A year ago, Lionel Messi set out his terms for staying in Barcelona. “I want to be at Barcelona for as long as possible. This is my home,” he told the Catalan newspaper Sport. “But I don’t want to have a long-term contract and to only be here because of it. I need to see that there’s a winning team because I want to keep winning things at this club.
“For me, money or a clause don’t mean anything. I don’t have any intention of going anywhere but I want to keep competing and winning.”
Twelve months later, Messi was refusing to train, insisting that his 20-year relationship with Barca was over, and trying to force a move to Manchester City.
That Messi, one-club man, captain and icon, would seek to leave Barcelona like this — notifying them in a now-infamous burofax that, as far as he was concerned, he had already gone — should have been unthinkable. And yet this was no spur-of-the-moment decision. We should have seen it coming.
Messi had not been happy at Barcelona — with the president, the board or management — for a long time. He admitted as much in the interview that brought a temporary end to the crisis this summer: “I’ve been telling [president Josep Maria Bartomeu] that I wanted to leave all year.” Known for being a reluctant public figure, Messi speaks only when he has something to say — and at 33, he has been more vocal than ever. He was desperate to be heard. Those in charge at Barcelona didn’t listen.
This is the story — told with the help of numerous first-hand accounts from sources close to both player and club — of how Messi’s nagging doubts about Barcelona eventually became impossible to ignore, and what happened next.
Editors’ note: This story contains reporting from Moises Llorens, Sam Marsden, Alex Kirkland, Rodrigo Faez and Eduardo Fernandez-Abascal.
ABOVE ALL OTHER CONSIDERATIONS both personal and professional, Messi’s discontent stems from his desire to win. And for Messi, winning means the Champions League. Barcelona haven’t done that since 2015. They haven’t even come close. Embarrassed by Liverpool and Roma in recent years, the 8-2 humiliation at the hands of Bayern Munich at the quarterfinal stage of the competition last season, in August, was the tipping point. Messi is intensely aware of the impact Barca’s European failings will have on his legacy. Four Champions League titles are more than enough for mortals. But not for Messi.
Several sources pinpoint one moment that best reveals Messi’s disenchantment. It came at Camp Nou in May 2019. Barca were 3-0 up in the first leg of their semifinal against Liverpool. In the 96th minute, Messi — who had scored twice — drew three defenders before squaring the ball for an unmarked Ousmane Dembele. Dembele miskicked, Alisson made the easy save and Messi fell theatrically to the floor, face down in the turf.
He knew that Barcelona needed another goal — the season before, Roma erased a first-leg, 4-1 deficit to advance on away goals to the semifinals — because his teammates couldn’t be trusted to defend a 3-0 lead away from home. Six days later, he was proved right.
“The last chance for Dembele was clear-cut,” Messi told reporters after the first leg. “Four goals would have been better than three.”
How do you prevent those mistakes from happening again and again? One approach might involve a clear-eyed vision of the kind of team you want to construct. But Barcelona’s planning has been incoherent at best. Losing Neymar, with whom Messi loved to play, to Paris Saint-Germain was perhaps forgivable. Wasting almost €300 million on Dembele and Philippe Coutinho — both yet to come good, three years on — less so. The club failed to bring Neymar back last summer, signing Antoine Griezmann instead for a similar sum. Griezmann is a player who has failed to adapt for various reasons, including the fact his preferred position is taken by Messi.