Was Messi right?

By now, all of the quotes of the famous interview have been seared into our brains, but the ones that still stand out for me involve Messi questioning whether he should continue, whether it wasn’t time for him to move on, for “younger legs,” as he put it.

In all of the relief and joy that we will get to see him for another, misery-slaked, don’t wanna be here season, the inescapable thing is the thing staring us in the face, the elephant in a tiny room wearing a neon tiara and blaring away. Was Messi right?

We hate to consider it, right? How can any team be better without the best player to ever play the game? You have a thought and your mind blocks it out. Even your subsconcious is like, “Hey. Come on. No.” But consider Lionel Andres Messi for just a few moments, something so rarely done during this entire shitshow as people look to extract what they need from him, as usual.

Messi came up in the Barça youth system, then exploded onto the scene in the Rijkaard/Ronaldinho teams. From there, he went to Guardiola, then Luis Enrique. Year after year, team after team, he’s been the best. By far. He accelerates and nobody can catch him. He stops and starts, shrugs off fouls. It’s always been easy. But now he accelerates, and defenders accelerate with him. The fouls are harder because the ball moves more slowly, and so does he. It’s different now.

But the biggest difference is understood when you watch the amazing, “Take the Ball, Pass the Ball” documentary again. You watch those Guardiola teams, you watch Messi pressing like a demon, you hear about the philosophy of moving the ball quickly and if it is lost, to immediately press to regain possession, and you realize something:

The past few years have found Messi leading a series of teams that were deeply, utterly. unequipped to play the right kind of football, the kind of football that Messi has been used to. Not only have his capabilities diminished. The setting for them is also a wreck. When he talked about the sporting project and people assumed it was the board and Bartomeu and vindication for every negative thought they have ever had about those weasels. But what if it was ALL of it, top to bottom, full failure by everyone including Messi himself, and that is what he was reacting to as well?

It’s weird to consider, loving a club so deeply that you question your suitability to continue, that you think maybe, just maybe, it’s my time. Messi knows how he is and what he has. He knows what was and what is. And you can imagine, even as we have no idea, that he is a clear-eyed realist about what was and what is. And he wondered, and asked himself the question.

On a day Ansu Fati took the ball to his feet and played the kind of dazzling, fearless football that thrilled those who watched, it lent an even more interesting aspect to what Messi was thinking. There is a next, even if there isn’t a next Messi because there can’t be. But there IS a next. My view of Messi has long been that he has the ego to decide one day, when he believed that he wasn’t what he needed to be, wasn’t sufficiently Messi to continue being Messi, that he would just stop. We always think the contract clause was like a Sword of Damocles that he could wield over the miscreants running the club, but what if it is for his own protection, his own ego, an out when he ends a season and says, “I can’t be Messi any longer. My body won’t do it.”

His thoughts about younger legs and moving on weren’t the kind of pablum that athletes often peddle when looking for affirmation. “No, you’re still the strongest and best. You’ve lost nothing,” when everyone in the room knows that’s nonsense. When Messi spoke those words, they were the truth. Imagine loving a club so much that you’re willing to step aside for the next generation of players. More than that, you understand that your capabilities in an idealized system of football aren’t what they needed to be, what they should be. So you wonder. Aloud.

Watching those Guardiola teams again is still so remarkable, even for those of us who watched it live. The triangles, the compactness that moved into expansiveness, the way there was always a place to put the ball, how rare more than two touches were. Compare that to what we have been seeing for years, Semedo or someone else stranded with the ball, bracketed by defenders and nowhere to put the ball. Triangles? There isn’t even a man near the Barça player, forget about any geometric shapes. Dudes are just looking for a way out. A player gets the ball and runs, feeding another player, who runs. The ball is carried up the pitch now, instead of moving up it via a series of elegant touches. The football is an impostor, and Messi is a part of that.

Recall the game where he charged down the defender trying to play the ball out from the back, shutting him down so quickly he barely had time to react. Messi stole the ball and fed Pedro, who stroked home. Look at how counters stream past Messi now. How must he feel when that happens? He’s preserving his body for the important stuff, but he remembers, as do we all, when he didn’t have to. Messi thought, aloud, what if it’s time for me to go, and we argued with him because what else would we do? He’s that special. But how much must he love the club to ask that question?

He’s staying because men who don’t love the club, or more correctly who might love the club in their own twisted, avaricious way, refused to let him make the decision about his own future. They took it personally, took it as an affront when maybe it was a show of affection, of the deepest love for a club that made him what he is, that helped him to greatness.

People chuffed and snarked, saying “Why should we let him go on a free,” instead of thinking, “Man, what must it have taken for Messi to publicly ask this question, and should we be asking it as well?” It isn’t wrong, even as it feels wrong. What if Messi looked at the roster, at players perfectly suited for the role he now plays, and wondered about the future. What if he understands in the idealized world of the way football is supposed to be, that he will be limited, and a new manager will have to adapt that approach to suit his current limitations, because he isn’t the player that he was.

We’ll never know, because he’s staying. Against his will, he’s staying. It’s no less sad than it was last week, but maybe even a bit sadder because what if he thought that by leaving, he could not only find a new challenge, but help the club that he loves so much, grow and adapt?

Everybody got what they wanted, except Messi. People who hated the board got to see them called out. People who wanted him to stay got their wish, so they can continue living vicariously thorugh the glow of his accomplishments. The board “won,” and the club’s talisman is staying for the duration of their total failure of a mandate. A manager, excited about being able to coach Messi, got what he wanted. Teammates old and new, got what they wanted, the man that drew them, bails them out, serves as a cheat code for their ambition. Messi’s family gets to stay in Barcelona. Everybody got what they wanted, except Messi.

What if he was right?

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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.