Football Features

10 key moments that led to Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 11:21, 10 August 2021

So that’s that. After 21 years and a whole host of goals, assists and trophies, Lionel Messi has left Barcelona.

The best player on the planet (and perhaps the greatest of all-time) will, for the first time in his career, play professional football at a club besides Barcelona; the team he first joined as a 13-year-old.

778 games, 672 goals, 288 assists and 34 trophies. The numbers are preposterous, and each one is a Blaugrana record. This man is truly everything to Barcelona and even though he’s 34, he still has more to give, and he clearly wanted to give it. Messi said very clearly in his farewell press conference that he didn’t want to leave Barcelona, so why is he going?

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Obviously, the short answer is Barcelona’s lack of money, but how did we get to this point? It’s a long and complicated story where, had one thing changed or gone differently, maybe Messi would have been able to stay. We’ve come up with a list of the 10 key moments that led to Leo Messi leaving Barcelona, and here they are:

1. Sandro Rosell is elected Barcelona president

Messi’s downfall at Barcelona actually began before he had even peaked, when Sandro Rosell was elected president in 2010 to take over from Joan Laporta. Rosell was part of Laporta’s initial team before disagreements over appointments (he wanted Scolari instead of Rijkaard and Mourinho instead of Guardiola) led to him quitting.

Rosell ran on a platform that was essentially anti-Laporta, and when he won he showed none of the care and respect towards Johan Cruyff that Laporta had done, and given the (incredibly successful) sporting project at the time was built in Cruyff’s image, that was an issue.

He implemented absurd austerity measures, undermined Pep Guardiola until he quit, and plagued Barcelona until he resigned in 2014 over allegations that he misappropriated funds in the signing of Neymar. He was a bad, bad president and the policies he set in place started the chain reaction that would lead to the meltdown of FC Barcelona.

2. Pep and Tito depart within a year of each other

Rosell’s rule drove Guardiola to distraction. He was forced to sell Dmytro Chygrynskiy but was never supplied a replacement and only his coaching brilliance and Javier Mascherano’s versatility saved the 2010/11 season as the Argentine filled in at centre-back to help complete one of the club’s best seasons ever. Guardiola asked for Thiago Silva in the summer of 2011 but was denied and, of course, defensive injuries led to them falling behind Real Madrid in La Liga and losing to Chelsea in the Champions League. Whoops!

Guardiola quit in 2012, the coach who had made Messi the best on the planet was now going elsewhere. Guardiola’s assistant Tito Vilanova took over but was plagued by cancer for much of his year in charge and was unable to coach in person. Vilanova was a tactical genius and the last hope for the Cruyffist project started in 2003 by Laporta and Rijkaard, but when he had to quit for his health, the sporting project that had brought Messi into the first-team and then made him the ‘GOAT’ ended. Barcelona were no longer special.

3. Josep Bartomeu wins re-election in 2015

Bartomeu was one of Rosell’s vice presidents and so took over when he resigned in 2014. Andoni Zubizarretta pulled off a miracle of a transfer window to get the club Luis Suárez, Marc-André ter Stegen, Ivan Rakitic, Claudio Bravo and more. Still, the club was a mess (and only a mid-season meeting led by Xavi allowed new coach Luis Enrique and Messi, who at this point was unhappy with how he had been treated by the board, to come together) and elections were called for season’s end. Laporta promised to run again and it looked like the Rosell/Bartomeu regime would be toppled.

But then the team won the Treble. And Bartomeu twisted the arm of an interim board to allow “him” to sign Arda Turan and boost his profile. Moreover, Laporta didn’t run with any real conviction. As such, Bartomeu won his own mandate. A full term as president. And this is when the real financial horrors would begin as these inept businessmen took the greatest team in the world and began to tear it apart.

4. The Remontada backfires

With no sporting project to speak of, Barcelona were heavily reliant on the spine of Guardiola’s side and the magic of the M-S-N forward line. And sure enough, that carried them to a Treble then a domestic double (it might well have been a second Treble but for a missed penalty call against Atlético Madrid). But in the third season again, things began to unravel.

Suárez’s finishing had become more erratic, Neymar was demanding more influence in the final third but his finishing was… inconsistent to say the least. Messi had turned into more of a playmaker which was fine, but something was off. And so even when the team came together to pull off the historic 6-1 “Remontada” against PSG in the Champions League, they were eliminated in the very next round.

Ordinarily, a moment that historic leads to title triumph. Just like Messi’s last-second winner in the Clásico against Real Madrid. Moments like those used to lead to titles, but Barcelona ended 2016/17 with just the Copa to their name. Lucho departed, and in the summer PSG had their own remontada. They had not been cowed by Barcelona’s comeback, but fired up, and they spent a mammoth €222m to sign Neymar from Barcelona. They pulled the legs and lungs right out of the M-S-N front-line that had been carrying Barcelona and made the Blaugrana look very ordinary indeed.

5. Post-Neymar panic

Of course, it didn’t have to be a disaster. Neymar’s demand for protagonist status was beginning to disrupt the M-S-N harmony. Maybe if they went out and bagged the next young, lightning-fast forward with the €222m they could get right back to winning ways. And hey look, Kylian Mbappé just scored 21 in 44 as Monaco won Ligue 1 and made the Champions League semis and he’s only 17!

Barcelona also had their eye on Ousmane Dembélé at Borussia Dortmund, a winger of electrifying pace, skill and creativity. However, a more raw prospect vs. Mbappé’s more polished skill-set. The solution here seemed obvious: €100m flat to both Monaco for Mbappé and perhaps a small fee to secure first-refusal for Dembélé while the rest of the money was spent on recruiting a true heir for Andrés Iniesta.

Instead, Barcelona spent all summer haggling with Borussia Dortmund for Dembélé and Liverpool for Coutinho. They viewed the Brazilian as the heir to Andrés Iniesta, despite him never showing consistency playing in a ball-playing midfield trio like Barcelona’s before. Neither club budged, forcing Dembélé to go on strike to get his move late in the window, ruining his pre-season (when he picked up a devastating muscle injury weeks into the season that effectively ruled him out of half the campaign, it wasn’t a surprise). Coutinho stayed put until January when he finally joined for an absurdly inflated fee. Barcelona never even looked at Mbappé, who then joined Neymar in Paris on loan with a compulsory buy option.

It was an absurd time at the club, but one symptomatic of a Barcelona that did not have a sporting project. Like Messi said in his interview a year ago, they move from signing to signing trying to cover their tracks without ever building anything like Laporta, Guardiola and Vilanova. And even then the signings they picked did not fill the holes left by Neymar and Coutinho. While Dembélé was wracked by injury, Coutinho simply had very little chemistry with Messi or Suárez, making him really look like a misfit.

The panicked nonsense continued, too; they gave Samuel Umtiti a brand new colossal contract even though the Frenchman refused to get knee surgery (a smart club would have made surgery a pre-requisite for the contract). They didn’t really look to sign a fast forward to eventually replace the rapidly slowing Suárez. They signed mediocre players at inflated prices on enormous wages that began to really inflate their expenditure. By now people were starting to see something was wrong at the club but Barcelona’s constantly climbing revenues made the concerns seem pointless.

6. Inaction after Anfield

The appointment of Ernesto Valverde, while shrewd for his first season, was a problem in his second. The Spaniard’s tactical blunders in the Champions League allowed Roma to come back from 4-1 down to 4-4 on aggregate and knock Barcelona out of the Champions League when they were well-placed to perhaps go all the way. And that was bad, but okay, you can’t sack a man after one season when he wins La Liga.

Except Valverde made the same mistakes again a year later at Anfield! Leading by three goals, he once again refused to use pace to counter-attack an opponent’s increasingly high-line (Liverpool realised, just as Roma did, that Suárez no longer had the legs to hurt them in behind). As a result, Barcelona collapsed again! Now the team develop a complex about cup games; losing the Copa del Rey final to Valencia.

Did Valverde lose his job? No! He was retained. No major changes were made to the team either. Barcelona went into 2019/20 with little to no pace in attack and were it not for the sudden emergence of Ansu Fati during an injury crisis, they’d have had none all season. Messi was getting slower, so was Suárez, and the team did nothing to get faster. Their inaction dragged the team down into a rut.

7. Antoine Griezmann

Antoine Griezmann turned Barcelona down in the summer of 2018. It was a PR blow but tactically a blessing in disguise because Griezmann, a No.10, wasn’t either of the forward positions Barcelona needed (forward or winger). However, because Bartomeu had no sporting project and needed the PR boost of a big signing, he went back for Griezmann in summer 2019 and got his man for a massive €120m.

The fee was big but the wages (allegedly around €40m a year) were eye-wateringly huge. And predictably, Griezmann didn’t light up the Camp Nou as he couldn’t generate much, if any, chemistry with Messi. Now, most bad signings, Messi can cover for in attack. But when the bad signing plays in attack, and when Suárez is rapidly becoming as much of a problem as he is a help, it’s hard for even Messi to help. Especially when Griezmann was so pitiful.

Barcelona were paying a king’s ransom for a jester’s performances and that just was not good enough. The wage bill was through the roof now, Bartomeu’s house of cards was on shaky ground. One swift blow and things could come toppling down.

8. Covid-19

The global pandemic shut football down, rightly so. This understandably led to a drop in revenue for most clubs, which was financially painful (unless you’re in the Premier League) but nothing fatal. Except Barcelona’s sky-high expenditure had, to this point, been balanced out by their outrageous revenues. Revenues which took a huge hit from the months-long shutdown, and then the return without fans.

The house of cards began toppling over. First in slow-motion as Barcelona sluggishly threw away La Liga under Quique Setién. Then faster as they got nuked 8-2 by Bayern Munich. Then it collapsed at light speed as Messi requested to leave in the summer of 2020. The Argentine had been pushed to his limit, hurt and abused by the club and how they had used his genius to cover up their lack of a sporting project.

Messi allegedly had asked Bartomeu to leave earlier in the season, and there was a clause in his contract that allowed him to do so. But when the season ended, Bartomeu refused to honour that clause. Messi sent a burofax, and things went public. They got ugly. Still, Bartomeu wouldn’t budge and, as Messi refused to sue the club of his life, he relented and decided to stay.

9. Letting Messi’s contract expire

Things didn’t improve at first under new coach Ronald Koeman, and it looked like Messi would leave when his contract expired at the end of the season. But then Bartomeu was forced to resign over corruption issues, and elections were called. Joan Laporta returned in full force and won and, with that, the whole mood around Barcelona lifted. The club surged back in La Liga, playing great football for the first time since 2016. They won the Copa del Rey and went top of La Liga with every Laporta utterance speaking of the importance of Messi, and how they would love to keep Messi and for the first time in forever, it felt like the club was on an upward trend.

But then they… let Messi’s contract expire (they also threw away La Liga again, but priorities). And while this wasn’t focused on much at the time as Messi was away with Argentina playing in and winning the Copa America (ensuring he would bring positive energy back to Barcelona for the first time since 2008 when he won Olympic Gold), it was significant.

To be clear, Laporta always insisted that their intention was to renew Messi, but by letting his contract expire, Barcelona let the issue fall by the wayside. Distracted by the Super League, Messi’s Copa America and then holiday, things kept getting nudged down the road. And by not addressing the issue, but by constantly assuring everyone that it would be addressed and you were confident Messi would stay, the feeling of betrayal and heartache that permeated Messi’s farewell press conference wouldn’t have been there, and the greatest of all time could have left under a better atmosphere with more pomp and circumstance than a hurried press conference and photoshoot.

10. Joan Laporta refusing the CVC deal

Messi leaving Barcelona would be a massive problem for La Liga, who use the Argentine as the face of the competition. And every La Liga club was struggling due to the pandemic too, so Javier Tebas concocted a deal with private equity firm CVC that would see 10% of La Liga’s commercial rights sold for a €2.7 billion cash injection across all 20 clubs.

This money would provide Barcelona with adequate financial breathing room to register all their new signings and Messi. The perfect solution! However, Laporta rejected the CVC deal, saying it would mortgage the club’s future. Though notably, he only did so after Real Madrid spoke out against the deal. And tied up in all this is the aborted Super League project (that would have seen Barcelona given a bigger cash injection from a different investment bank) that some speculate is the reason Laporta said no to CVC.

Of course, without the CVC money, Barcelona did not have the financial scope to sign Messi. And so Messi had to leave. Against his will. Barcelona still need to shed wages before they can register their other new signings as well, but the decision that cuts the deepest is the one that sees the best player in the club’s history walk away not because he wants to, or the fans want him to, or even the coach wants him to, but because the club simply cannot afford him.

The chain reaction that began with Sandro Rosell in 2010 ended with, of all people, Joan Laporta. The man who brought Messi into the Barcelona first-team was the man who betrayed those Cruyffist principles and kicked him out 17 years later. Laporta sold it as picking the club over any one player, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like both club and player could have stayed together had any of the 10 key moments above happened differently.

But they didn’t, they happened as they happened.

And that is why Lionel Messi has left Barcelona, the club of his life, in floods of tears on a random weekend in August.