Barça usually get late night kick-off times for La Liga games at the Camp Nou. Players spill out of the stadium around midnight to go home. Lionel Messi and Luis Suárez typically carshare, alternating the driving between themselves.
The pair do everything together. They’re neighbours in Castelldefels, a sleepy seaside village 15 miles outside the city of Barcelona. Their houses are set in a hillside against the backdrop of the mountainous Garraf national park. Their kids go to school together. Their wives are partners in a shoe store.
Last week Messi got a call, as team captain, to meet with Ronald Koeman, Barcelona's new manager. Messi was out of town, holidaying with Suárez and their families in one of Messi's holiday homes in the Pyrenees mountains.
Messi jumped in his car and drove the two hours back to Barcelona to hear what Koeman had to say. He didn’t much like what he had to hear. Koeman is a club legend, “the hero of Wembley”, for scoring the winning goal that delivered Barça its first European Cup in 1992.
Koeman has been installed to overhaul an ageing squad – the team defeated 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final averaged 30 years of age – and to dismantle a powerful dressingroom. Players like Messi, Suárez, Jordi Alba, Arturo Vidal and Gerard Piqué operate in a power vacuum left by a weak, clumsy president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, whose only cunning is an instinct for self-preservation.
Koeman is doing Bartomeu's bidding. People in Barcelona were shocked by the speed at which Koeman set to work. Last Monday, he phoned Suárez to tell him he should leave the club. Their conversation lasted a minute. One after another, Koeman phoned players with the same news, including Ivan Rakitic, the man who scored Barcelona's first goal in the 2015 Champions League final, Samuel Umtiti and Vidal, another close friend of Messi's.
Koeman’s treatment of Suárez – ending the club career of the third highest scorer in Barça’s history with a phone call – tipped the balance in Messi’s mind. The following day, Messi sent a burofax to the club announcing he wanted to leave the club. The earth shook. The press in Madrid have been wallowing in Barça’s misfortune. “Adiós by burofax” screamed the front page of Madrid-based sports newspaper Diario AS on Wednesday morning.
Messi’s decision to leave the club hasn’t happened overnight. He has been at odds with Bartomeu for years. In 2017, when Messi renewed his contract until 2021, he dragged his feet for five months before agreeing to do a photo shoot with the president to confirm the contract renewal. It emerged last year that Messi included a curious contract clause, allowing him to leave the club at the end of each season on a free transfer if he wanted.
Messi has despaired at Bartomeu’s bungled attempts to regenerate the squad. Bartomeu has gone through five sporting directors since 2015, as transfer upon transfer – including Arda Turan, André Gomes and Ousmane Dembélé – have expired at the cash register.
Messi wanted Bartomeu to re-sign Neymar Jr last summer from Paris Saint-Germain. After the embarrassing 4-0 defeat to Liverpool in last year's Champions League semi-final, Bartomeu denied to Messi that he had signed Antoine Griezmann. It later emerged Bartomeu and Griezmann had agreed a deal two months earlier (which cost the club a €15 million settlement payment to Atletico Madrid for tapping up one of their players). Bartomeu's bet on Griezmann – who has struggled to adapt at the club because Messi plays in his position – meant the club didn't have money to buy Neymar Jr.
Bartomeu sacked his coach Ernesto Valverde in January – while Barça were top of the league table – against Messi's wishes. Valverde's successor, the 61-year-old Quique Setien, had never managed a team in the Champions League before. He was lost at sea. Messi didn't believe in him from day one. Players thought his training exercises were silly and over-complicated. Both Messi and Suárez criticised him in press interviews.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, Bartomeu and his board backed the players into a corner, pressuring them through press leaks to accept a salary cut. Messi was furious, issuing a statement on social media in which he confirmed the squad would reduce their salaries and – in trumping the president – would also cover the club staff’s lost wages. The callous treatment of Suárez was the last straw.
Messi's transfer request has created an unholy mess, and comes at a moment when the club is already rickety and at the mercy of a deep-seated culture of player power. When Pep Guardiola left as coach in 2012, he cited exhaustion and a fear that if he stayed any longer he would destroy relationships with several of his players, as he struggled to cope with their indiscretions like, for example, Dani Alves returning late from Christmas holidays.
Five years later, Luis Enrique – another treble-winning coach – left for similar reasons. When Koeman was unveiled last week as manager, Luis Enrique, who is now managing the Spain national team, warned that he will face a difficult job "managing the dressingroom".
The players – who are the best-paid sports team in the world, according to Sporting Intelligence – are a law unto themselves. During the winter, Arthur (who has been sold to Juventus) injured his groin while snowboarding. Piqué admitted in an El País interview to only getting four or five hours of sleep a night because he was consumed with revamping the Davis Cup tennis tournament, one of several off-field business interests.
Last summer, when the club scrambled to buy back Neymar Jr, the club's senior players, including Messi, Piqué and Suárez, proposed delaying their salary payments to partly fund the deal. Can you imagine when Alex Ferguson was manager of Manchester United his players proposing (over his head) they would help pay for David Beckham's return to the club? It's not how football clubs should be run.
Bartomeu has been a shambles. His only policy has been to keep Messi happy. In this, he has failed monumentally, even though he's thrown money at Messi. The Argentine's salary is €106 million a year, according to Football Leaks, which far exceeds Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar Jr's salaries.
It’s an extravagance which is part of Barcelona’s worrying financial situation. It already spends 69 per cent of its income on player salaries, compared with, say, 52 per cent at Real Madrid. Last season, it lost €300 million because of the pandemic. It stands to be down 30 per cent of its revenue next season. Barcelona simply doesn’t have the money to rejuvenate its squad. It needs to sell players first.
Anyway there's no guarantee a forward replacement for Messi like Lautaro Martínez, who the club are pursuing, will deliver. Look at what happened when Real Madrid sold Cristiano Ronaldo. His successor Eden Hazard scored one goal since joining last summer; Ronaldo scored 450 goals in nine seasons.
Messi’s departure could, however, save Bartomeu and his directors from being personally liable for debts accrued during their regime. Bartomeu is desperate to balance his accounts with the club in the last two transfer windows before his mandate finishes next March. Getting Messi’s salary off the books and bringing in, say, a €120 million face-saving transfer fee could get him out of a jam. It would be a short-term fix though.
Barça hasn’t always been a great club; Messi has made it one. Between 1960 and 1990, Barcelona won La Liga twice. Since making his league debut in 2004, Messi has won 10 league titles. Before Messi, Barça won a single European Cup. Messi has added four to the trophy cabinet. He has scored 634 goals for the club, 400 more than the previous record-holder, César, a striker who emerged from the ashes of the Spanish Civil War.
Clubs rise and fall. Milan has disappeared as a force in Europe. Manchester United haven’t challenged for the English Premier League since Ferguson left in 2013. Without Messi, and the hysterical fallout his departure will precipitate – possibly along the lines of the five-year trophyless spiral that Luís Figo’s move to Real Madrid in 2000 caused – means that Barça faces an uncertain future.
Barcelona’s fans are hurt by the manner Messi has chosen to leave. The grievances he has don’t warrant ending a 20-year relationship with the club by dispatching a legal letter. It is profoundly upsetting for fans that arguably the greatest player in history will leave by the back door. His last act the most embarrassing defeat in the club’s history.
If Messi’s transfer goes ahead, as seems inevitable, he will be welcomed back to the city one day. He will be forgiven. That is not the fate that awaits Bartomeu. For helping to drive Messi out of the club, he will forever have to hang his head in shame.
Messi’s battles with Barça
2013: Javier Faus, Barcelona's vice-president for finance, complains in a radio interview about Messi's contract renewal: "I don't know why we have to renew it again. We don't have to present an improvement to his contract every six months." Messi shoots back: "Señor Faus is a person who knows nothing about football. Barcelona is one of the biggest clubs in the world and deserves to [be managed] by the best leaders . . . neither I nor anyone in my entourage asked for an increase or renewal, and he knows that very well." When Faus left the club in 2015, he admitted: "Messi was right. I have no idea of football."
2016: Messi gets slapped with a 21-month suspended sentence for tax evasion (later reduced to a €252,000 fine). He wants to leave Barça (and Spain) out of spite, eyeing a €150 million move to Manchester City. Ironically, his friend and team-mate Luis Suárez talks him out of it.
2020: Eric Abidal, Barça's sporting director and a former team-mate of Messi's, suggests in a newspaper interview that Barça's players were responsible for coach Ernesto Valverde's sacking. Within minutes of the article publishing online, Messi fired back a riposte on social media. In red ink, he encircled Abidal's claim that many of the players weren't satisfied with Valverde and weren't working hard. He called on Abidal to name names, if not he was "dirtying" Messi's name by implication.