I’ve been asked to write about Messy-gate but it seems to me that the situation hardly requires a profound analysis. But maybe that’s the point, because the behaviour of the Barcelona president and his diminishing band of acolytes is so bizarre that one can only rub one’s stubble in wonder. Is there any sense whatsoever in their ‘policy’, if such it can be labelled? Now the league’s got involved and sided with Barça. Conclusion? Read on.
Let’s rewind a wee bit. It must have been either 2001 or 2002, I can’t quite recall. What I do recall is that Real Sociedad were doing very well in the league and that Barcelona were the visitors. Stumbling into my favourite bar in the Antiguo neighbourhood of San Sebastián at lunchtime with a mate, we came across a noisy but friendly group of culés, one of whom was interested to see a pasty foreigner (me) wearing an ill-fitting Sociedad shirt. In short, we got talking, and it was one of those careful encounters where you wish to keep it friendly. To achieve this, you make deliberate complimentary remarks about the other team, to show that you’re not a thug in disguise – and you hope that they will reciprocate. This guy did, saying that he was worried about the game and that Real had some great players etc, but did I know about the secret weapon that Barça had in the locker, almost ready to be released upon the world? I said that I didn’t. I remember his serious look and the reverent way in which he dropped the pitch of his voice. ‘He’s called Messi’ he told me, in Spanish. ‘He’s unbelievable. Listen – he’ll be the greatest of all time. I’m not pulling your leg’, and with that, he and his mates left. And for some reason, the surname registered. About three years later, Messi made his debut against Espanyol, I was at the match and I never even noticed, but hey. Now it all makes a bit of sense.
Of the five other players commonly regarded as the greatest of all time by folks like me who are decrepit enough to have seen them all play (Pele, Maradona, Cruyff, Best, Di Stéfano – the first four in the flesh, the other on grainy telly), only Pele can be said to have contributed so much to one single club, although historians might argue the case for Di Stéfano, of course. All five made their mark in different ways, which is what makes them so interesting, but none of them really had the impact on their club’s trajectory and trophy cabinet that Messi has had. If you argue that Di Stéfano created the modern Real Madrid well fine – you might be right. But as a player, he also left under a cloud. This isn’t a cloud, however, but a gale-force storm, gathering strength on a daily basis. Why? Because Messi is clearly the greatest player to have ever donned boots since the game dribbled into existence a century-and-a-half ago.
We know the figures, and they’re insane – at least in the higher-octane context of 21st century elite football. 645 goals in 763 appearances. The Barça fan in the bar was right, although what he hadn’t seen was that a certain confluence of players residing back then in La Masia, namely Messrs Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol and a little later, Busquets, would all conspire to permit this weirdly focused little man to do his stuff. And maybe he would’ve done it anyway, in whatever space-time continuum he happened to have been placed. Even in Getafe. And assuming that no other intelligent life in the cosmos would practise anything quite as dumb as football, he’s probably the best player in the universe. His physical movements have certainly threatened to change the laws of physics.
You can see where this is leading……Mr Bartomeu – but let’s just consider the wee man as a person as well. Messi has caused the club no problems whatsoever. He has stayed out of politics – which is some achievement given the profile of the club and the two previous dodgy presidents he played under. He’s never been a womaniser, a disco-lurker or a drinker. He’s a family guy, with three kids and a wife whom he first met when he was five.
He had a few tax-evasion scares, but hey, standard for the course. He’s not exactly Mr Charisma, but he keeps the soundbites to himself. Had this not blown up, he would probably have been seen (and cultivated) as a future ambassador for the club, and indeed, he may be desperate to preserve some part of the bridge that he otherwise seems to be burning. But he’s fed up – not simply of the 8-2 and the warning signs that preceded it, but with the randomly crude treatment of his fellow players, one day lauded, the next put out to grass. He’s nothing if not loyal, and the treatment of his mate Luis Súarez was clearly the last straw. You can peddle the counter-argument that he’s a quiet dictator, and that his influence over the club’s policies in the last few years has been malign, but it’s a theory that’s hard to swallow. If a president is an effective one, the configurations of power in a club remain in equilibrium. If Messi has had undue influence, then that is because he himself saw too much chaos from the top.
His brilliance also papered over the club’s previous institutional cracks and raised it to perhaps its greatest ever level, with the tiki-taka side seemingly invincible and a new paradigm born. What the club is today, despite its historic achievements and its traditional propensity for battling against the political odds, is very much down to this oddly introverted and shy man from Argentina, who might not have made it if Charly Rexach had not had the gumption to persuade the club to pay for the treatment for his hormone deficiency. And now they won’t let him go. They won’t let him go in a dignified manner.
You could argue that Messi should have announced his intentions before June 10th (as stipulated in his contract) but if it goes to court then nobody wins, least of all the club. In the end, they are going to have to put a price on his head and accept that it’s all over, baby blue (with a bit of red). The only possible logic behind their strategy is that by delaying the inevitable they remind his suitors that they still own Messi, and value him as a player – in a strictly financial sense. Nobody will pay 700 million – an abstraction designed for a moment like this – but the exact figure that Man City (for example) might pay is also tricky to calculate for a player who has, at best, a couple of years left. Messi’s done it all. He’s not going to continue beyond 35 because he doesn’t need to. He’s a family guy and, as they say in Yorkshire, he’s not short of a bob or two. His kids attend an English school in Barcelona and so could probably cope with the Manc accent for a couple of years. The rain might get them down a bit, but you can’t have everything.
There’s something about these circumstances that resemble the wife/husband who has suddenly been informed by the lawyer that their partner wants a divorce. Many of these victims, caught napping, sink into a state of denial that requires psychological help. They need to be told that yes, it’s really over and that you’re going to have to face up to that, sooner or later. Someone needs to visit Bartomeu, and soon.
Quite apart for the obvious need to let Messi go – because Messi has clearly made his mind up, there are other, more neutral considerations to bear in mind. For example, it would be interesting to see how he fared in another challenging league such as the English Premier, and fascinating to see him in a different coloured shirt in a new context. He may disappoint, but the prospect fascinates. LaLiga can also breathe a sigh of relief, since they would finally be rid of the Messi-Ronaldo dual-duel that has so unbalanced the Spanish scene since Ronaldo turned up in 2009 (I was at his debut too – sorry to be an arse). For the last sixteen seasons since that Messi debut, only Atlético have managed to briefly break up the Godzilla-Kong combat, for a single measly season. A little levelling of the playing field would surely compensate for the absence of these two players, with Sevilla, Villarreal, Atlético and one or two other pretenders handed the sudden possibility of really winning the league title, instead of just fantasising about it. It’s difficult to see how that is a problem.
Instead, it seems that Barcelona’s calamitous decision-making is to continue, for the time being, and that the only possible consequence is that Messi will simply refuse to play. Does the club therefore intend to finish off its glorious season of ill-considered fuckwittage by depriving the general public of the greatest player the game has ever seen, for an entire season? It doesn’t bear thinking about. The other theory that I’ve heard is that Bartomeu thinks that public opinion could turn against Messi too, although exactly how that would help to solve the situation is unclear.
Given that LaLiga declared today (Sunday) that Messi is not a free agent and that his contract is still valid, he may turn up for Covid testing this coming week. He’s unlikely to pay the 700 million himself, much as he’d like to leave. I reckon he’ll sit it out. The transfer window closes in early October so there’s margin for a sensible pact between the two parties, or even union arbitration. Hang on to your seats. It’s going to get messy.