The ‘dwarf’ that outgrew a giant

If this is the end, the words could be taken from The Doors and the plot from Shakespeare.

Leo Messi leaving Barcelona is nothing less than a football tragedy – a parable for even these troubled times.

You’d hope there could be a reconciliation but the way the bombshell was dropped suggests otherwise.

In Spain, the choice of a burofax is significant: it demands that the recipient acknowledges not only receiving the document but also its contents.

If this is a ploy to get rid of the president, it is a blunt one and now Josep Maria Bartomeu has offered to step down, the onus is on Messi to come clean.

A breakup of this magnitude was never going to be done via a note on the fridge door, but it was still a stunning development.

Even if things had been a bit rocky between the two of late, you thought it would never come to this.

For the Barca-Messi double act was to die for: more than a marriage made on the Elysian fields, it was an epic tale of salvation and reward.

Barcelona have every right to say that without them there would have been no Messi. Borrowing from The Doors’ song, they were not only a beautiful friend, they were his only friend.

At 12, little Leo was already a football prodigy but he was diagnosed with hormone deficiency – treatment for which cost US$900 a month and way beyond the modest means of the Messi family in economically-ravaged Argentina.

It was also beyond the means of Newell’s Old Boys and River Plate, two big clubs who had their eyes on him.

Word of his prowess reached Barcelona who, after scarcely believing what they were seeing in the flesh, stumped up for his medical bills and moved his family to Catalonia.

At 13, he was 4’2” (1.27m) tall and, or so it was claimed, when he nutmegged an opponent, it wasn’t just the ball that went through the legs. His nickname back then was “el enano” – the dwarf.

But a lack of height wasn’t the only worry for his parents: for all his brilliance with a ball, he was a weakling.

Without treatment, he would have remained one and faced problems with his vision and immune system. The move was to be a life-changer.

Taking his medicine and joining La Masia, the Harvard of football academies, Messi grew 17in (43cm) and on the field graduated with more than just honours.

Leading Barca youth teams to every trophy available, and winning Olympic gold for Argentina in 2008, he was the next – and now not so little – big thing.

For all this, integrating the still shy teenager into a dressing room of street-wise pros, was never going to be easy. But at least his nickname changed – it became “La Pulga” – the Flea. Very soon, it would be “La Pulga Atomica” (The Atomic Flea).

The upgrade was down to Pep Guardiola. The rookie coach not only became a father figure to him, he gave him the freedom to outshine a team of superstars.

And to shield the diffident boy from the perceived bad apples, Ronaldinho and Deco, and the overbearing presence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Guardiola ushered them out and made Messi the centre of the Barcelona universe.

It created arguably the greatest player and greatest club team of all time.

In Guardiola’s first season, 2008-09, Barca won all six competitions they entered and Messi won the first of his six Ballons d’or.

Even though Guardiola left in 2012, Messi didn’t stop. “With Lionel, you run out of superlatives,” the departing manager said. In all, he has scored 645 goals in 743 games, won 10 La Liga titles, six Copa del Reys and four Champions Leagues.

So, not only had Barca saved him from being a sickly nobody who may have died young, they ensured he made the most of his genius.

But as the shy boy found his voice as a man, he developed a selfish streak. He knew he was special and expected special treatment – even from the tax man. And when Barca couldn’t provide it, he almost quit.

Successive managers were savvy enough to give him his head and never more so than when he had Luis Suarez and Neymar alongside him in the vaunted MSN front three.

But when Neymar, who knew he’d never be No. 1 at Barca, left to become top dog at PSG in 2017, Barca were weakened.

They wasted the world record fee on the “wrong” replacements and Bartomeu, who felt his priority was to please Messi, only succeeded in irritating him with duff choices.

Even so, given that he owes not just his career but maybe his life to the club, it is surprising that Messi feels as strongly as he does.

It appears that he doesn’t relish a rebuilding job and a long wait for a trophy if he stays. Being feted as the last piece of a winning jigsaw elsewhere appeals far more.

But it may not be that simple. A legal wrangle over his €700m buyout clause looks certain. No club will pay that and a compromise could be the only way out.

Favourites are Manchester City and PSG, both of whom have their attractions. City have not only Guardiola but an ex-Barcelona hierarchy and his best pal Sergio Aguero. They also play his kind of football.

PSG have his old pal Neymar and Kylian Mbappe for a dream front three and the French league offers an easier ride.

From the tone of his demand, either would be preferable to waiting for the Barca giant to stir again. With time running out, he is showing no gratitude.

If there is a split, Barca will hurt more and for it to end in tears tells us a lot about the values of today.

Barca may be more than a club, but Messi clearly feels he is even bigger.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.