Lionel Messi waves to fans. (Getty Images)
Lionel Messi waves to fans. (Getty Images)

Will Lionel Messi exit the guild of one-club players this year?

  • Barcelona have denied involvement in the scandal but following Monday’s events, the spotlight is back on the club, and it remains to be seen where it leads Messi.
By Bhargab Sarmah, New Delhi
PUBLISHED ON MAR 03, 2021 08:24 AM IST

A day before former FC Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu was arrested by local police as part of an investigation into the “Barcagate” scandal, the club posted a video on Instagram showing Lionel Messi signing an autograph for a policeman.

“@leomessi making time for the police,” was how the club captioned it. The turn of events was the source of much hilarity for fans on social media. The club though wouldn’t find the situation funny because it has been alleged that Barcelona, under Bartomeu, had hired a third-party last year to run a smear campaign on social media against current and former players, as well as presidential rivals.

Barcelona have denied involvement in the scandal but following Monday’s events, the spotlight is back on the club.

It was Messi’s public fallout with Bartomeu last year that eventually led to the latter’s resignation as president. In an interview with La Sexta last December, Messi had said that he would decide his future in the summer, when his contract ends. A lot though would hinge on how Sunday’s election, where Bartomeu is not contesting, turns out. During an interaction last week with Indian media last week, Sevilla sporting director Monchi said he felt Messi would stay.

If Messi does leave, it would end an era. One where a 13-year-old boy with growth hormone deficiency arrived from Argentina over two decades ago and went on to become one of the game’s greatest ever, if not the greatest. One where he was the brightest star in a core of excellent players who made football beautiful.

That Messi has been a one-club man – albeit he did spend his pre-teen years at Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina – will make a potential transfer an earth-shattering event. The idea of a one-club player does ring thin - hollow even - in a heavily commercialised sport in Europe where short-term results trump emotions. But there is a reason why Paolo Maldini, John Terry, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Francesco Totti, Tony Adams, Steven Gerrard and Chuni Goswami strike a chord in the incurable football romantic: they have bled the colours of the shirt they wore.

English giants Manchester United haven’t won a league title following the retirements of Scholes and Giggs, their two most successful players in terms of titles, although reasons for the drought extent well beyond these players. And it wasn’t as if Arsenal or Milan or Liverpool couldn’t cope with the departures of Adams, Maldini or Gerrard - Liverpool improved under Juergen Klopp who arrived in 2015 months after Gerrard left. But like Pele with Santos, these players are synonymous with those clubs.

Would a transfer away from Catalonia hurt Messi’s legacy as a loyal servant of Barcelona? It could in Catalonia though even there many have said they understood why Messi wants out. And wouldn’t Messi be tempted by offers from other clubs when Barcelona are transitioning from the side that dominated European football?

If Messi has to go his options may be few as most clubs wouldn’t be able to afford his wages. But he will still be within reach for some of Europe’s elites – Manchester City, PSG among others.

That could have Messi following the kind of path that rival Cristiano Ronaldo has charted for himself. The Portuguese star has enjoyed success at Manchester United, Real Madrid and Juventus. Among the arguments against Messi being the best of his generation is that he never sought a challenge away from Barcelona and that he has fewer Champions League titles than Ronaldo – Barcelona’s underwhelming European campaigns after 2015 haven’t helped.

But such a situation is tricky for Barcelona. Losing the six-time Ballon d’Or winner will have repercussions both on and off the field. On one hand, they will lose the best player of the generation to a European rival. On the other, brand Barcelona will undoubtedly take a hit.

Barcelona have some recent experience of long-serving players departing in recent years. Carles Puyol retired in 2014, Xavi left for Qatar in 2015 and Andres Iniesta moved to Japan in 2018. They were already at the twilight of their careers when they left but many would argue that they have never really been replaced. The club’s diminishing powers in recent years – only one league title after 2018 – is testament to that. The departure of Messi, still very much one of the best in the business, would be a different story altogether.

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