For years it has seemed unimaginable – but could Lionel Messi really be nearing an exit from Barcelona?
Messi had made his frustrations with Barcelona’s season plain at the end of the La Liga campaign, when Barca saw their advantage cut and Real Madrid clinch the title. But his silence since the humiliating 8-2 Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich has sparked speculation he could be considering a way out of the club where he has been since he was a boy.
With reports in Spain suggesting Messi has told new Barcelona head coach Ronald Koeman his future is uncertain, we spoke with Barcelona-based journalist Sam Marsden on the latest Transfer Talk Podcast, for the latest on the situation…
Crisis at Barcelona?
“We were always set for a summer of changes at the club, there were always going to be some big decisions to be made, even before that loss to Bayern Munich,” said Marsden, who writes for ESPN and Spanish daily newspaper Sport.
“That loss to Bayern Munich has accentuated that feeling of crisis, of panic. Some of the decisions which we were going to see were already taken prior to that game. Quique Setien was never going to survive the summer and once the 8-2 happened he was never going to survive the weekend.
“In theory they were going to try to move on a lot of players, obviously it’s a difficult climate this summer. But the one thing we were not expecting was this whole Messi scenario, which has been born from the absolute embarrassment of that result and performance against Bayern.
“This is a Barcelona in crisis. The word crisis is bandied around so much in Spain for Barcelona and Real Madrid when it’s not a crisis that this would be like a double crisis or a triple crisis if you look at the results and throw in this ageing spine [of the team], the elections and the rocky nature of the presidency at the moment.
“Barcelona are in the worst position probably since Joan Laporta came in in 2003. They have never been in a more critical point in their history in terms of the decisions they are going to make now are going to be absolutely huge for the coming years.”
Why is Messi so upset?
“I do not think Ronald Koeman’s arrival has changed too much. I think Messi sees the problems being much more structural, much deeper than Koeman. He wants assurances and promises over how the club are going to move out of this rut.
“I do not think he has been happy with any of the decisions really – there will be some exceptions – since Neymar left in 2017 and how everything has developed since then. His relationship with the club has deteriorated even more in the last six, seven months since Ernesto Valverde was sacked. Valverde was a coach who was not completely adored by supporters because of certain things to do with playing style more than results – although the Champions League results counted against him – but he was liked by the players. He knew how to manage those Messis, those Piques, those players who have been there and done it all and do not necessarily need or want that hands-on management at the moment.
“His sacking was not liked by the players. They were then blamed for his sacking because they obviously contributed for the results and performances which led to his sacking. I am sure you remember a disagreement with Eric Abidal on social media which made headlines when the two slightly rowed a little bit. Messi called on Abidal to take responsibility for his own decisions.
“Then, during the coronavirus pandemic, when they dropped their wages, Messi did another statement where he criticised the board for leaks suggesting the players were not willing to take a pay cut when they were.
“He is really unhappy with the board and the president and there is a feeling – and obviously it is not confirmed because there is nothing coming out of the Messi camp – what Messi really wanted was changes at board level which is something we are not going to get until next summer now. So we face a season of uncertainty at all levels of the club and this summer of uncertainty over Messi.
“Looking strictly at the playing side, absolutely it is the Champions League which has been a really, really tough one. When you look at one Champions League in the last nine years and when they won it in 2015 with that front three of Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar they looked like they could win it two, three times. Then to add to that pain, instead of that happening, Real Madrid go and win it three times in a row.
“If that had been won in those three years by Bayern, Liverpool and Man City, it would not have been as bad for Barcelona but because they are getting humiliated and Real Madrid are winning and that is being lauded over them it’s added to that pain.
“Messi has spoken regularly about the need to win the Champions League. The league success had almost become bread and butter, they were winning that every year almost at a canter. Valverde was sacked after winning two league titles. But it’s not just that they have not won the Champions League, it’s the way they have lost as well.
“The Roma game, the Liverpool game, the Bayern Munich game. Even before that, they had the PSG game where they lost 4-0 in Paris. They obviously had the amazing comeback but then in the next round they lost 3-0 at Juventus. So these big defeats have been coming for a long time. That ties in with the lack of changes and the lack of quality on the pitch which he sees and he’s obviously thinking, ‘these results have been coming why have we not made the right changes why have things not changed?’.”
How realistic is it he could leave?
“We have been here before but I have been in Barcelona for seven years now and it has never felt like he will be this close to leaving. He has been completely silent on the issue. There have been times over the last 12 months when he has used either interviews or social media to rule things out. It was around March, April time when he did an Instagram post calling links to Inter Milan fake news. He has always in interviews stressed his desire to stay at the club or hit back when things have been said which he does not like or are not true. But he has been completely silent since the Bayern defeat.
“You reach out to people, not in his most intimate circle but in his camp who work for him, who usually have information or steer you one way or the other, and they are saying they don’t know anything either. You can read into that, that obviously he is stewing over this defeat, his future.
“There was obviously a meeting with Ronald Koeman this week. Messi interrupted a holiday up near the Pyrenees with Luis Suarez’s and Jordi Alba’s family. He drove back for that meeting with Koeman and there has absolute silence about what happened. There was one report from local radio which says he transmitted his doubts to Koeman about his future and he said he was more out than in. But there is nothing else coming out.
At the moment I think we really are looking at the possibility of him leaving. Obviously with the caveat of where would he go at 33?
“Usually this is a story which would be picked up and have information across all the newspapers and TV stations in Spain. But there is nothing coming out of Messi’s camp and the club are just saying it was a private meeting, which would lead you to suggest if it was a meeting that went well they would want to steer you that way.
“From what I have been told and what I have heard, I have always thought Messi wants to force this change [at boardroom level] and to get things moving in the right direction. But over the last seven days, since the Bayern debacle, I have changed my mind and he could actually leave here. The club could have gone too far and maybe it is too late to make these changes.
“It’s not just him using the club. This is a really, really serious threat. Maybe he will calm down in 10 days and have a bit more time to reflect on what’s gone on and the changes and Koeman will be able to convince him to stay but at the moment I think we really are looking at the possibility of him leaving. Obviously with the caveat of where would he go at 33?”
Why would Barcelona sell?
“Maybe there are people in the club that would never want to see him go but at 33 – when Ronaldo left Real Madrid at a similar age – it would sort out a lot of their problems in terms of the wage bill – the biggest wage bill in football if not in sport, over 500m euros annually.”
Who could sign him?
“Watching him every week he has been ridiculous and for me he is the best player I have ever seen and he is still fantastic, he is still great and he is still probably the best player in the world. But if you are signing him he is going to be a short-term signing now for a big outlay this summer. He will be 34 by the end of the next season.
“I do not think it is as clear cut as maybe it has been in the past that someone like Man City or PSG would be willing to make that signing. Obviously you are looking at the other effects of signing the best player in the world and all the marketing and those knock-ons. But I do not think it is as clear cut as it might have been even if he had wanted out last summer or two summers ago.
“The only other one that keeps coming up is Inter Milan. The owners there have talked in the past about this desire to sign him, to make this big headline signing. Maybe they would be the most likely to ignore the short-term nature to make this big signing. But would Messi want to go to Inter? Is their project much better than Barca’s?
“When you look at it in the hard, cold numbers there are not many teams in Europe who will be able to offer him better projects with how the game is at the top level these days and how few top clubs there are who are able to compete.”