The end is getting nearer, Lionel Messi said the night he collected his sixth Ballon d’Or. It was hard enough for Barcelona fans to accept then; it is harder now, and not just because eight months on it is closer and more real than ever. Deep down they all knew he would go some time quite soon – “I am 32,” he said – they just didn’t need reminding, to be suddenly confronted by reality. What no one imagined was that he would go this soon or this way, that it would come to this: an end quite so bitter, quite so broken.
If it hurt Barcelona fans to imagine a time when Messi stopped playing, it is worse to contemplate a time when he only stopped playing for them. This isn’t really that Messi is going; it’s when he’s going, why he’s going, and how he’s going. Where he is going, too: Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, it doesn’t matter much. What matters is that it’s to another club. At least when he said the end was near, they imagined getting there together – his final game, like his first, would be in a Barcelona shirt, a fond if tearful farewell, a collective celebration which will never happen now.
The reaction to his using the word retirement that night last December was revealing, a collective panic, a “don’t say that”, as if seeking to escape a truth that didn’t bear thinking about. Afraid of being exposed by Messi, the board rushed to respond. “Leo’s got a long time left,” the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, said – not least because he had to.
Bartomeu has spoken for Messi many times, his authority to do so less with each appearance, irritation rising in the Argentinian. The president insisted there was Messi para rato – a lot of Messi left – and that phrase covered both Catalan sports dailies, something a little needy, a little desperate, in the headline. It’s said that sportsmen die twice, first when they retire. Barcelona clung to his final years, as if trying to delay the inevitable.
As it turned out, there wasn’t even a year left. After 20 seasons at Barcelona, 17 in the first team, after 34 trophies and 634 goals, it almost certainly comes to an end. It is damaging news for Barcelona and for La Liga, already confronted by a troubling reality. Yet even that is not really the point. Players don’t talk about retirement the way that people don’t talk about death, Jorge Valdano says, but this is a fate worse than that. Not for the rest of football of course – there will be excitement at seeing him elsewhere, the electricity of expectation – but for Barcelona fans. It will feel wrong.
It is wrong and it has been for a long time, culminating here, the collapse complete. Football player leaves football club is not so shocking really, but this is. Yes, because it’s Messi, but it is more than that.
Messi signed for Barcelona on a paper napkin, Charly Rexach and his father scrawling an agreement on a serviette at the tennis club up the road. He signs off with a burofax, a formal letter, a recorded delivery that arrived at the Camp Nou at 7.20pm on Tuesday. Beyond talking now, beyond reconciliation, Messi served legal notice of his intention to leave – and to do so for free. A clause in his contract allows him to walk away.
On Wednesday the sporting director, Ramon Planes, said he wanted to build a winning team around the best player in the world, a brilliant idea they might have thought of sooner. The night before Barcelona had replied via a burofax of their own, insisting the clause does not apply, having expired. The club’s interpretation is that if he was to depart he had to inform them by 10 June. Tuesday was 25 August; his chance had gone. They reminded him that his buyout stands at €700m. And said they wanted him to continue.
It is no way to seek reconciliation. When two sides have reached the point that they are talking through lawyers and formal letters, there’s not much love left. All that’s left is to negotiate or to fight, to limit the damage or risk multiplying it. The question now is what that clause says: does it set a specific date? And when? If so, the legal position is clear. If not, if it says something more vague, referring instead to some variation on “the end of the season”, then that can be argued in court. And, yes, this really might end up in court: club versus captain.
Captain? The best player they have had. The best player anyone has had, perhaps. There is no satisfactory resolution now.
If the battle is over when Messi had to inform them of his decision, then the war is already lost. How do you come back from that? And how did you get to this? How bad can it be that Messi is so determined to leave, so desperate in fact, so convinced there’s nothing to stay for that it is announced like this? And by brokering it like this, it breaks even more. Take it back a few years, incidentally, and how can it be that Messi, when he renewed his deal in 2017, wanted an escape clause at all? Why did he insert the chance to walk out for free on his terms, a get‑out, just in case? How can it be that they let him?
For two years he didn’t go when he could have done. But the collapse continued, the deterioration of the club, the dark nights: Rome, Liverpool, Lisbon. The divide widened. If they tried to make him happy, they failed. “We give the [fans] nothing,” Messi lamented. He wasn’t blameless but he watched his peak years pass without a European Cup. He saw teammates leave. He saw others come and fail. It was time to pull the cord. The sword of Damocles fell.
The shock is not so much that Messi, whose anger and frustration has been increasingly evident, has taken this decision. It is not that the relationship is bad, it is that it is this bad. Confrontation has been increasingly common and played out in public, his anger more and more apparent, but somehow the threat never felt real – certainly, the club did not appear to see the danger – more like a deterrent than a genuine goal. The surprise is not that there were problems but that they were so profound, so irreversible. Having acted now, they deepen still further.
The crisis, building for five years and beyond, is such that Messi has turned his back on everything: his club, his home, his own plans. When he did, Carles Puyol announced his support and Luis Suárez responded with applause. Arturo Vidal said when a tiger is cornered, he comes out fighting.
This is war, the hostility open. And in the middle, the club. What’s left of it. Now even the most significant symbol they have is sullied. Nothing can ever be erased but it can be seen through different eyes. The conflict now is eternal, sides will be taken. There is no way back from this – even if, somehow, he can be convinced to stay. But it can never be the same again.
Some saw Messi’s move as a means of pressure, one last attempt to force change at the top, but it’s gone beyond Bartomeu now, a president who won’t resign anyway. Needing time to fix an economic mess that could become his personal liability, he literally can’t afford to.
And so it ends, changing everything for everyone. Not because Messi is going but because of how it is happening, the damage done. Even if Barcelona make enough money to resolve a financial crisis – and €300m across fee and saved salary is not beyond the realms. Even if they build a team that win without him, others emerging from his long shadow. Even if he doesn’t play well wherever he goes. Even if he comes to lament leaving – and on some level he knows it is guaranteed that he will. Even then, this is a stain that will not go.
It’s not about next year; it is about every year. This moment will always be there, part of a legacy lost, resentment lingering. A symbol of the collapse, of a failure astonishingly abject, of a crisis that in the end took everything with it, even him. Supporters will always remember the time things got so bad that the best player they ever had decided it was time to walk away and sent a letter to say so, the news they feared more than any other possibly in their entire history arriving by recorded delivery.