The Barcelona star is not just prepared to trade one jersey for another. He is prepared to walk away from the life he has built.
The road snakes up and out of Castelldefels, Spain, away from the hubbub of the town centre, away from the beach, into the hills. The houses grow larger with every turn. Basketball hoops are replaced by full-sized courts. Perfectly manicured gardens roll down the slopes. Blooms of bougainvillea pour over walls. Lionel Messi's place is the last one on the left.
It is not his only property in Catalonia — Messi also owns the house in Gava Mar where his parents live, and he has an apartment in the city's exclusive Pedralbes district, too — but Castelldefels has long been home. It is, he has said, the "ideal" place to live: the sea, the beach, the mountains, the peace and quiet of a pretty but unassuming resort town.
It is here that he and his wife, Antonella, have raised their three children. Friends live close by: He often carpools to training or to games with his neighbour, Luis Suárez. There are shops selling Argentine groceries. A handful of favoured restaurants, down near the shore, know that when a certain friend calls, it means Messi is coming. They know to ask diners not to trouble him while he eats, but that he will be happy to pose for photos on his way out.
This is what Messi was giving last week when he and his representatives sent Barcelona official confirmation of his intention to leave the club. He is not just ending a relationship with the club that spans two decades, that has seen him transformed from a 13-year-old kid signed on a contract written on the back of a napkin into, arguably, the finest player soccer has ever seen.
He is not just breaking a bond between player and team that has come to seem symbiotic. Barcelona is not Barcelona without Messi. But would Messi be Messi without Barcelona? He lifted this team to greatness, this club to unmatched prominence, but the converse was also true for a long time: Barcelona was not just his platform, his stage, it was a character in his story.
Those are all sacrifices enough, of course, but it is the prospect of leaving Castelldefels that best illustrates how serious Messi is, how desperate he must feel the situation has become, how much anger he has built up. He is not just prepared to give up his employer, to trade one jersey for another. He is prepared to walk away from the life he has built.
How it has come to this is well-documented. Barcelona, a few years ago, was soccer's gold standard: an empire that seemed destined to reign for a thousand years, or whatever elite sport's equivalent of forever might be.
Now, it is fallen, the legacy of that great team of Messi and Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernández shredded and squandered by dreadful recruitment, short-term vision and rampant self-interest.
When the news broke that Messi had asked to leave, his former captain Carles Puyol — a Barcelona icon — supported the player over the club. Suárez and Arturo Vidal, both already informed they were no longer required at Camp Nou, did so, too. Fans marched to the team's headquarters and demanded the resignation of the current board, the group of executives who will now forever be marked as the people who pushed out the greatest player of all time.
Barcelona is a broken place, and the sympathy is with Messi. No wonder he has had enough. Though it is difficult to imagine him in another jersey, another set of colours, and though there might be sorrow — not just felt in Barcelona — at the thought of player and club going their separate ways, he owes it to himself to look elsewhere, to find a club where he can have the golden autumn to his career that he deserves.
That could be Manchester City, most likely, for a reunion with Pep Guardiola, the player and coach who brought out the best in each other; or Paris St.-Germain, maybe, where he could play once again with Neymar; or even Inter Milan, the club that has, more than any other, positioned itself as his first reserve, his break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. Those teams might be able to match his ambition, to deliver him the fifth Champions League crown he craves.
It is not to delegitimise that orthodoxy to suggest it is not an entirely comprehensive picture. More than one thing can be true at once. For instance: Barcelona has, quite clearly, been appallingly run for some time; its executives merit most, if not all, of the abuse being hurled in their direction.
And yet, for all that Messi has — with reason — demanded the squad around him be strengthened, it is not quite that easy. Barcelona has the most expensive salary bill in soccer. It has boasted of being closer than any team to reaching annual revenue of 1 billion euros, but almost all of that is consumed by the salaries it pays its stars.
Messi alone accounts for a remarkable portion of that, and has, it goes without saying, provided ample value to justify it. But to overhaul the team, to revolutionise it, players would have to leave. Not fringe players or youth players, but players like Suárez and Vidal and Ivan Rakitic.
That is difficult enough, given the lack of peers who might match their salaries, but until the last week or so — and the aftermath of a humiliating defeat against Bayern Munich — the club felt it was politically impossible, too.
That could have been because it had been warned those kinds of changes would not be welcomed by Messi, or because it had intuited they would not be welcomed by Messi. It is impossible to know for sure — it is intriguing that Messi's decision came after Suárez and Vidal had been told they would be allowed to leave — but regardless, the effect is much the same.
Barcelona has been trapped, in other words, in an impossible conundrum: How do you rebuild while keeping all of your highest-paid stars? How do you refresh a side and simultaneously retain, and play, many of the same players? To repeat: That does not mean the club's missteps should be overlooked. But the fact that the board played it badly does not mean it did not have a poor hand.
Messi cannot, of course, be blamed for Barcelona's demise — a take too hot to be taken seriously — but it is tempting to wonder if, to some extent, this sort of denouement was inevitable.
There is a price to be paid for the privilege of experiencing greatness: Clubs fortunate enough to have an iconic manager always spend a period in the wilderness as they try to replace them. Teams that enjoy heady days with one generation of players generally struggle to identify their successors. That is written somewhere in soccer's hidden coding. It is part of its algorithm.
Such is Messi's greatness that the bill arrived not when he left, but while he remained, as the lines blurred between what was in Messi's interests and what was in the team's, as the club became so fixated on keeping him happy that it lost sight of what needed to be done to make him happy.
And so, last week, we came to the end. Messi has determined that he must leave, he must go elsewhere, that he can no longer carry this team, this club, on his shoulders. He may find, too, that there is a personal cost to greatness: that wherever he goes, he will never truly escape what came to be known as Messidependencia.
Any club he signs for will shape itself around him. Any team he joins will look to him, first and foremost, to solve problems. He felt Barcelona was no longer the "winning project" he craves. Wherever he goes, he will find that he is expected to do quite a lot of the winning himself. That is the price of being Lionel Messi.
What awaits Barcelona is more daunting still. He has made a choice to find out what he can be without Barcelona; had things been different, it is a question he might never have needed to answer. Barcelona, though, knew this day would come. Perhaps not now, perhaps not like this, but eventually. It must face up to the prospect of what it can be without Messi.
No player, of course, is bigger than a club, but Messi was close. For more than a decade, he has been the team. For more than a decade, he has been a symbol of what Barcelona is, what it stands for, what it means. It was the ideal place for him. It is not any more.
The flip side
A few days before Messi's announcement, the Manchester City chair, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, granted his annual interview to the club's in-house media channel. It is an admirable initiative — one that several of his peers would do well to copy — but it is not what anyone would call a grilling.
One admission stood out: Mubarak said that, this summer, City would be prepared to break with its general policy of signing players to nurture, and would also look to recruit ready-made stars. (At the time, it was assumed that he meant Kalidou Koulibaly, the Napoli defender, but now it may well apply to Messi.)
That is perfectly acceptable, of course; these recruitment policies should only ever be a guideline, a way of ensuring that you closely interrogate those decisions that do not fit the mould. But it is reminiscent of Manchester United's decision to sign Robin van Persie before what would prove to be Alex Ferguson's final season as manager.
Manchester City appointed Guardiola to win the Champions League. It was the equivalent of signing Messi: with the finest coach of his generation and an array of (broadly) young, world-class players, City could not fail. After four years, Guardiola has not even reached a semifinal. And now neither club nor manager, it would seem, are prepared to take any more chances. That is the thing with projects and philosophies: They apply only for as long as you want them to.
Written by: Rory Smith
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