The circus surrounding the Barcelona contract of Lionel Messi expiring was primarily led by Real Madrid-centric tabloid TV show El Chiringuito, which went viral for its rather comedically straight-faced scapegoating of Eden Hazard after he was seen laughing with Chelsea players following Los Blancos’ Champions League exit. They went as far as making a countdown clock and gleefully wishing away the seconds until midnight of June 30.
Spanish football, and the media which orbits it, are best summed up by this kind of behaviour. Because Cataluña is widely regarded as a wannabe independent state, its press often reads like a fanzine, revelling in the failure of the teams in the capital, most prominently Real Madrid. It stands to reason that it would be the same in the other direction and, therefore, the childish goading and compete lack of nuance is to be expected, even if the context they readily chose to ignore suggests that Messi being without a contract is temporary. He is expected to sign a new deal at Camp Nou very soon.
That won’t stop sections of the world’s media having a field day debating where he will go next and then proceeding to call his continuation at Barça a ‘second’ spell. Things can change very quickly in football but, given the attention garnered by Messi’s initial request to leave last summer when he had a €700m release clause anchoring to the club at which he has spent his entire career, there would be a deluge of speculation linking him with every powerful club in Europe. Plenty of them would drop everything just to get a sniff of actually signing him.
Manchester City were interested and Pep Guardiola has never hidden his admiration for Messi, regularly calling him the greatest ever footballer, but he has also maintained his wish, as a lifelong Barça fan, that he stay at the club for the rest of his career. Nevertheless, here we are; the stars have aligned. City need a new forward and the recently-turned-34-year-old appears readily available. Yet, they’ve bid for Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane instead and links with Borussia Dortmund striker Erling Haaland are refusing to go away. It is hard to imagine that if Messi made clear his desire for a reunion with Guardiola, the club wouldn’t do everything in their power to make it a reality. Everything points to a continuation of the status quo.
Inter and Paris Saint-Germain were involved in the saga but a crisis started by Antonio Conte’s departure, and exacerbated by crippling financial issues, has rendered the San Siro a no-go area. There have been links with PSG and, with Kylian Mbappe stalling on a new contract, the presence of Messi’s friend and former teammate Neymar as well as fellow countryman Mauricio Pochettino may have made this a viable option.
However Messi’s silence, especially considering how he fed into the exit narrative last season, looks telling. The only caveat is that he is focussed on the Copa America with Argentina.
There are also more reasons for Messi to sign a new contract than in August last year, when he first made clear his aims after a disastrous Champions League exit to Bayern Munich. Many assumed he was calculating winning a power play with unpopular former club president Josep Maria Bartomeu and, though his intentions were said to be genuine, he wasn’t willing to tarnish his relationship with the club by forcing an exits through the courts.
He still outlasted Bartomeu and the man who replaced him was Joan Laporta, who was in charge when Messi broke into the first team in 2004. Their relationship is strong and goes back a long way. Laporta’s return was always going to have an impact, as was the arrival of Messi’s and international teammate best friend Sergio Agüero on a free transfer.
If and when, as expected, Messi agrees a new contract, it will bring a close to the pantomime but not the scrutiny. Barcelona’s mountain of debt stands well over £1bn and, despite securing the signings of both Agüero and Memphis Depay, they will have to significantly cut their wage bill to avert long-lasting disaster very soon.
Laporta has never wavered in his confidence over Messi’s future but allowing his contract to run down into its final few days was one thing, seeing it run out is another completely. It has only seen the narrative over the club’s money troubles grow in prominence and the sense of circus to follow.
What made Laporta’s first reign as president so impressive off the pitch was the competence and organisation he showed. He maintained their values economically as well as in from a sporting perspective, with no sponsor and a focus on making youth central to first team success, allowing Messi and many more to flourish. Their core principles stood for something, and although the basket-case he inherited was not his fault, he has not done too much to alleviate the issues with the running of the club since.
Sponsorship is now a fact of life and Barça would be in major trouble without it but extremely poor financial planning has been a root cause. Laporta is still keen on the European Super League idea, principally because it could get him and the club out of a huge hole.
From here, Messi will sign a new contract and continue to paper over some growing cracks at the club, let alone in the squad. That is how it has always been. But either Barcelona have delayed this purposely or, as is much more likely, they are struggling to afford his renewal. Laporta has alluded to a Financial Fair Play issue, but whatever the reason, allowing Messi to officially leave the club has been another example of Barcelona’s embarrassing lack of competence.
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