Last August, Leo Messi rocked the football world with his request to leave Barça, the club of his life, to seek pastures new. On the back of yet another European humiliation, this time an unprecedented 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter final, it was perhaps expected. Rumours had been brewing since July 2020 that Messi did not intend to renew his contract, and it only made sense that the disaster in Lisbon accelerated that desire to leave in 2021 to a desire to jump ship immediately.
When the 2020/21 season had started, something about Messi’s body language seemed off. Describing it as lethargic or apathetic would be too much, but it gave off the image of a broken man. It seemed that Messi had given in to the fact that his best years were wasted under institutional misdirection, a lack of sporting direction, and a toxic media presence around the club which sought to vilify the dressing room at every turn. The controversies, the continental defeats, the alleged rows with coaches and sporting directors, and finally the row with the board, had all taken their toll on Messi’s mind and body. Although he was trying with all his might, nothing seemed to be going his way, and Messi, statistically the most prolific goal-scorer of all time, went a month and a half without an open play goal in all competitions. There were even whispers that maybe that was it for La Pulga. Maybe he had exhausted the seemingly limitless tank of genius. Maybe the fat lady had already sung in Messi’s chapter.
Starting late November though, things began to return to where they usually were. Messi’s performances started on an upward trend, and obviously so did Barça’s. Around a month later, Messi’s longest interview ever, with La Sexta’s Jordi Evolé, was released, and many questions were answered. A weight seemed to be lifted off of Messi’s chest. However, the question everyone wanted the answer to remained a mystery; Messi refused to disclose his plans, saying that he himself was not sure where he would be playing his football next season.
Fast forward three months, and the image might be getting clearer in Messi’s head. Messi is back to leading the goalscoring and assisting charts in LaLiga, and is on top of his game. Barça now have a board, headed by former president Joan Laporta, Messi’s personal friend and reportedly favoured candidate. The team are now within touching distance of LaLiga leaders Atlético Madrid, and in the final of the Copa del Rey. And, despite being knocked out of the Champions League by possible future destination PSG, Messi and his teammates left with their heads held high after a remarkable performance in the Parc des Princes that would have been enough for a comeback on any other day.
The answer to the question “Should Messi stay?” in any case is not a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. There is a very nuanced discussion to be had, firstly about why he should not leave, and secondly why he should stay. While that does sound redundant, these are two intrinsically distinct questions.
Why he should not leave
Listening to Messi’s words, and reading rumours surrounding his future, his three options are supposedly PSG, Manchester City, or the MLS. Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way. With all due respect to the MLS, there is absolutely no chance that Leo Messi, at his current level, goes to the United States. It would be an unspeakable waste of Messi’s talents, and that is something you would imagine that he himself acknowledges, even if he would like to experience life in the U.S. at some point. Possibly in 3 years we could see Messi in the MLS – but not in 2021.
Now, on to the more serious options. Manchester City, one of Messi’s more prominent options, were last August rumoured to have had an offer ready for Messi, and have reportedly made a plan to reduce the squad’s wages to accommodate the paycheck of arguably the best player in the world. On a financial level, going to Manchester City is by all means better than staying at FC Barcelona, given the clubs’ financial situations. However, even if Leo Messi does end up in Manchester City hypothetically, on the same wages he is currently on, that would create unsettlement in the dressing room. He would be earning thrice as much as his teammates, all of whom are superstars, and Manchester City’s carefully planned wage structure would all be brought down. In any case, footballers do not judge transfers only by money. On a personal level, many South American footballers have complained about life in England before, and how different it is to life in Spain, Portugal, or Italy, in terms of weather, culture, and lifestyle. The most famous example of this is Leo’s good friend Di Maria after his transfer to Manchester United in the 2014/15 season. The switch from sunny Catalunya to gloomy Manchester may not sound like the biggest deal when you read about it, but it is important for numerous footballers on a mental level.
Another aspect is the sporting aspect. Manchester City are certainly further along the road to a renewed project than FC Barcelona, there are no two ways about that. But, Pep Guardiola had already spoken before about the lack of the star mentality in his team, that he wanted all 11 players to work offensively and defensively with the same propensity, and that his system is predicated on that. Manchester City have many players who are superstars in their own right who graft for 90 minutes straight, not to compensate for one of their teammates, but for the system to function as it does at the moment. Messi, while having a remarkable offensive workrate, does not have the defensive workrate to fit in Pep’s system at the moment, particularly due to his age. Guardiola would certainly be prepared to redesign his system to accommodate his greatest accomplice, but would the Manchester City players be prepared to do much of Messi’s defensive legwork for him? It is an interesting question which does not have a conclusive answer, but my expectation would be ‘no – they would not be prepared to do that’. Even assuming that they would, this would bring us to the second point of contention: Manchester City lack 3 important profiles to be Champions League favourites: a centre forward, left back, and a left winger. Going to Manchester City is not a guarantee of winning the Champions League, even if his chances to compete there would be marginally higher than at FC Barcelona as things stand.
Paris Saint-Germain is another option that seems to be gaining traction recently. They are also rumoured to have prepared a plan to welcome Messi to the French capital. Neymar, Paredes, Di María and Marquinhos have all spoken excitedly of their preparedness to welcome Messi at the Parc des Princes. Even PSG’s new coach, Mauricio Pochettino, is a personal friend of Messi’s and might be another cause to attract him to PSG. Financially, again, PSG are a state-backed club, and so it is nigh impossible to compete with them there. They would reportedly be prepared to offer Messi the same wages he currently earns at Barça, perhaps even higher, and the issue of Messi’s wages creating unsettlement in the dressing room would not happen in this case, as PSG’s squad are already used to the difference in the wages they earn compared to superstars like Neymar and Mbappé. On a personal level, Paris is the capital of fashion in the world, which would certainly be an attractive prospect for Antonela, Leo’s wife who’s infatuated with the fashion world. Paris’s weather is also better than England, and Latin players have had less issues accommodating themselves there compared to England. Other than the issue of house robberies, which has increased recently in Paris, the French city seems to be able to provide a personal life on par with the one Messi has in Barcelona, with the language barrier being the only temporary obstacle.
However, on a sporting basis, PSG have their fair share of problems already. There is an obvious lack of necessary profiles, like a ball carrying interior in midfield, a pair of fullbacks, a classic number 9, and squad depth. In addition, while a Messi-Neymar-Mbappé trio sounds exquisite on paper, it will face many of the issues faced by the MSN in Barcelona’s 2016/17 CL run. The lack of defensive workrate of the 3 forwards will be impossible to compensate for by the other 7 outfield players, especially in the modern gegenpressing model of football of the last 2 years. Another issue would be how Messi and Neymar would fit together. While the two are best friends, and arguably the two best players in the world, Neymar left in 2017 because he wanted to be the offensive hub, the talisman of his own team, rather than playing second fiddle to Messi. Plenty has been said of ways how the two would fit together, but it will only be a matter of time before the two playing together would become redundant, especially in the absence of a pure number 9 ahead of them. Also, regardless of the technical issues of the team itself, the drop in the quality of football Messi would be competing in weekly compared to LaLiga would be easily noticable, something Messi is surely aware of.
Why he should stay
It is overly easy to look from the inside out and point out the fault in other teams. I believe no Barça fan is under any illusion that the club is as healthy as it used to be in its golden eras. Realistically, the club is hanging by a thread institutionally, with the financial situation being so dire that talks of bankruptcy are not out of the question. On the pitch, Barça have not won a trophy in 22 months, and the last European triumph in June 2015 is a distant memory. Without doubt, the Barça we have seen since 2018 is a far cry from the superlative Barça teams we’ve seen since 2005. But, seven months on from the Lisbon debacle, things have started to change.
For starters, Josep Maria Bartomeu and his board are no longer in charge of Barça, having resigned in infamy after being the subjects of a vote of no confidence that amassed a historic 20,687 votes. It was in due course, especially after that iconic Messi interview where he put the board on public trial for the sporting project simply being “filling in holes” and for “lying to him many times”. Members of the old guard like Suárez, Rakitić, and Vidal, who were clearly past their best, had left the club. Quique Setien’s coaching staff were sacked, and were replaced by Ronald Koeman and his team. The squad which seemed hopeless in August has now been largely renovated from within, with players like Araujo, Mingueza, Puig, Ilaix Moriba, and Ansu Fati finding their footing in the first team, and young gems like Pedri and Sergiño Dest have also been brought in from Las Palmas and Ajax respectively. All these players fit seamlessly into the structure, and it is truly a rare sight for them to look out of place.
Even Messi’s situation in the team has finally changed. After being exploited with Ernesto Valverde, getting tasked with more things than he should be expected to handle, and after the failure of Messi & Setien to gel together, Messi seems comfortable with Ronald Koeman. The Dutchman has built a system to maximize Messi offensively, protect the team defensively, and allow Messi’s pressing to be more coordinated and less exhausting. Building a system around the aging Leo always seemed like a theory that could not be applied, but Koeman is coming tantalizingly close to doing so, much to the surprise of numerous fans around the world.
Institutionally, things are still rough. While Laporta, Messi’s personal friend, has returned to the helm, finding solutions to the financial issues without hurting the football team will be difficult. Barça are currently, in my opinion, the best team in Spain, even if the league table does not reflect that. However, to compete in Europe, improvements in personnel are needed. A center back, a center forward, and a back-up left back are needed to take Barça to the next level. These improvements will need money, money which the club currently does not have, although there might be formulas to generate that money. It is a precarious task, one that no one will envy Laporta for, but there seems to be optimism surrounding Barça, especially given that the 58-year-old had overturned a similar situation before in 2003.
To stay in Barcelona, Messi will be expected to take a paycut, and have faith in his teammates. Messi is now surrounded by a squad who idolize him more than he could imagine. The majority of the squad have never known a world where Leo Messi was not the best player in the world. Messi is currently the captain of a dressing room where he is respected, where the players recognize why he earns more than them, where the players recognize why they carry some of his defensive workload, and where Messi recognizes that these players are of a superb quality. Messi is currently under the command of a board that have the utmost respect for him personally, and under the command of a coach who is a legend of this club, who understands what Messi signifies to culés and how to maximise what is left in Messi’s career.
Messi’s career has gone through a myriad of stages. He was the teenager who was the best among some of the best players in the world, he was the man in his prime who started to get recognized as the greatest to ever lace a pair of football boots, and recently he was the old-timer carrying an aging spine to within inches of an improbable treble. Now Messi is approaching a new stage. He is now a mythical figure of the game who is tasked with guiding the new generation of the club of his heart to greatness. I like to think that Leo understands what Neymar and Cristiano Ronaldo did not. The greatest challenge is not leaving Barça or Real Madrid to win trophies elsewhere; the greatest challenge is to withstand the changing tides of these clubs and still lead them to success time and time again. It has been a popular discussion point in Messi’s career that what he needed to crown it all was a World Cup. I have always believed that that was not the case, but I could never put my finger on what the crown jewel might be. Now I can – it is to stand the tsunami of Barça between 2017 and 2020 and still come out victorious. In my mind, I feel Messi recognizes that too.