The Lionel Messi and Barcelona saga has what appears to be a stunning final chapter.
Barcelona announced Thursday that due to economic issues, Messi will not return to the club. The announcement comes after multiple reports that the two sides hit a stumbling block on contract talks that were expected to result in the club legend returning for this season and beyond.
Messi is currently a free agent, with his previous contract expiring on June 30, and it had been reported that the two sides had agreed to terms on a new five-year pact that would keep him at Camp Nou until he's 39. Given the club's financial problems, he was going to accept a massive pay cut to return, but apparently even that was not enough.
It had been widely reported this week that Barcelona was going to register Messi in time so he could feature in the Joan Gamper Trophy preseason friendly—which this season is against Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus—but that won't be happening despite weeks of club president Joan Laporta assuring that all is well and that Messi would be returning.
The issue comes down to finances, according to the club. Barcelona needs to shed more salary from its books to be compliant with La Liga's salary cap regulations and to be able to register Messi ahead of the new season, and even though Messi is prepared to accept a significant salary reduction, he's still not going to sign for peanuts. Even with an injection of cash expected to be available following La Liga's $3.2 billion deal with a private equity firm that was announced on Wednesday, there remain concerns. According to Spanish outlet Sport, Barcelona doesn't trust that the money will actually be made available and hasn't been factoring it into its calculations. New acquisitions (via free transfer) Memphis Depay and Sergio Agüero, the latter of which is Messi's countryman and longtime friend, both talked up the dream of playing with Messi upon their signings. So much for that.
"Despite FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi having reached an agreement and the clear intention of both parties to sign a new contract today, this cannot happen because of financial and structural obstacles (Spanish Liga regulations). As a result of this situation, Messi shall not be staying on at FC Barcelona," the club wrote in a statement. "Both parties deeply regret that the wishes of the player and the club will ultimately not be fulfilled. FC Barcelona wholeheartedly expresses its gratitude to the player for his contribution to the aggrandisement of the club and wishes him all the very best for the future in his personal and professional life."
Laporta will explain more at a Friday news conference.
The development is staggering on multiple levels. Messi, who just achieved major international success with Argentina for the first time at the senior level by winning Copa América, has only known Barcelona in his professional club career, making his debut in 2004 after his rise through the club's La Masia academy. La Liga's season starts a week from tomorrow, and now he's suddenly a superstar without a club. Only PSG and Manchester City have been seriously linked to him given the astronomical wages he commands, but those clubs had been preparing for seasons under the presumption that he would be returning to Barcelona.
Messi has spent 17 seasons with Barcelona's first team, playing in a club-record 778 matches, scoring a club-record 672 goals, assisting on 288 goals and winning 35 trophies, including 10 La Liga titles and four Champions League titles. He has won six Ballon d'Or awards and is a candidate to win a seventh later this year after another individual standout season at Barcelona coupled with his Copa América triumph.
The last year has been a mess for the relationship between the player and club. It all started with Messi's infamous burofax last August, officially announcing his intentions to the club that he wanted to leave. He had insisted that then-president Josep Bartomeu had an agreement with him that would have freed him from his contract with a year to go, only for Bartomeu to allegedly go back on that. Barcelona stood firm, and when it looked like the only way to get out of his contract would be to take his beloved club to court, Messi stayed put. His issues with the club went beyond Bartomeu, though all effectively emanated from the way he ran the team. With astronomical wages and transfer fees spent on a team that had just been eliminated from the Champions League by Bayern Munich by an embarrassing 8–2 score, the outlook for the club to be able to compete at the highest level was bleak. That ouster capped Barcelona's first trophy-less season in a decade.
Messi came back to become La Liga's highest scorer last season, and Barcelona did win the Copa del Rey, though it also collapsed down the stretch of the domestic title race and was ousted by PSG in the Champions League round of 16 on a 5–2 aggregate. In that time, Bartomeu and the club's board of directors resigned, doing so last October. New club elections were held in March, and Laporta, the former club president under whom Barcelona enjoyed success and who promised he could get Messi to stay as his key running point, won. Despite being able to negotiate with a new team six months before the expiration of his contract, Messi never dabbled elsewhere, at least not publicly. Now it appears he will have to.
Man City, despite its bankroll, remains unlikely. The club just shelled out $139 million for Jack Grealish (who will wear Messi's No. 10 at the Etihad) and is reportedly eyeing Harry Kane for an even higher sum than that. Even its gratuitous spending has limits, and Pep Guardiola, Messi's former coach, is on the record as saying he wishes for Messi to play the entirety of his career in Barcelona. PSG remains the most likely destination if he is indeed done at Barcelona—and theorists who surmise this is all a ploy to get La Liga to alter its financial restrictions for fear of losing Messi and all he means for the league's global appeal would suggest that a return is still possible. Messi, in hindsight, added fuel to the fire of him going to the French capital by posing for a picture in Ibiza with four PSG players and friends of his: Neymar, Angel Di Maria, Marco Verratti and Leandro Paredes. Just how he would fit in PSG's salary structure given that club's expenditure—which was increased by the summer additions of Gianluigi Donnarumma, Achraf Hakimi, Georginio Wijnaldum and Sergio Ramos—remains to be seen. Even with all but Hakimi arriving on free transfers, their wages are all massive.
If Messi is finished at Barcelona, he will have played his last match at Camp Nou in front of no fans, without the sendoff commensurate for a player of his stature.
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