Messidependencia: At Barca, Lionel is a habit
It is difficult to put into words the influence of Lionel Andres Messi at Barcelona. Over the last decade and a half, the two names have become one—Messi is Barcelona, Barcelona is Messi. In that time, the Catalans have become used to seeing arguably the world’s greatest ever footballer spur them to a glut of trophies year after year.
In recent seasons, it seemed like almost the only reason behind Barcelona’s domestic dominance was the diminutive Argentine’s near-mystical abilities with the ball. There is even a term in Spain for the Leo habit: Messidependencia. A club is always greater than any of its individuals, goes one of football’s oldest clichés; at Barcelona, that adage had been sidestepped.
So when Messi told Barcelona on Tuesday evening that he intended to rescind his contract by activating a clause in it, it sent shockwaves through the football world. There were clear signs during this turbulent summer at Camp Nou, their first season since 2008 without a single trophy, that Messi and the club management were at divergent roads. Despite the departures of head coach Quique Setien and sporting director Eric Abidal, two figures Messi had fallen out with, the Argentine’s displeasure at Camp Nou hierarchy had become apparent well before their 8-2 demolition at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
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Josep Maria Bartomeu, the club president, has copped criticism from various quarters in recent years over his handling of the club. As new coach Ronald Koeman inherited an ageing squad, the need for an overhaul seemed immediate. Though Messi has been vocal about his struggles at the club in the past two seasons, few would have thought that he would actually want to leave a club which he has called home since he was 13. Barcelona are unlikely to let go of their greatest player without putting up a fight, as signalled by reports from Spain that they would pursue legal options to prevent Messi from ending his contract less than a year before it expires. Messi’s lack of faith towards the Barcelona board is also reciprocated by the club’s fans, many of whom gathered outside the Camp Nou on Tuesday and called for Bartomeu’s resignation. The latest development will certainly weaken Bartomeu’s position ahead of next year’s election. Jordi Farre, who is a candidate for the presidential poll, has already moved a vote of no confidence against Bartomeu and his board of directors. According to Spanish media reports, an election may anyway not be possible until after three months due to certain club statutes.
If Messi’s departure actually goes through, where will he go?
There aren’t too many clubs capable of affording him. Even if the Argentine star manages to leave on a free transfer, against the wishes of Barcelona, few clubs will be in a position to afford his annual wages. In his current contract, Messi’s average annual earning is in excess of €100 million, according to whistleblowers Football Leaks (see graphic). Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Inter Milan are among some of the clubs being named as possible destinations for Messi. The reasons: linking up with former Barca coach Pep Guardiola at City; or with close friend Neymar at PSG; or leading Inter’s search for a first Scudetto in over a decade against Cristiano Ronaldo’s Juventus.
If he does go, Messi will leave behind an unmatchable legacy at Barcelona. Six Ballon d’Ors, six European Golden Shoes and seven Pichichi trophies—awarded to the top scorer in a season in La Liga—barely tell the story of the player who has single-handedly scored and assisted over 10% of all goals in Barcelona’s history. Since 2008, Messi has scored 32% of the club’s goals and assisted close to another 15%. Four Champions League, six Copa del Rey and 10 La Liga titles later, Messi has surpassed all the other lofty names who have sported a Barca jersey in the club’s 120-year history.
Arriving in Spain as a kid battling a growth hormone deficiency, Messi became one of the greatest players to come through Barcelona’s hallowed youth system, La Masia. Playing alongside the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique during his younger days, he didn’t take long to outshine his teammates, becoming the first from his batch to break into Barcelona’s first team. When Ronaldinho was shown the door in 2007/08, Messi immediately took over the mantle as the commander of the team. The problem for Barcelona this time is that there is none in this world who can replace Lionel Messi on a football field. Koeman is, according to reports in Spain, also planning to let go of many of the senior players in the team, including Messi’s close friend Luis Suarez. No other player’s loss will hurt as much as Messi’s, and the directors at Camp Nou will no doubt look for some compromise. There could still be some salvation, as far as the club’s fans are concerned, but Messi has played his card for now. If he is to stay, Bartomeu may have to leave soon.