Back in August, in the aftermath of one FC Barcelona’s most humiliating defeats, I wrote about the future of their talisman, skipper, star player Lionel Messi and the wider implications of him staying or leaving the Catalan giants. 6 months on, after another Champions League capitulation, I look at what has changed, if anything, and where the club can go from here.
As we know, immediately after that infamous Bayern defeat, a Messi transfer request was submitted in the bizarre and well documented form of a fax – A move the Messi camp claim was the only way the club would take him seriously and listen. There is talk the Argentine had informally tried to set out his intentions of leaving a few times in the months previous which apparently, or quite clearly, fell on deaf ears. After much tit for tat from both camps, he stayed at the club, in what looks like, a mix of his family’s reluctance to move cities and club’s down right refusal to let him leave.
Messi still feels that if he’d taken the matter to a higher power, he would have been granted his wish to move on for free. But as a dark blot began to appear on his legacy sheet, the iconic number 10 decided not to take legal action against his employers – A motion that would have undoubtedly ruined a relationship forever and turned a small blot into a large, unwashable permanently marked streak. Through gritted teeth he remained and remains.
What wasn’t public knowledge at the time of the Messi transfer saga was the extent of Barcelona’s financial troubles. 1.2 Billion euro’s in arrears with 730 million of it due in the short term. In Lehman’s terms, how does the club still exist!? It’s a montrous amount of debt, a debt that would have seen other organisations go to the wall a thousand times over.
The club claim the debt is a result of the pandemic, others would see it as a 5 year train ride headed for 2020’s cliff. The mismanagement of bad big money signings and a rocketing wage bill coupled with failing to prepare for an ageing squad at the end of a cycle. Basically, the papering over of huge playing side cracks. Yes, the pandemic has probably been an exacerbating factor but other European giants with far less world standing seem to be managing just fine.
With all this in mind, there’s one big question which sticks out like a sore thumb. With the vast majority of their budget going on player wages, how could they afford to keep Messi? Their highest (by far) earner. You would think letting him leave 6 months ago would have relieved some, if not a lot of the money burdens the club are facing. Is a 33 year old really that integral to the organisation if it puts the club’s long term future at peril? There’s no doubt Messi is still a money spinner of shirt sales, sponsorships and a prolific sell-out stadium merchant. His allure is still unrivalled. However, that isn’t much good in the midst of a global pandemic where fans are unable visit the stadium, museum and club shop.
The Season’s Plan
From Barcelona’s perspective, you could see what they were trying to do. Offload other high earners which would enable them to keep Messi and build a younger, more vibrant team for the future. The problem? Offloading these players. Coutinho, Griezmann and Dembele to name but a few proved difficult to get rid of and each of them still remain at the club. The financial situation has now become so bad that they cannot afford to play Coutinho in any more La Liga matches, for another 7 appearances would incur an automatic 10 million euro payment to his previous club, Liverpool. In today’s modern game, 10 million seems a small amount. The fact is, Barcelona, one of the world’s elite clubs, can’t afford it which is mind boggling. They now have a player on hundreds of thousands of Euro’s a week who is unable to play. Scary.
On the pitch, the plan remains unchanged year on year. The goal is to win everything they enter. With Messi and new coach Ronald Koeman, why couldn’t they? Again that naivity of previous years that Messi will find a way. A 27 year old Messi, maybe. A 33 year old Messi, no chance – despite the brilliance he still offers and delivers frequently.
koeman, a club legend in his own right, was seen as coaching appointment that could get Barcelona back to playing the Barca way, the Cruyff principals that define its modern era. Things, as yet, haven’t worked out quite to plan for Koeman although he will tell you it’s a large work in progress. A very indifferent start in La Liga, defeat in the Supercopa to Bilbao and currently trailing by 2 goals to the impressive Seville after the Copa Del Rey Semi final first leg. And that’s not to mention another humiliating defeat in the Champions League to French counterparts and Messi admirers, PSG. A 4-1 defeat at home to anyone is an unthinkable outcome for Blaugrana and it’s a deficit they will not overcome on current form.
Some solace has come in their recent league form which has seen them rise to 3rd in the table. Messi has seemed back to his imperious best in recent months give or take the disastrous cup matches. And there’s promising youngsters making headway in the form of Pedri, Rigui Puig and Anso Fati. The latter has unfortunately missed the majority of the season through injury but he could be a key component in the rebuilding years to come and potential figurehead going forward.
One player and high earner Barcelona did manage to offload in the off season was striker and club legend, Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan had seen, or so the club thought, his best days drift away in his latter years and it was a clear objective of the club to get rid before the season started.
The problem Barcelona had, or caused themselves, was the manner in which they went about his exit. It is reported Suarez was told he was surplus to requirements in a blunt 2 minute phone call by new boss Koeman the day after the Dutchman’s appointment, treatment that infuriated Suarez’s best pal……. Lionel Messi. It is fury the Argentine great has expressed in public. Not the way a club great should be ushered out the door and another PR disaster for the hierarchy.
To make matters worse, Suarez has been in blistering form for Atleti this season in what looks like being a great Indian summer for the striker’s career. His 16 goals make him the current La Liga top goalscorer which has fired his new side to a 6 point lead at the top of La Liga – A clear two fingers up to his former employers.
The resignation of club president Josep Maria Bartomeu in October was not before time. Bad descisions, an impending tax fraud case and the very public falling out with Messi heading a long list of turmoil within the Camp Nou walls. The presidential election to find a replacement is due to take place next month with former leader Joan Laporta the favourite to be reelected into the club’s hot seat.
You would think the first thing on his agenda will be addressing and resolving the Messi situation once and for all. The club’s greatest player will turn 34 in June and it maybe time to say goodbye – An outcome that could benefit all sides. A chance for Barcelona to start again and rebuild a new team around the previously mentioned youngsters. Messi can leave behind the unenviable weight of expection he has carried for the best part of 15 years.
An amicable ending is what’s important from both parties point of view. A great legacy that must remain just that, great and untampered with, not least to help the club’s financial situation and leave a path for Messi to return in other roles later down the line, should he so please. A fresh start for Messi would enable him to completely focus on one final shot at a World Cup in 2022. There may not be trophies this year but, in this hypothetical instance, everyone wins.
Making Barcelona financially stable again is going to be a huge undertaking for whoever is given the reigns. Removing the older statemen high earners will be a start. With the club unable to afford high transfer fees, they may have to invest the little cash they do have in the seemingly neglected La Masia youth system once more. The fruits of which may not be evident for perhaps 5 or even 10 years.
What the club have surely learned, you would hope, is that there will be no quick fix to this mess. Replacing the Messi era should have been a proper plan in the making 5 years ago but ignorance, arrogance and burying heads in the sands of Messi time have become an all too evident theme in recent years.