BARCELONA: Lionel Messi’s bombshell request to leave Barcelona is expected to spark a legal battle over a multi-million-dollar buy-out clause but also raises the question of which club could afford him in the heat of the coronavirus pandemic.
Messi’s priority has always been to be part of a “winning project” at Camp Nou, and newly-appointed sporting director Ramon Planes on Wednesday hailed the Argentinian as a “winner” the Catalan club was working hard to keep.
Messi is Barca’s record scorer and helped the club amass four Champions League titles, 10 La Liga titles and six Copa del Rey trophies.
Barcelona’s latest season, however, were not only devoid of trophies (for the first time since 2008), they were also defined by chaos and ended in humiliation with a 8-2 Champions League quarter-final defeat by eventual champions Bayern Munich.
The 33-year-old Messi, a six-time Ballon d’Or winner, has not asked for a transfer so he can his feet up for the final years of his career. This is a considered move aimed at adding to his successes, and in one competition in particular — the Champions League.
€1 million a week
Those able both to afford Messi, who has a reported weekly salary of nearly €1 million, and convince him, may only be Paris St Germain and Manchester City, with Inter Milan a third, more distant option.
City would appear favourites, but the club have always trodden carefully around the question of Messi.
For PSG, whose frustration in Europe has been comparable to City’s, even though the French club broke new ground by reaching last weekend’s final, Messi would also represent a seismic addition to the Qatari project.
A Neymar-Messi-Kylian Mbappe front three would not be a difficult sell.
Staying at Barcelona remains a possibility, however, particularly if under-pressure president Josep Maria Bartomeu resigns.
‘New winning cycle’
Bartomeu’s new sporting director Ramon Planes, named in place of Eric Abidal a day after Quique Setien was sacked as manager following the Bayern defeat, said on Wednesday that Messi’s want-away demand was “a very important story”.
“But our idea at the club is still to build a new winning cycle around the best player in the world. We are not contemplating any kind of departure because what we want is for Messi to stay.”
Planes added: “You have to have enormous respect for what Messi is and for his history.
“I think the future is positive. I am an optimist. We need experienced players, like Leo Messi … We are putting every effort into ensuring that the relationship between Barca and Messi will continue. We are working internally to convince Leo.”
Planes stressed that there was “not an argument between Messi and Barca — neither deserves it”.
“We are working to make Barca a winner. There is no division within the club over Leo. Anyone who knows football wants him to stay here to win again. He’s a winner.”
Barcelona are understood to believe Messi’s release clause expired in June, and that he remains under contract until the end of the 2021 season.
“In principle, this clause expired on June 10, but the unusual nature of this season disrupted by the coronavirus opened the way for Messi to ask to be released from his contract now,” wrote Marca newspaper.
“It’s the first step towards opening negotiations over his departure, on the basis of which his release clause amounts to €700 million.”
Messi joined Barcelona’s youth academy at the age of 13 and made his debut in 2004 as a 17-year-old, before going on to score a club-record 634 goals.
Fans were bewildered by the Messi saga.
“There is something that did not work for it to end like this. The atmosphere between Messi and management is not good,” said Antoni Reboredo, a 75-year-old pensioner sitting opposite Barca’s Camp Nou.
To leave, “it is his right, he has deserved it. He has brought us a lot of happiness. Barca over the past ten years has been him.”
Around 100 fans gathered at the stadium Wednesday.
“Last night I had trouble sleeping. We’re here to shout our rage and our helplessness,” said teacher Toni Colome, a fan for 21 years.
“I still can’t believe it … I was getting used to the idea that he was going to have to retire one day, that’s life. But not like this.”
According to Spanish media, Messi met with new manager Ronald Koeman last week and told the Dutchman he saw himself “more out than in” at the club.
Koeman has vowed to “fight to put Barca back on top” and said at his unveiling he was hopeful Messi would remain at the club for several more years.
The Lisbon loss to Bayern, Barca’s heaviest in Europe, exposed an ageing team that Messi has repeatedly said was not good enough as his relations with the club hierarchy grew increasingly strained.