It’s official now, insofar as anything is ever official in soccer. After 10 fevered days since the news got out that Lionel Messi was attempting to opt out of the final season on his Barcelona contract, a move that exposed the deep rot within the club and quickly got acrimonious, he now says that he will in fact stay.
“I wasn’t happy and I wanted to leave,” Messi told Goal. “I have not been allowed this in any way and I will STAY at the club so as not to get into a legal dispute. The management of the club led by [president Josep] Bartomeu is a disaster.”
This is where the caveats are important. All of this has been an extended power play. Messi’s attempt to leave felt like a rebuke of the club board and front office for its many failures as much as a desire for him to play elsewhere. This latest round of proclamations, which are daily and never entirely convincing, is possibly just another round in that battle.
The two sides disagree on the language within the contract. Messi and his agent-father contend that he is free to walk as the 2017 contract extension allows him to walk before his final season if he gives notice by the end of the 2019-20 season, which they believe they did. Barca contends that the deadline in the contract to do so was May 31 and therefore missed. The Messis, in turn, argue that since the season was extended by three months due to the coronavirus, the clause was too. La Liga, not exactly an impartial party to all this, has sided with the club.
The whole thing has devolved into arguments over picayune legalese. And Messi has no interest in a protracted and costly legal battle, which would probably drag on far longer than would be useful to him. He is free to negotiate with other teams in January and can leave next June.
“I told the club, to the president in particular, that I wanted to leave,” Messi told Goal. “They know this since the start of the past season. I told them during all last 12 months. But I will stay here because I don’t want to start a legal war.”
The most likely explanation is that Messi proved immovable. If his contract remains operative, his buy-out clause is set at $834 million. Not counting the $118 million or so he currently collects in salary. That’s too much for any club, even if, at the advanced age of 33, Messi remains the greatest player to ever grace the game.
He was also immovable because any group of directors and executives to allow Messi to leave Barca would never be forgiven by its fans.
Yet in another caveat, it cannot be ruled out that Messi refuses to play, or makes apparent his displeasure at being forced to stay at the club, and some kind of transfer sum is agreed with Manchester City or any of his other suitors.
But let’s suppose that he stays, as he now says he will. What will it look like when an obviously and publicly unhappy Messi stays at the club? He is both its captain, iconic star and emotional leader. The club, however, is in desperate need of an overhaul; that much was obvious after its first trophy-less season in more than a decade and an 8-2 Champions League quarterfinal elimination at the hands of Bayern Munich.
Under new manager Ronald Koeman, that process has begun. Ivan Rakitic has moved back to Sevilla. Arthur has been swapped with Juventus for Miralem Pjanic. Luis Suarez’s departure to Juventus seems imminent. Arturo Vidal appears to be headed to Inter Milan. And so Messi will be left without several of his favorite teammates and closest friends. That won’t make him any happier.
It apparently only took a single meeting between Messi and Koeman for the two to clash. Reports are that Koeman told the Argentine star — author of an astounding 634 goals, 10 La Liga titles, four Champions League trophies and six Ballons d’Or for the club — that he will no longer be given preferential treatment. That would be quite the reversal for the player once believed to be powerful enough to sign off on any managerial hiring or major signing.
Then there’s his discontent with the board. Bartomeu won’t surrender his presidency until a March election. He had apparently promised to leave immediately if Messi stayed, but it’s unclear what will come of that now.
Messi, in other words, will be stuck at a club that will no longer revolve around him and is finally undertaking the rebuild that he had stood in the way of. Forcing a player to stay against his will seldom works out well.
But that assumes that Messi will indeed stay, that this isn’t some fresh ploy, a maneuver within a larger strategy by one side or the other, to get what they ultimately want. There are 32 interminable days remaining until La Liga’s summer transfer window closes on Oct. 5.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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