Lionel Messi is smiling again as Barça head into key El Clásico

Summer storm has calmed but star’s future remains uncertain as club battles big debts

Lionel Messi's wife collected him from Barcelona's El Prat airport in mid-November after playing a couple of international games in South America. Messi was more fed up than usual. He'd failed to score in both matches. After a 15-hour return flight from Lima, his private plane was grounded at the airport so a pair of tax inspectors could board it. They grilled him for more than half an hour.

The frustrations mounted. As he tried to weave his way through a scrum of reporters and autograph hunters to get to his car, Messi was quizzed about comments made by Antoine Griezmann's former agent, Eric Olhats, that Messi operated "a reign of terror" at Barça, which made it difficult for Griezmann to settle in since his move to the club in the summer of 2019.

Messi was livid, citing the “madness” of being met by tax authorities after a “15-hour flight” and concluding: “I’m tired of always being the problem for everything at the club”. It looked as if he was again being pushed closer to the exit door. His form at the club was the worst it had been in more than a decade. He’d only scored two goals from play at that stage in the season. He looked glum on the pitch.

A couple of weeks later, Barça's acting president Carles Tusquets - who was managing a caretaker administration until presidential elections were held in March 2021 - dropped a bomb when he told RAC1, a Catalan radio station, he would have sold the iconic No 10 during the summer when Messi presented his infamous burofax to the club, requesting to leave.

At the time of his transfer request, Messi was furious at the treatment of his friend, Luis Suárez, who had been pushed out of the club; the Uruguayan cried as he left Barça's training ground to join Atletico Madrid. After getting filleted 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final, another in a list of embarrassing nights for Barça in Europe recently, Messi reckoned he no longer had the players around him to beat Europe's best teams. He wanted out, but was unable to force an exit without resorting to a legal battle.

Tusquets was facing up to a hard truth. The power of Messi’s brand - not to mention the trophies that his 663 goals have helped to deliver, including 10 league titles and four European Cups - might generate great value for the club, but Barça are insolvent.

For several years, Barça have been mismanaged. The loss of Neymar Jr to Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2017 caused the club to inflate its wage bill. Barça pays the salaries of three of the world's top five best-paid players: Messi, Griezmann and Suárez (Barça still pays almost half the Uruguayan's salary), according to L'Équipe. It has splurged over €350 million on failed transfers like Griezmann, Philippe Coutinho and Miralem Pjanic.

Its former president Josep Maria Bartomeu was arrested (and later released) in March during a police investigation into corruption. The ongoing investigation relates to a social media company, I3 Ventures, the club hired, which allegedly smeared so-called enemies of the president, including Messi's wife, Gerard Piqué and Pep Guardiola. When Bartomeu's right-hand man, Emili Rousaud, resigned as a director in April 2020, he claimed in a RAC1 radio interview that someone had their "fingers in the till" at the club.

Debt

Barça's debt now stands at over €1.2 billion, of which €730 million, according to El País, is short-term. It must, for example, pay back €266 million before the end of June. Although the club is member-owned, it is danger of falling prey to vulture capitalists depending on how its new president Joan Laporta renegotiates its debt.

A club valued at $4 billion, according to Forbes, is a juicy debt-for-equity opportunity for investors. Just look at how the American billionaire Paul Singer - a man who made his fortune feasting on the bad loans made by governments in Argentina, Peru and the Republic of Congo - took over AC Milan in 2018 when former owner Li Yonghong defaulted on a $37 million loan payment.

Laporta must thread carefully. He has to try to re-negotiate Messi’s contract. In his favour, as a former president from 2003-2010 during the happiest years of Messi’s time at the club, Laporta enjoys the respect of Messi’s camp. Much has been made locally in Barcelona of Messi’s appearance to vote along with his eldest son, Thiago, in the presidential elections in March, the first time Messi exercised his right to vote as a member.

Manchester City, which was Messi's preferred destination last summer, have also pulled out of the race for him, according to a well-sourced "case closed" investigation by Diario Sport. Executives at City - which include Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain, both key figures alongside Laporta during his last regime at Barça - believe that Messi will stay in Catalonia. Also they figure their energies are better focused on signing a striker like Erling Haaland, Harry Kane or Romelu Lukaku for the Etihad.

Messi is still, however, a target for Paris Saint-Germain. The Qatar-owned club - who have a toxic relationship with Barça since the Catalan club ended its sponsorship with Qatar Airways in 2016 - have made their interest public several times, with, for example, their sporting director, Leonardo, suggesting in January that PSG were "reserving a seat at the table" for him.

Messi said he will make up his mind before the summer. Laporta will have to persuade him to take a pay cut, as La Liga, according to Diario AS, are demanding that Barça slash its wage bill by 43 per cent next season. The money Messi makes at the club would water your eyes. He's just finishing up a four-year contract that has earned him approximately €127 million a year, according to El Mundo, who leaked details of his contract in January.

Messi must also be convinced that Laporta can build him a team strong enough to compete for the Uefa Champions League title again - without a transfer purse to work with. Thankfully for Laporta, Messi is playing with a smile on his face again. It looks like he has been reinvigorated by the impressive form of several players new coach Ronald Koeman has blooded this season, including three sensational 18-year-olds, Pedri, Ilaix Moriba and Ansu Fati (who is recovering from a knee injury).

Title race

Messi's recent form has been out of this world, better than any other striker in Europe's Top 5 leagues in 2021. In the last 13 games for Barça, he's scored 16 goals and provided seven assists. It's a run that has helped the club get to a Copa del Rey final - scheduled for next Saturday against Athletic Bilbao - and to claw back Atletico Madrid's lead in the title race, reduced from 12 points in December to a single point.

Barça could sleep on Saturday night as league leaders if they can defeat eternal rivals, Real Madrid, on the road. (Atletico play on Sunday.) Real Madrid - who beat Liverpool comfortably 3-1 during the week in their Uefa Champions League quarter-final first leg - are in a rich vein of form, too. They're unbeaten since January and trail Atletico by three points.

Coach Zinedine Zidane has overcome several problems this season, including a long-running standoff between Sergio Ramos and club president Florentino Pérez over the captain's contract renewal; the need to ship out starlets Luka Jovic, an "express" signing by Zidane who has flopped as a striker, and Martin Odegaard on loan in January; and an embarrassing Copa del Rey exit to a third-tier team, Alcoyano.

Zidane has triumphed by managing to wring one last campaign out of his old guard, among them Karim Benzema and the majestic midfield trio of Casemiro, Toni Kroos and 35-year-old Luka Modric. It could be Messi's final clásico, although a feelgood win and the drive towards another La Liga title might make him more disposed to staying in Spain.

Last 10 El Clásico Matches

October 24th 2020: Barcelona 1 3 Real Madrid

March 1st 2020: Real Madrid 2 0 Barcelona

December 18th 2019: Barcelona 0 0 Real Madrid

March 2nd 2019: Real Madrid 1 0 Barcelona

February 27th 2019: Real Madrid 0 3 Barcelona (Copa del Rey)

February 6th 2019: Barcelona 1 1 Real Madrid (Copa del Rey)

October 28th 2018: Barcelona 5 1 Real Madrid

May 6th 2018: Barcelona 2 2 Real Madrid

December 23rd 2017: Real Madrid 0 3 Barcelona

April 23rd 2017: Real Madrid 2 3 Barcelona

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