Barcelona holds its breath as Messi and Enrique row casts dark shadow
Manager fails to assuage fears his relationship with star player has broken down
Barcelona Lionel Messi: When asked if he thought the Argentinian wants to stay, Enrique replied: “I’m not the right person to answer that.” Photograph: Getty Images
Luis Enrique was still at Barcelona last night. How long for, no one knows, and there were certainly no guarantees, but if they carry on like this in Catalonia he may well end up the only one left.
After a week in which Barca sacked their sporting director, Andoni Zubizarreta, and Carles Puyol left the club, and less than a month since the director general was sacked, the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, announced Luis Enrique will continue as the coach. But he also announced there will be elections in the summer. In other words, no one’s future is secure – least of all his own.
And what, everyone wanted to know, of Lionel Messi, the man who has stood silently at the heart of the gathering storm over the last few days? It is his departure that concerns them. Many fans want others to leave; Messi leaving frightens them.
Late on Wednesday night the player had still not spoken; his manager and his president had, but their words did little to calm the crisis. Only one thing was clear: there will be elections in the summer. They will be a curious affair: Fifa’s one-year ban on Barcelona signing anyone means this will not be about promises of the world’s best players coming to Camp Nou. The question will be reformulated: which candidates can ensure that the world’s best player will not leave Camp Nou?
This week Messi followed Chelsea on Instagram, a small, insignificant detail that, in the context of crisis, appeared a significant one. His actions have been interpreted by many as a power play but he is clearly unhappy. It has been coming for a while. Messi is a difficult player to manage and his relationship with the board has been strained for a long time. He publicly described one director as “a man who knows nothing about football”. But this time the fault-line lies in the dressing-room.
The deterioration in the relationship between Enrique and Messi has become a very public issue after the Argentinian was left out of the 1-0 defeat at Real Sociedad on Sunday. Messi, like Neymar and Dani Alves, had returned from his winter break just two days before and two days later than his team-mates - as agreed by the club, and as he has done in the past. Messi then missed an open training session on Monday, arranged annually for children to attend on the eve of Kings Day, the equivalent of Christmas Day.
A club statement later said he was suffering from gastroenteritis. With unfortunate timing, it came three days after captain Xavi Hernandez had admitted in an interview that “gastroenteritis” is often the public excuse that hides other issues.
Reports emerged Messi had confronted Luis Enrique on Friday and again on Sunday, that the coach had wanted to take disciplinary action against him, and that they no longer talk. Messi was reported to have effectively issued Barcelona with an ultimatum of his own. The club’s captains were trying to intervene to calm the tension between coach and star player.
At last, on Wednesday, the club spoke. First up, the coach. Luis Enrique refused to “confirm or deny” those reports although he did say at one point “some of them not true”, and he certainly did nothing to protect Messi from suggestions he had argued with the coaching staff or had refused to train.
Then, with his final remark, he hinted heavily Messi had broken from collective principles that he considers fundamental. “I do not talk about what happens in the dressing room or the training ground; what happens there, stays there,” he said, but the questions kept coming. Asked if he talks to Messi, Luis Enrique replied: “I speak to all of them of, course, some more than others.” How many individual meetings had he had with Messi? “I don’t know how many I have had, or not had.” Asked if he thought Messi wants to stay, he replied: “I’m not the right person to answer that.”
He admitted the sacking of Zubizarreta had “weakened” his position and he did little to assuage fears his relationship with Messi had broken down; in fact much of what he said confirmed the avalanche of reports that have talked of confrontation and discontent, of Messi issuing a threat: “Him or me”. Guardian Service