s left now is for the club and the men who run it to do the right thing. For once. At long last.

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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.