It had to end sometime. Everybody understood that. But not like this. Acrimoniously. Contested. With lawyers involved.
It was long assumed that it would end where it had begun two decades earlier, at Barcelona. Everyone thought so. Barca did. And Lionel Messi did, too. He said for years that his wish was to end his career at the club that took him in as an undersized 13-year-old and offered to pay for the growth hormone that his Argentine Club, Newell’s Old Boys, wouldn’t cover.
By all appearances, it will end elsewhere.
The soccer world felt blindsided when news got out last Tuesday that Messi had informed Barcelona that he was exercising a clause in his contract to void its final season. He had grown tired of the club’s dysfunction and regression. Immediately, the legal wrangling began.
Barcelona claimed that such an option had to be exercised by May 31. Messi’s camp countered that the season had been extended and that the spirit of the language equated that date to the end of the campaign, which was put off by three months because of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Sunday, a report emerged that the actual language in the contract simply stipulates that the opt-out is valid until 10 days after the season ends, a deadline that Messi met.
La Liga, for its part, has ruled that Messi’s window to opt out passed before he acted on it and that he is still bound to the final year of the deal, or its attendant $834 million buyout fee. It’s unclear what jurisdiction the league has over legal disputes between a player and his club (probably none).
Meanwhile, Messi didn’t show for Barcelona’s scheduled COVID-19 testing on Sunday, which doubled as the beginning of the club’s preseason. The story goes that, since he no longer considers himself a player at the club, he doesn’t think he is obligated to turn up. Other reports have Messi negotiating a contract with Manchester City — where his former coach Pep Guardiola is the manager and many other former Barca employees work — that would take him to the Premier League for three years and City’s sister team in New York City for another two.
The separation has quickly turned ugly. Barcelona faces immense pressure from its fans, who have been demonstrating outside the stadium, to retain the greatest player in the sport’s history. Embattled team president Josep Maria Bartomeu has even offered to resign immediately, rather than serve until an election in March, which was already moved up in the wake of the club’s ignominious 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals on Aug. 14. Messi’s displeasure with Bartomeu and his board is well established.
Like any long-term partnership, Messi and Barca would probably have liked to have split up amicably. But whether this is a trial separation or a full-on divorce, the maneuvering and conniving is beneath both parties.
Like most relationships that have run their course, the behavior in the breakup does not do honor to all the years spent together. Messi springing the news on his club with a fax that the most decorated and laureled player in its history would be leaving, now, immediately, doesn’t look great. If he had any inkling that he might make use of his opt-out clause, he could have let the club know sooner so that it might plan, rather than to be thrown into chaos on the eve of a new season. These kinds of transitions need to be planned, often over the course of many months. Instead, he is leaving his boyhood club in the lurch — or intends to, anyway.
Barcelona, meanwhile, could probably also be more understanding of the fact that, at 33, and after 634 first-team goals in 731 official games, after 10 La Liga titles, four Champions League trophies and six Ballons d’Or as the world’s best player, Messi is ready for a new challenge. That he would like to try out a new team, a new league, a new set of accomplishments to strive for. It could have conceded that, surely, the thrust of the clause in his contract meant that he could leave upon the conclusion of the 2019-20 season, whenever that may be. Nobody anticipated an unprecedented three-month hiatus in the season when that contract was written.
It is understandable that Barcelona wishes to hold onto him, even if it could be argued that Messi’s continued presence complicates the overhaul the club so badly needs, or at least extract some kind of transfer fee for him to help launch the post-Messi era. You might just as easily point out that if Barca is on the brink of becoming the first club in the world to breach a billion euros in annual revenues, it is thanks mostly to Messi, and that squeezing a few hundred million more out of him is greedy and ungrateful.
Then again, the club apparently needs the money badly, and one theory even posits that the club is so eager to offload Messi’s nine-figure salary and collect a transfer fee that it has systematically pushed him out.
Even if that is so, all that this wrangling and fighting achieves is to cast a dark pall over his sparkling legacy at the club, and the club’s legacy in the fairy tale of Lionel Messi’s career, of the small boy propelled to the greatest soccer career ever.
None of this does justice to what they had together.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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