Other contributors: Ed Malyon and Adam Crafton
Ten days after Lionel Messi asked to leave Barcelona, sparking a bitter, public legal row with the club at which he has played for almost two decades and its president Josep Maria Bartomeu, the six-time Ballon d’Or winner has reversed his position, saying that he is to stay.
The move will be seen as a blow to Manchester City, who have strongly distanced themselves from a move but who multiple sources said were making efforts to finally sign the 33-year-old, and to all those who hoped to see him in the Premier League.
In a saga that has dominated the past week, Messi first communicated his desire to leave in a Burofax to the club, who insisted a clause allowing him to depart for free at the end of the season just gone had expired, a stance supported publicly by La Liga.
The player’s father and agent Jorge then travelled to Barcelona for talks, following which the first formal statement came on Friday afternoon, with Jorge writing to La Liga president Javier Tebas, criticising the league’s position and reaffirming his son’s right to leave Barcelona.
Yet within a few hours an interview had been broadcast in which Messi spoke of his decision to stay at the club he “loves” and his commitment to their cause.
So what’s really been going on? Here our writers explain the fallout.
What did Messi say?
The most important message from Lionel Messi’s interview with Goal.com was that he was taking back his decision to leave Barcelona this summer.
“I could never take the club of my life to court, that is why I am going to stay at Barcelona,” Messi said.
It was not because he had changed his mind but because he had realised it would be impossible to force his way out without taking the club he loved through a painful court battle. So he was going to stay and play for Ronald Koeman’s team next season.
“I told the president I wanted to go, that my time was over at Barca,” Messi said. “I always wanted to finish my career at this club, but I suffered a lot through a very difficult year. I wanted to look for new objectives, a new atmosphere, new challenges. The exit from the Champions League hurt a lot, but that did not make up my mind. It came from many things which had been happening. I had been thinking about it all year.”
Messi also used the opportunity to take aim at the people running Barca through recent years, most obviously club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
“I always wanted a winning project, to keep winning trophies with the club and to keep growing the legend of this club,” he said. “But for a long time there is no project, nothing, just throwing things in the air, filling holes as they go along. I want to compete, not what has been happening all these years, Roma, Liverpool, Munich.”
Why has he decided to make this U-turn?
Messi has not changed his mind about wanting out, but has decided that he could not force his exit, as that would have required a damaging and lengthy legal battle. He still believes that he had the legal right to leave for free this summer, but the club were only prepared to let him leave if another club came to pay his €700 million release clause. So that left taking Barca to court, and he said he could not bring himself to do that to the club he has been at since the age of 13.
“I am going to stay at the club as the only way to go was to pay the clause, which is obviously impossible,” Messi said. “Or to go to court. And that would be crazy. I would never go to court against the club that I love, that has given me everything since I arrived, the club of my life. My life is here in Barcelona. It gave me everything, and I gave everything for this club. So I could never end up taking the club to court to force an exit.”
So did Messi and his family misinterpret his contract?
Messi was very clear that he was not admitting any mistakes were made — either in his reading of the legal situation, or in his conduct in communicating the decision to the club by the now infamous Burofax.
“We were sure that I was free, and the president always told me I could decide if I wanted to leave or not when the season was over,” he said. “So to send the Burofax was an official way to tell the club that I was free of the contract, and not going to take the extra optional year on my contract. It was not to go against the club, but to confirm that my decision was made.”
The big mistake which Messi made — he admitted implicitly — was to believe Bartomeu’s alleged assurances over his future. Messi said various times during the interview that he had told the club’s chief of his intention to leave at the end of the 2019-20 campaign, and Bartomeu had not argued with him, but kept avoiding any proper discussion of the issue. So the Messis were surprised when the club suddenly (for them) said they would fight the decision to leave.
Messi was also asked whether he legally should have informed the club of his intention to leave on June 10 — as the wording of his contract apparently said, or whether he believed that the “spirit of the law” allowed him to make the decision when the season ended. “On June 10 we were still competing in La Liga, amid the virus and everything that happened,” he replied, again giving the impression that he believed that nobody was going to force them to stick to the small print.
The Athletic explained earlier this week that two well placed Spanish legal experts, who even while differing slightly in their views both questioned the strength of Messi’s position. “Nobody I have spoken to in Europe — and I have spoken to a lot of legal colleagues — understands Messi’s position,” said one.
From Messi’s perspective, his biggest mistake was not in his legal understanding of the case, but in trusting Bartomeu.
Why did they release that statement earlier in the day if they knew he was going to stay?
Messi was not asked this exactly in the interview, but reading between the lines it was to again make clear that he did always have a legal right to leave if he wanted. The family or their legal advisors have not for a second admitted that Barca’s interpretation of his contract is correct. “I have the full right to leave for free,” he repeated various times in the Goal interview, but it would have been too difficult to enforce it. We will never know now, although as explained the legal experts consulted last week by The Athletic felt that the club would have had the stronger case in court.
The Messis, for whom Jorge leads business matters such as these, are still maintaining that they were legally and morally in the right through the whole saga, but they have had to admit that they were outmanoeuvred. “This does look a defeat for Messi,” said a source who knows the family well. “It is staggering that the best player in the world cannot decide his own destiny.”
How severely will this have damaged Messi’s relationship with the club, the league and the supporters?
Messi’s relationship with Bartomeu — and the current board members — was already about as bad as possible, so calling them out for their mismanagement over recent years now is not going to make that much difference.
The back and forth with La Liga over the release clause was not a good look for either side, but La Liga president Tebas will surely just be relieved that Spanish football’s biggest star and most marketable commodity is staying another year at least.
The view among Barca’s supporters might be more mixed. One longtime socio with a good feeling for the mood among his fellow fans said that the “Cruyffista” more purist faction would be happy that Messi was staying and that he had called out the board over their mismanagement of the club. But he added that there would also be a sizable group of fans who felt first that Messi let them down and “betrayed” them by trying to leave and would now look “cowardly” for going back on his word.
When Messi announced his intention to leave 10 days ago, Barca responded quite rapidly with their own Burofax outlining their own legal position. The club did not have an immediate response to Messi’s interview on Friday, and made no quick move to, for example, welcome their club captain and record goalscorer’s decision to stay.
Four hours after the interview which aired at 6pm local time in Spain, the lead story on their website was still Philippe Coutinho returning to training with the team earlier that morning, although they had by then put up a tweet echoing one phrase he had said “I will give my all. My love for Barca will never change.”
Is this a victory for Bartomeu?
“The truth is it is a big win for Bartomeu,” says one knowledgeable source who had been sure that Messi would leave. “Weak, undermined, and on the retreat, he still had more power than the best player in the world.”
Barca’s president definitely comes out of this looking stronger. While Messi’s criticism of the current board’s mismanagement of the club through recent years was cutting, their reputation among most socios was not good anyway. Previous critics might at least respect Bartomeu more now for having stood up and — as he will be able to claim — defend the club’s interest through a very difficult moment.
One source close to Barcelona felt it remained unlikely Bartomeu would walk away at this stage, despite the ferocity of Messi’s criticism. He is expected to be out inside six months anyway (elections are due for next March and a changeover would take place in the summer) and to leave immediately would cause more problems for the club as it would affect the sports planning of the season.
Those among the fanbase who have been trying to force Bartomeu to leave immediately are unlikely to change their position on that because Messi has changed his mind over leaving. A source close to a candidate who would like to be the next Barca president said he still felt the “motion of censure” currently being undertaken to try and force the current board to resign still had a chance of success, despite the difficulties of collecting the required signatures during a pandemic.
“The club’s financial problems continue,” he said. “And all the board’s other problems too.” This was a nod to the continuing investigation by Catalan police into the “Barca-gate” social media scandal, and the need to fill a €300 million hole in next season’s budget.
How long is Messi really likely to stay at Barcelona. Could he stay beyond next season or is he now likely to leave on a free next summer?
Barca sources have maintained to The Athletic all through the last fortnight that there is an offer of a two-year contract extension on the table for Messi to sign whenever he wants. Whoever is president next summer will also surely try their hardest to make sure that Messi does not leave then and walk away for free.
The Argentine avoided saying how long he intended to stay at the club during the interview, sticking instead to saying he would fulfil the final 12 months of his current deal, and give his all under new coach Ronald Koeman.
“The truth is I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “There is a new coach and a new idea. That is good, but then we will have to see how the team responds, and if it is enough for us to compete or not. All I can say is that I am staying, and I will always give everything.”
That was far from a ringing endorsement of Koeman’s appointment or the team’s chances of success in 2020-21. The problems with Barca’s “sporting project” are unlikely to be fixed before next summer, especially given its financial situation. But a year is an eternity in football, and by June 10 next year the club will have a new president, who will likely bring back some of Messi’s former team-mates to the Nou Camp, so there would be time then to change his mind again.
There would be no shortage of suitors come January if Messi was interested in exploring which clubs were interested in taking him on a summer free transfer.
It is worth remembering though that this is not the first time that Messi has announced his intention to leave a team, and then soon played for them again. He retired from the Argentina national side after missing a penalty as Chile won the decisive shootout of the 2016 Copa America final. “For me, the national team is over,” he said, but within four months he had returned to the old saying: “I love my country too much to stay away.”
He also missed some games for Argentina following more disappointment at the 2018 World Cup, but that turned out to be a “sabbatical”, and he picked back up his country’s national armband the following March.
Was this all a ploy? Did he ever really want to go?
It was impossible not to watch the interview and believe that Messi really had been hurting through last season and really had made up his mind to leave. It had been a huge wrench for him to come to the decision and he admitted that there had been “tears” when he told his wife and family they were going to be moving house. But he had made up his mind, and only the club’s intransigence (or he might say bad faith) had stopped it happening. This was not a ploy to remove Bartomeu or make sure Barca signed Neymar or anybody else, he really wanted to leave.
How big a blow is this for Manchester City?
When Messi first signalled his intention to leave, City strongly distanced themselves from any deal and that position has not changed but sources told The Athleticthat the club were interested in bringing him to Manchester. Messi’s comments would seem to have ended that prospect but there is one school of thought around City as of Friday evening that this may not be over.
The same sources that confirmed to The Athletic that City were firmly in the race to sign Messi last Tuesday have suggested that Bartomeu might still need to sell Messi (to balance the books and leave the club without being personally liable for any losses) and that that may still be an option in the coming weeks.
It’s easy to believe that there is an element of clinging to a dream about this, or that it is even something of a conspiracy theory. But if you were to work on the basis that Bartomeu does want to sell Messi after all, and that Messi does want to leave and join City, but that neither of them want to be seen as the bad guys, this interview could simply be Messi putting the ball in Bartomeu’s court, calling his bluff and “threatening” to stay. Of course, it would only be a threat if Bartomeu does indeed need and want to sell Messi, despite his public stance to the opposite.
So is this interview really the end of the saga or just an elaborate negotiating tactic? It would certainly push the limits of credibility to imagine Messi leaving the club after sitting down and giving an interview like this, but there are those at City that believe this chapter is not entirely closed. They always knew it would be extremely difficult to sign him, even after putting themselves in pole position, and few would suggest their chances are any better right now, but it’s one to bear in mind, at least.
Did City really believe they could sign him?
Yes. In the two weeks leading up to Messi sending that Burofax informing Barcelona that he would leave, sources told The Athletic that City had been in contact with him and his people had worked out the required figures and put themselves into a position where they were ready to sign him if he could get himself out of Barcelona.
As of Sunday, they were content with how things were progressing, and sources have told The Athletic that he even reiterated his desire to join the club on Friday morning. If that is indeed the case, given Messi either filmed his interview the same day or even Thursday, then clearly there are legs to the idea that Messi is calling Bartomeu’s bluff. But leaving that to one side, City were ready to try and do a deal if Messi could get out of Barca, it’s just that he hasn’t been able to.
How will this change what they do in the transfer market this summer?
Not a lot. City have been pressing ahead with attempts to sign Kalidou Koulibaly from Napoli even while waiting to see what happened with Messi, and our information was that they would have been able to sign them both, and possibly even another target. Sources also indicated at the start of the week, when City were content with how the Messi saga was playing out, that there was an alternative forward in the plans just in case. If the Messi dream really is over, they can press ahead with those, but there can be no doubt that they are still well placed to strengthen their squad this summer, although now they have to close the deals they have in place.
Is this likely to have any impact on Pep Guardiola’s future at the club?
The assumption/hope among fans after City got their Champions League ban overturned was that it would boost the chances of Guardiola signing a new deal. Obviously, it didn’t make it any less likely but the main factor in whether he stays or not will be the strength of the squad next season, and whether he sees enough motivation and desire inside the dressing room to keep listening to his messages for another couple of years.
Had Messi arrived, with the boost he would surely have brought to the team, the chances of Guardiola signing a new contract would have only increased. It would be easy to imagine Messi staying for two, maybe three years, and Guardiola staying for that long as well. But even without Messi, City are still working on strengthening the squad so there is still an opportunity to give Guardiola the squad he needs and wants. So although Messi would surely have made it more likely that Guardiola would extend his contract, the fact Messi is probably not signing doesn’t really make it any less likely.
(Photo: David Aliaga/MB Media/Getty Images)
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Lionel Messi's Situation with Barcelona
Lionel Messi's recent decision to stay at Barcelona after initially expressing his desire to leave has sparked significant interest and speculation. Let's delve into the key concepts related to this situation and explore the details provided in the article.
Messi's Decision to Stay
Reason for Reversal: Lionel Messi decided to stay at Barcelona due to the realization that forcing his way out would lead to a painful court battle, which he did not want to pursue. He expressed his commitment to the club and his reluctance to take legal action against the club he loves [].
Legal Interpretation: Messi maintained that he believed he was free to leave and that the president had assured him of the option to decide at the end of the season. However, the club's stance and the interpretation of his contract led to a deadlock, ultimately influencing his decision to stay [].
Impact on Relationships and Future
Relationship with the Club: Messi's decision is likely to have a mixed impact on his relationship with the club and its supporters. While some fans may be relieved that he is staying, others may feel let down by his initial intention to leave [].
Bartomeu's Position: Despite Messi's criticism of the club's management, Bartomeu's position is perceived to have strengthened, and he may be seen as defending the club's interests during a challenging period [].
Future at Barcelona: While there is an offer of a two-year contract extension on the table for Messi, his long-term future at Barcelona remains uncertain. The club's financial situation and the upcoming presidential elections could influence his decision beyond the current season [].
Manchester City's Involvement
City's Interest: Manchester City had shown interest in signing Messi, and sources indicated that they were prepared to pursue a deal if he could leave Barcelona. However, Messi's decision to stay has likely impacted City's transfer plans for this summer [].
Guardiola's Future: While Messi's potential arrival could have influenced Pep Guardiola's decision to extend his contract, the current situation suggests that Guardiola's decision will be based on the strength of the squad and his motivation for the upcoming season [].
In summary, Lionel Messi's decision to stay at Barcelona has significant implications for both the club and potential suitors like Manchester City. The dynamics of this situation are complex, and the future developments will continue to be closely monitored.