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No going back for Messi and Barca

On June 27th, 2016, just three days after his 29th birthday, a different Lionel Messi announced himself to the world. After missing in the penalty shootout during Argentina’s loss to Chile in the Copa America final, La Albiceleste’s talisman publicly claimed to be at the end of his tether. Four successive defeats in major finals, including at the World Cup two years prior, pushed to Messi the edge on the international scene.

“For me, the national team is over,” he said. “I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion.” Messi would return to lead his country at the World Cup again, in Russia, but Argentina were beaten by eventual winners France in the last 16 and the tournament would end in yet more anguish for arguably the greatest player to ever grace a football pitch.

But it wasn’t solely the lack of titles or the particularly somber mood within the Argentine dressing room at full time which led Messi to reactively put an early, and temporary, stop to his international commitments. It was all that plus the years of disrespect, questions and unfair comparisons he had to put up with. Even the public in his homeland, disillusioned with the fact he had spent his entire career in Europe with Barcelona, couldn’t quite give him the same love as the man from whom he had picked up the baton of responsibility, Diego Maradona.

There were constant snipes about his need to lead Argentina to World Cup glory, as Maradona did in 1986, for him to be considered a better player, let alone the best of all time. Away from the discourse within South America, things were made worse for Messi after his on-pitch rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, the yardstick he has been measured against for most of the last decade, did what Messi couldn’t and lifted a major international trophy at Euro 2016 with Portugal.

It was easy to understand why someone so great, who had done so much within the sport and would continue to do so, decided that playing under such an intense spotlight with little to no respite wasn’t worth the hassle. He had, after all, utilised his peak years guiding his country through a seemingly never ending transitional period; that was something Maradona never had to do.

For years, the narrative surrounding Messi’s career fed into the idea that he preferred club football to international. At Barcelona, he was the crown jewel, the like of which they had never seen before. They nurtured his gifts from the age of 13, supplying him with growth hormones and giving him everything else he needed to succeed.

Once a placid, shy and unimposing teenager, by the time he originally retired from Argentina he was the player at Camp Nou; loved, adored and beholding of a unique position of power and influence, without ever becoming overbearing for his coaches. For so long, it felt like the perfect love affair between player and club, with a bond that couldn’t be broken by anything, let alone any financial power in the world. Many tried to prize him away, all of them failed.

But watching that penalty sky over the bar at the MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, changed him. Messi would rarely speak publicly anyway, but he specifically avoided washing his dirty laundry in front of a camera or dictaphone. Yet, all wasn’t well in Barcelona either, and over the past four years, he has made his stance clear when unhappy about something.

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That all culminated last week, when Messi did the unthinkable and asked to leave the club he once said he wanted to retire with. On the face of it, the decision felt similar to the Argentina one; it could have been emotionally charged, given the Blaugrana had just been beaten 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals. Defeat in Lisbon was the latest in a string of humiliating evenings which scattered his dreams of lifting the trophy for a fourth time into atoms, following on from infamous losses to Juventus, Roma and Liverpool.

Many also viewed it as a chess move, in a bid to usurp Josep Maria Bartomeu, Barcelona’s almost universally unpopular president. He has overseen a near total abandonment of the principles which have become ingrained in the club’s history and success, while simultaneously purporting to believe in them; the club’s style of play has decreased in effectiveness, the academy system which produced players like Messi, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta and countless others, once the hub of Barcelona’s first team recruitment, has become a poor imitation of itself. The sale of Neymar, a close friend of Messi, in 2017, set everything back years and, much like Argentina, the club has used their star man as a cart-horse, piling more weight for him to carry on his shoulders. The more angry he has got, the more the once ironclad relationship deteriorated.

The decision to leave is neither emotional or geared towards power play. It is a definitive final act and there is no going back. For three years, Messi has had a clause in his contract allowing him to leave for free for a short window in early summer which he is trying, and apparently failing, to utilise to secure his exit. But the fact he had it in his contract in the first place, and informed the club of his intentions by burofax instead of a more personable way, is the saddest indictment yet of how little love remains between the two parties. The is no ‘if’ here, it is ‘when’ Messi goes.

All of that is yet to be determined, as is just how ugly things will turn before the inevitable divorce. Messi may have to toe the line at Camp Nou again but, despite his goals, Barcelona certainly don’t owe him enough to let him leave to their detriment. But they, and so many others, have taken him for granted for too long; not only have they expected him to clean up their monumental mess, but there has also been a disturbing theme of ignoring what he has already achieved, demanding more and denouncing him when he comes up short despite almost impossible working conditions.

Barcelona have been run terribly for much of Bartomeu’s reign and even before that; Lionel Messi was the glue that held everything together. Everyone will now realise how far the club have fallen and, if they didn’t already know, how good he is.

 


 

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