Last summer, Lionel Messi tried to leave Barcelona and was denied by a contractual technicality. This coming summer his contract expires and it was expected he would leave, but will he?
He is about to become Barcelona’s record appearance-maker this weekend, playing his 768th game for the Blaugrana against Real Sociedad, and he may currently be La Liga’s Pichichi, but Messi’s future in Catalunya is still far from certain.
By now everyone has heard the stat: this is the first season since 2006/07 that Lionel Messi won’t play in the Champions League quarter-finals. Back then he was half-fit as Barcelona, as defending European Champions, were dumped out of Europe by Liverpool. This time they fell to PSG after a disastrous home leg ended 1-4.
Barcelona picked up an impressive 1-1 draw in Paris and, frankly, should have won but for a slew of missed chances by Ousmane Dembélé and, yes, a poor penalty from Messi himself. Still, they are now eliminated from the Champions League in what was possibly Messi’s final European game for Barcelona. And that will surely only hasten his desire to leave the Camp Nou?
Well perhaps not.
For the first time since 2004-05, neither Lionel Messi’s nor Cristiano Ronaldo’s team will be in the Champions League quarter-finals. ?
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 10, 2021
Obviously Messi hates to lose, and this will now make it six straight years without winning the Champions League. That’s the longest dry spell of his career (his four wins came in 2006, 2009, 2011 and 2015). But you have to remember the reason Messi wanted to leave the only club he’s ever known (as a professional footballer) in the first place.
I always said I wanted to end here and I always said I wanted to stay here. That I wanted a winning project and to win titles with the club, to continue expanding the legend of Barcelona at the top level. And the truth is that there has been no project or anything for a long time, they juggle and cover holes as things go by. – Lionel Messi, September 2020
A sporting project. That is, a coherent plan that informs a club’s hiring, a club’s tactics, the promotion of youth from La Masia and, yes, even governs the nature and frequency of transfers both incoming and outgoing.
Barcelona had a project, the very best one in the world. In fact they had two: first there was Frank Rijkaard’s vision, which carried the club to La Liga twice and a Champions League. That was the environment Messi emerged into. Then as that project fell apart, another came.
Pep Guardiola changed football in 2008, but he did that by changing Barcelona. A Cruyffist revolution that permeated every aspect of the club and turned Messi was a supreme prodigy into the greatest player in the history of the game.
Sandro Rosell became Barcelona president in 2010 and immediately set about dismantling that project. “Their only interest was to discredit us,” said former president Joan Laporta, “we left them the best Barcelona in history, they took Unicef out of the shirt, they put in Qatar and they discredited me, saying that we ran the club in an irresponsible way.”
Rosell immediately installed austerity measures at the club, claiming the club was a financial mess despite posting a net profit of €9m even with the big bonuses due to be paid to their treble winning squad.
One of Rosell’s measures was forcing Guardiola to sell Dmytro Chygrynskiy, the defender he had personally requested a year earlier. The Ukrainian had a difficult first season but Guardiola saw him as a project.
“Dmytro, we have problems. I have not changed my ideas, and still believe in you but I think you have no possibility to stay due to financial problems,” is what Guardiola said, according to Chygrynskiy. Forcing the defender to be sold to finance debts (even though Barcelona were taking out a big loan) made little sense and seemed to be a move solely to undermine the Catalan.
Ultimately, Guardiola ended up quitting the club he loves (he still refers to Barcelona as “we” in interviews) in 2012. His replacement, Tito Vilanova, the man who coached Messi when he was a youngster in La Masia, was struck by cancer and thus unable to continue as coach after his debut season in charge ending in a 100 point title win, marking the end of this sporting project in 2013.
Rosell had done what he wanted but was later deposed and arrested (he was later cleared of any wrongdoing in 2019 after having spent nearly two years in pre-trial jail), so couldn’t enjoy the fruits of his good work. That joy went to his vice president, Josep Bartomeu, who resigned last winter after enduring a ‘civil war’ with senior players amid the Messi contract dispute and reports from Cadena SER claiming his board had hired a PR company to discredit Messi, Gerard Pique and others. Bartomeu denies the claims, but Pique publicly described the alleged behaviour as “barbaric” in a subsequent interview.
MSN scored 364 goals across all competitions in their three seasons together.
Were they the best front-three attack of the 21st century? ? pic.twitter.com/mzbtYY08As
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 5, 2021
Bartomeu presided over four league titles and a Champions League win that completed a treble. But there was no real project, no ideological force binding the club. The players were good enough that it didn’t matter. Andoni Zubizarretta, the sporting director, produced a miracle summer of transfers in 2014. This, along with the remnants of Guardiola’s team and most importantly the individual brilliance of new signings Neymar and Luis Suárez, allowed Barcelona to essentially “fake it” under Luis Enrique by harnessing the collective genius of MSN.
Once Neymar left in 2017, however, it all began to fall apart. Messi performed miracles to keep the team relevant in La Liga, but he often couldn’t extend this to the knockout rounds of the Champions League. A humiliating exit every year became the norm (Roma, then Liverpool, then Bayern Munich) and Messi eventually got sick of it and just wanted out.
But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Nearly all the conditions that caused Messi to want to leave Barcelona are no longer there. Sure, their effects are still being felt, but Bartomeu is no longer in power. In fact, Joan Laporta, the president who oversaw the genesis of both the Rijkaard and Guardiola projects, has recently won election for a second spell in charge.
And off-the-field circumstances have caused Barcelona’s revenue to drop like a stone, which has forced a rethink on their gaudy spending of late. This season the club had been forced to rely more on the young talent in the squad, only to discover that, oh hey, there’s actually a lot of young talent in the squad and if La Masia is given the due care it deserves then Barcelona won’t have to spend €20m-40m on back-ups, instead using their youngsters who cost nothing and earn less.
Reason #438 why Barcelona fans want Josep Bartomeu to resign: ignoring La Masia and failing to help homegrown talents reach their full potential.
Like Riqui Puig, for example. ? pic.twitter.com/9mrG1CFLPa
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) September 19, 2020
On the field, the team is starting to look like their old selves. Mid-season, Ronald Koeman abandoned his 4-2-3-1 and switched to 4-3-3, which helped. Lately, he’s been playing 3-5-2, which has helped even more as it protected the likes of Sergio Busquets from having to cover too much ground and also Jordi Alba from being exposed defensively (while allowing them both to take bigger parts in the attack).
That’s not to say Barcelona have a sporting project, but there’s a sense of coherence about the club now. They are playing with order and structure in a way they haven’t in years. Youngsters like Pedri, Frenkie de Jong, Ilaix Moriba and Ousmane Dembélé are thriving alongside Messi, providing him with the youth and energy he doesn’t have any more but also the kind of intelligent team-focused play that he has been desperate to have around him for years.
The mood around the team is upbeat, one of a young side on the cusp of something great rather than a once-great side lumbering slowly forward. And yes they went out of the Champions League to PSG, but there is a defensive injury crisis at the club and their best centre-back this season, Ronald Araujo, didn’t play either leg while Gerard Piqué only played the first-leg half-fit.
PSG are the first team to beat Barcelona at Camp Nou in the Champions League knockout stages since Bayern in 2013.
And Kylian Mbappé is taking home the match ball. #UCL
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 16, 2021
So yes, mistakes were made at Camp Nou that let PSG rack up a huge win. But unlike in previous years where the second leg has seen the side collapse mentally, in Paris the Blaugrana were dominant. They were the better side and played beautiful football all through the night. With some better finishing from Dembélé and Messi, they could have pulled off another historic Remontada against PSG.
Back in his famous interview where he confirmed he had tried to leave the club, Messi said something that was very telling:
I want to compete at the highest level, win titles, compete in the Champions League. You can win or lose in it, because it is very difficult, but you have to compete. At least compete in it and let us not fall apart in Rome, Liverpool, Lisbon.
He doesn’t demand victory, he demands the club compete, that they not disgrace themselves. And in Paris they emphatically did not disgrace themselves. They absolutely competed. Hell, they were better than PSG. They showed that even with injuries, they can still step up and make their mark on the biggest of games. When Messi left the field at full-time he didn’t have the same weary, pained expression he has done in recent years. And he will not feel the same way either.
Barcelona had more shots (16) and more shots on target (9) in the opening 45 minutes against PSG than any other side has managed in the first half of a #UCL game this season.
And they goal they scored was their furthest effort out. ? pic.twitter.com/uRzPf2OLEE
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) March 10, 2021
This is a Barcelona team that can think about the future, that can look forward. There’s immense potential at the Camp Nou and that kind of energy has to give Messi a buzz. The forward recently voted in the elections that saw Laporta crowned president, and while his pledge to keep Messi at the club could be taken as hollow campaign promises, you get a sense that it actually could happen.
At his swearing-in ceremony, Laporta said, “I will do everything I can to try to convince Leo to stay. He knows this,” before directly addressing Messi, “and forgive me for saying this to you in front of everyone here, but you know how much I love you and how much we want you to stay.” After hearing that, Messi began smiling so broadly you could even tell through his mask.
Laporta to Messi: "I will try to convince Messi to stay, sorry Leo, but you know I love you, that Barça loves you, and if this stadium was full when you play, you wouldn't want to leave. Whatever you do is fine, but I will try…" pic.twitter.com/fjkqROpac4
— Samuel Marsden (@samuelmarsden) March 17, 2021
This could all just be words, but you have to consider that Laporta will almost certainly establish a sporting project at Barcelona. A project that can build on the impressive young squad that Barcelona has, and with some important sales and one or two key additions, form a deadly competitive side for both La Liga and the Champions League.
With all that positive energy in the air, how could Messi not want to stay at “the club that I love, which gave me everything since I arrived, […] the club of my life,” and lead this new sporting project? After years of misery and frustration change has finally come to the Camp Nou and, for the first time in years, Leo Messi seems truly happy at Barcelona.