As if 2020 wasn’t rapturous enough, Lionel Messi is reportedly attempting to rip up his contract with Barcelona. It was well known that Messi’s deal, which runs through the 2020-21 season, had an opt-out clause that expired June 30. On Tuesday, Messi gave notice to the club that he intends to exercise his right to unilaterally vacate the last year on his contract.
It seems that Messi opting out, or not, will become a matter of legal wrangling. The deadline to do so was apparently May 31, when the season would ordinarily have ended. Messi and his camp seem to consider the actual date immaterial, since it was intended to mark the end of the club season. Since the season has just ended, they reason, he is free to walk. Barcelona, on the other hand, will see the May date as a hard deadline, regardless of the pandemic-induced three-month interruption to the season and have responded that they consider Messi’s opt-out clause to have expired.
Either way, the revolt among Barca fans and players is already underway. A small fan protest quickly assembled outside the club’s offices. And a report subsequently trickled out that Messi has clashed with new manager Ronald Koeman.
Club legend Carles Puyol offered support to Messi via Twitter. Striker Luis Suarez, who is supposedly being forced out by Koeman, likely irking Messi further, then supported Puyol supporting Messi.
If Messi wriggles his way out of the last year of his Barca contract, a transfer fee, or the lack thereof, may be another point of contention. Even at 32, he remains the world’s most valuable player by far. Even in an economy devastated by COVID-19, he surely would have fetched a fee up there with Neymar’s world record $262 million 2017 move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain – albeit surely nowhere near Messi’s $828 million release clause.
Then again, between the fee and a salary package currently worth somewhere between, depending on bonuses, $114 million and $131 million annually, according to Football Leaks, it’s improbable that any team could have afforded him, were he not free.
The question remains how many teams can match that kind of salary, even if he arrives on a free transfer, if Messi doesn’t take a drastic pay cut.
It’s entirely possible that Messi is pulling a power move. He has played the “I’m leaving” card before, albeit never this convincingly. Usually, it has been to extract a raise. This time, the demand could be for club president Josep Maria Bartomeu to vacate his post immediately. In almost seven years in charge, Bartomeu, who cannot stand for reelection, has overseen meteoric revenue growth and a steady decline on the field, worsened by nearly a billion dollars spent on players who didn’t work out in the past few years.
Barcelona plumbed new depths this year with a season that was entirely devoid of trophies for the first time in 12 years. Barca let its La Liga lead over Real Madrid slip after the restart and was humiliated 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarterfinals. Messi was outspoken in his dismay and the erosion of his faith in the club’s leaders.
Bartomeu has already agreed to move up the presidential election from next summer to March. But fans — and perhaps Messi himself — are now asking that he leave immediately.
Setting aside the political machinations, just how hard Barcelona fights to retain Messi will indicate how the club now views itself. If Messi is actually trying to leave, the club’s efforts to get him to stay, and not just extract a transfer fee, will show whether it is committed to competing in the short term, or wants to undertake a broad overhaul and restructuring of the squad.
Barcelona isn’t the sort of club where rebuilding periods are tolerated. Yet that is exactly what is needed with a team that long since lost its way, a team sated and complacent and now much less than the sum of its magnificent parts.
For years, Messi papered over the cracks. If Messi leaves the club he joined at age 13, almost two decades ago, there will be nothing to hide the mess. Barcelona will have no choice but to clear out the old and mismatched pieces and to rebuild its team, perhaps going back to its old model of handing responsibility to academy products like Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig.
Messi’s Tuesday maneuver has brought Barcelona to a crossroads. Keeping the greatest player of all time means committing to competing for the next few years. Letting him go, whatever that looks like, is a signal that one of the great dynasties in club soccer is finally over.