Early on Tuesday afternoon, Barcelona received the burofax it had been dreading. It came from Lionel Messi and it confirmed he wanted to exercise the clause in his contract that allows him to leave the club on a free transfer. It was a piece of news that has simultaneously been half-expected and yet came as a major shock. Messi has, after all, been at the club for 19 years.
Barcelona acted promptly to claim Messi’s right to exercise that clause expired June 10, after the scheduled end of the season. He has one year remaining on his contract and a release clause of €700 million ($830 million). It’s not entirely clear the 33-year-old does want to leave.
He was known to have been extremely frustrated with the club’s leadership even before the humiliating 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, and this isn’t the first time he has expressed a desire to leave. It is, though, the first time he has issued formal notice of his intentions (a burofax is a means of business communication popular in Spain that allows transmission of a secure document that will have legal status; the equivalent of a notarized document; it probably does not actually involve a fax machine). It remains possible that this is essentially a high-stakes gamble designed to force club president Josep Bartomeu to resign, triggering elections a year early.
What the burofax has done, though, is bring to the surface various questions that have been lurking for some time. Messi remains brilliant, that much is clear. He scored 25 league goals this season, the 11th successive season in which he has scored at least that many. He remains a brilliant dribbler and a magnificent passer of a ball. He sees the game in a differently than anybody else. But he is aging. He wanders through games. He does not press. And that can create imbalances in a team, even one designed to accommodate him.
That is something potential suitors will have to consider. Barcelona has been struggling to rebuild since the departure of Neymar in 2016. It has wasted a fortune in transfer fees on players who haven’t worked out. But perhaps part of the reason they haven’t worked out is the Messi-centricity of the environment at Barcelona. At some point, directors were going to start asking whether his net €50 million salary ($59 million), which costs the club double that when tax is taken into account, was worth it.
After the pandemic, the club is believed to be facing a deficit of around €300 million ($355 million). Numerous aging high-earners will be culled in the next few weeks. Losing Messi would obviously be a blow, for what he offers on the pitch and for what he represents, but it might not be quite so disastrous as it once would have seemed. An argument could even be made that for the new coach, Ronald Koeman, this is ideal: he gets to start with a clean slate, without quite the budgetary restrictions that seemed likely, and without the Messi issue hanging over him. Koeman had reportedly warned Messi his “privileges” would no longer be indulged. And if anything is likely to persuade the notoriously impatient Barcelona ‘enferno’ to be patient, it is the fact that Koeman will be the first Barça manager in 15 years to have to cope without probably the greatest player who ever lived.
If Messi leaves, of course, the question is where he goes. The obvious narrative would have him linking up again with Pep Guardiola, and Manchester City is in the armlet for a wide forward after the departure of Leroy Sane. Having won its case at the Court of Arbitration for Sport, it may also be more relaxed about paying Messi’s salary and pushing Financial Fair Play relations to their limits. City has hinted in the past that it would be interested in Messi were he genuinely available, but it’s very hard to see how he could fit in with the pressing demands of a Guardiola side.
And that’s the fascinating aspect of this. Given how idiosyncratic Messi has become as a player, which club would be willing to match his wages given his age, and given the tactical disruption he would cause? It’s possible that Messi, in escaping Barcelona, would be willing to take a significant pay cut for a new challenge, potentially to win a fifth Champions League.
But even at this stage, this feels more of a political gesture. Since childhood, Messi has never known anything outside Barcelona. How much does he actually want a fresh challenge? The likeliest outcome still feels that this forces Bartomeu’s hand but that Messi stays.