On Thursday Lionel Messi agreed a two-year contract extension to his Barcelona contract and is now tied to the club until 2018.
First, the facts.
At 4:30pm local time on Thursday afternoon Barcelona posted the following statement on their official website:
The four-time Ballon d’or winner will be a FC Barcelona player through June 30 of 2018.
Barcelona, with whom Lionel Messi has won five league titles and three European Cups in addition to the quartet of footballer of the year gongs, have always made sure to take good care of their prized asset, and shortly after inking the €11 million-per-year pact the 26-year-old once again reiterated his desire to see out his best years at Camp Nou.
“I said it before, in Europe I’d like to end my career at Barca,” he told FCBarcelona.com. “I wouldn’t consider moving to another European club.”
A noble expression of loyalty, and no doubt said with sincerity as well.
But now allow a bit of fantasy.
Five years—the length of Messi’s extension—is a long time, and an especially long time in football. Any number of things could happen before the deal expires. There could be a clash with a future coach, a desire on behalf of the club to cash in on their best player and fund a new generation of glory, a curiosity on Messi’s part as to how he would fare in another division.
Or, of course, he could see out the duration of his contract and even sign another, final extension in a few years’ time.
That said, permit yourself a moment of whimsy and consider some rather more unlikely, yet all the more fascinating, scenarios. Speculations, after all, are the sweets in the football buffet.
It’s entirely possible.
To Barcelona’s credit, they have been as flexible and accommodating with their contractual scheme since Messi arrived at La Masia in 2000 at the age of 13. His first contract was presented him on a napkin, but after becoming a full professional in 2004 Barcelona began offering him a series of contract extensions—one every few years.
As CNN pointed out on Thursday, the latest agreement between the player and the club is the sixth (his previous pact would have expired in 2016) and, at this point, there’s nothing stopping Barcelona offering him a seventh two years from now.
In his statements on the club website Messi admitted he had no idea what kind of player he’d be in 2018 at 31 years of age, and it’s impossible to tell. But assuming he remains healthy and can adjust his game as his pace begins to deteriorate there’s no reason why he couldn’t continue to contribute at a very high level five years from now.
Xavi Hernandez, Messi’s teammate at Barcelona, turned 33 in January and remains among the best midfielders in world football. Granted, Xavi is a totally different player, but it would be foolish to bet against Messi’s chances of remaining an elite player at a similar age.
Barcelona have given us some special memories in recent years, many of which Messi has been a major part of. But like most professional contracts, Messi’s includes a release clause that triggers a sale should it be met.
It’s worth pointing out that in the negotiations that came to their conclusion on Thursday Messi refused to increase his clause from the €250 million set under a previous agreement.
Now, €250 million seems an astronomical sum, but in an age of spend-happy owners (many with vast wealth in property and oil) it’s simply impossible to rule out such a fee being paid—especially when the player you’re buying is the greatest footballer in the history of the game.
The spectre of UEFA’s financial fair play regulations will surely bring about some belt-tightening if properly enforced—at this point still a big “if”—but, again, five years is an awfully long time, and club owners with ambitions as big as their chequebooks know as well as anyone else that Messi in their colors would put their club on the map.
As a matter of fact, late last year The Sun reported Messi’s release clause had been triggered by a Russian Premier League side (believed to be Anzhi Makhachkala), and while he obviously turned down the offer (which would have more than doubled the wage packet he agreed to on Thursday) there’s no reason why it could not be triggered again, perhaps by a more reputable club in circumstances Messi finds more palatable.
He says he won’t, but footballers are typically all smiles and promises when they put pen to paper on a new contract.
Don’t forget, we live in a world where Wayne Gretzky can be traded, where Peyton Manning can play for someone other than the Colts and where LeBron James can take to live television to tell the world he’s joined a different club.
Even Maradona—admittedly a completely different personality than Messi—changed his scenery occasionally, and the Brazilian Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane are other examples of previous greats who played for multiple clubs.
It will be fascinating to see how Messi copes when Xavi and Carlos Puyol retire and Andres Iniesta begins to decline—all of which will happen while the Argentine is still in his prime years. He might very well play on at Barcelona, but there will surely be a part of him—especially as he matures—that will one day crave a new challenge.
This was one of the more fascinating items to come out of Thursday’s contract signing.
In his remarks to Barcelona’s official website Messi said, “I’m not ruling out the possibility of ending my playing career in Argentina.”
Given that he never played a first-team match for Newell’s Old Boys, left the country at 13 and has so far failed to deliver either a World Cup or Copa America, Messi’s relationship with the nation of his birth has always been a bit complicated.
For all intents and purposes, Messi is an adopted Catalan and is loved more in the region and throughout Spain than he is in Argentina. Knowing this, perhaps he feels he owes his home nation something, and perhaps he’ll deliver it when his current contract (or the one after that) expires.
The state of Argentine football is nowhere that of Brazil, and disorganization at almost every level of the club structure hinders it from progressing at the rate of its neighbor.
Wouldn’t it be something to see Messi take it upon himself to re-instill a sense of pride in Argentine club football, to put it on his shoulders and usher-in an era of prosperity?
What an immense legacy that would be, and one even his sceptical countrymen would have no choice but to honor.