Cristiano Ronaldo may end up being named the world’s best player once again next week, but this week Lionel Messi proved beyond doubt that no one can create headlines quite like he does. The Ballon d'Or award ceremony will feel like a sideshow in comparison to the past week.
It all started following Barcelona’s 1-0 defeat to Real Sociedad on Sunday, a game where Messi was surprisingly left on the bench until the second half. What followed has been well-documented: The 27-year-old missed training, started following Chelsea on Instagram and sparked rumours that he could soon leave the Catalan club for pastures new.
Coming in the same week both sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta and his replacement-in-waiting, Carles Puyol, left the club, Messi's antics underlined the problems at the club that extend all the way to board level. The week ended with the incumbent president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, announcing the club’s next presidential elections would be brought forward to this summer, perhaps hastening the return of Joan Laporta, the controversial former president who, thanks in part to Messi’s emergence, helped restore Barcelona to its current (or, if you are being less charitable, previous) position as one of the world’s pre-eminent clubs.
Messi’s actions over the past seven days have been endlessly dissected, but most accept that at their core they have all been moves designed to put pressure on either Luis Enrique or the board, or both. It is clear that all is not going smoothly at Barcelona right now (remember, at the end of 2014 their two-window transfer ban was confirmed), and Messi obviously wants changes to be made. Some have speculated that the player has already made a “him or me” ultimatum to the board over Luis Enrique, just six months into the new manager’s reign.
Rumours of discontent between players and staff have been bubbling for a while, but how did the latest issues come to a head? According to Marca, it was a result of Luis Enrique's refereeing a training session prior to the defeat to Real:
It all started when Enrique didn't award Messi a free-kick during a practice match when the Argentine was adamant that he had been fouled. They had it out on the training pitch, but that wasn't the end of it. After the match, Messi went looking for the manager to complain about the decision and things started to get heated. The pair nearly came to blows but then Neymar, who had got wind of the argument, showed up and pulled them apart, while Messi continued to voice his disgruntlement.
The incident was the catalyst for further run-ins, with Enrique riling Messi by naming him on the bench at [Real Sociedad]—something the Argentine was not expecting at all, despite only having trained twice in the run-up to the game—and the star allegedly getting his own back with his no-show during Monday's open-doors training session.
This conduct, if true, would seem to have very real echoes of another dominant sportsman, basketball star Michael Jordan. The six-time NBA champion’s talent is legendary, but during his career his ability to win was arguably matched only by his competitive fire. The guard would make a game out of everything—according to Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules, a book that lifted the lid on Jordan's true nature. He was banned from the weights room at the Chicago Bulls facility because coaches knew Jordan would start trying to lift more than the forwards and centers on the roster, most of whom were six inches and 30-40 pounds heavier than him.
Competition drove Jordan ever since he was infamously cut from his high school squad. Prior to the 1992 Olympic Games he was involved in one of the most talked-about basketball games: a scrimmage involving members of the USA squad that finished with Jordan trash-talking the great Magic Johnson after Jordan’s team had emerged victorious.
Jordan’s Bulls coach, Phil Jackson, would often take to switching Jordan to the opposite team during Bulls practice matches—leaving Jordan to overcome the advantage he had just run up. Occasionally Jackson would not even keep score or deliberately keep an incorrect score, which would invariably drive Jordan out of his mind.
In this regard, Messi seems to be similarly wired. His reluctance to ever miss a game, or a minute of a game, has been well-documented, which is why it was such a surprise that he did not start against Real Sociedad, even though he had only returned from a midseason break in Argentina a few days earlier. His dispute over a training ground free-kick would again seem to be rooted in a desire to win in every setting; such competitive fire might be utterly alien to most mere mortals, but that quality is perhaps what separates Messi and Jordan from the pack every bit as much as their natural attributes.
The competitive fire that burned deep within might have driven Jordan to his eventual success, but he was also helped along the way. By its very nature a competitive spirit is sated by winning but only really stoked by the occasional defeat. Jackson’s methods may often have frustrated his star player, but over time they only seemed to channel his focus in a positive direction. When Jordan entered the NBA he was effectively a one-man team: It was no coincidence that the Bulls would only start winning when Jackson took over, as the coach gradually worked on his star’s approach and slowly helped him see the importance of the team (particular in the play-offs) over the individual when it comes to winning championships.
Luis Enrique has clearly yet to get such a handle on Messi, who was not even 17 when the Spaniard left the club as a player in 2004. That is not necessarily surprising—stories abound that even Pep Guardiola’s relationship with Messi was not always smooth—and not necessarily that significant either. Coach and player do not have to be best friends to enjoy great success together, but they do have to buy into the same approach.
Handling a star player requires a delicate touch: Their unrivalled talent perhaps earns them a certain preferential treatment over other members of the squad, but too much indulgence and problems will inevitably emerge down the line.
“I do not treat all of my players the same, just as I do not treat all of my children the same,” Luis Enrique said this week (via The Guardian), after denying a rift with Messi. “I have negotiated things with the players. On some things I have been permissive and on some I have been demanding.
“There are some rules that everyone must follow. That is one of my principles.”
Of more significance this week, perhaps, is the relationship between Messi and the board. Perhaps Luis Enrique is trying some Jackson-esque tactics, but what has now become abundantly clear is that the coach does not have the unwavering backing of the board that would make Messi’s tantrums about the issues somewhat moot. If anything, perhaps Luis Enrique is being used as a pawn in a proxy war between player and board.
The likes of Bleacher Report's Guillem Balague and others have reported that Messi has felt slightly disrespected by the current administration, causing tensions at all levels. It certainly seems like former president Sandro Rosell’s unrelenting pursuit of Neymar (a pursuit that tipped into the illegal and would ultimately prove his downfall) was in part based on the hope that the Brazilian could be a signing that would be the symbol of Rosell’s brilliance, of his presidency's success.
In a fairer world Messi would be a symbol of Barcelona as a whole, but with the political machinations that surround the club, his achievements are always going to offer a certain reflected glory on Laporta, the president under whom he emerged. Rosell fell out with Laporta and wanted his own totem, hoping Neymar would be that player. Bartomeu is a disciple of Rosell, not Laporta, and the rumours persist that he has continued to marginalize, or at least fail to offer the requisite respect, to an increasingly ruffled Messi.
Now matters are coming to a head to such an extent that Messi can follow Chelsea on Instagram, and the board is forced into reactive measures.
"Messi has a contract until 2018, he is happy with the club and wants to win more titles,” Bartomeu said this week per the BBC in a clear attempt to start massaging his golden goose’s injured ego. "There is nothing to panic about in that regard. Messi is the central figure. The team is built around him.
“The whole footballing world knows that Barca don't want to sell Messi. For me he is the best player in the world."
The announcement at the same time that the next presidential elections would be moved forward a year would seem an obvious olive branch to Messi, a statement that they were willing to do certain things to appease him. The move is a huge risk to Bartomeu: At this point in time it is hard to see how he would beat Laporta at the polls. That he would still accelerate elections underlines the power the Argentine wields, but again, the example of Jordan indicates that is not necessarily a good thing.
When not arguing with his coaches over getting his points or winning his practice matches, Jordan was often vocal in his suggestions to the front office about which players should be signed, released or traded for. Occasionally he would go to the press about such issues, creating real issues for the Bulls’ unpopular general manager, Jerry Krause, and owner, Jerry Reinsdorf.
Jordan was smart enough to try and use his popularity and value to the organization to try and get things his own way, but it was to the enduring credit of Krause and Reinsdorf that they often held firm against his power-play tactics. Their own moves did not always come off, but in the end their trades, draft picks and general team-building created a team around Jordan that, with Jackson’s direction, was effectively able to win six titles in six straight seasons (if we discount the two seasons Jordan did not play a full part in, after he briefly retired to play baseball).
One example shines through: Jordan was public and ruthless in his campaign against the pursuit of Croatian star Toni Kukoc, a player Krause was determined to bring to the NBA. Kukoc may not have been the star Krause anticipated but was far from the flop Jordan predicted, playing a role as the Bulls won their final three titles.
If anything, Jordan’s antics—like his initial unwillingness to embrace Jackson’s team-oriented approach—held the team back for a while, with Jordan known to bully new signings he had not approved of, stunting (or indeed halting) their development and value to the team. Messi’s quality obviously enhances Barcelona as a football team, but other aspects of his personality are perhaps better off not being indulged.
Football is obviously very different to basketball, but many of the challenges for a front office are the same. Messi wants to win, and play, every match, but a manager has to have the backing from the board to rest or drop him whenever he sees fit (that is not to say Luis Enrique was correct to drop Messi against Real Sociedad, merely that he must always have the right to do so).
The club enjoyed its greatest success when a system of checks and balances were in place, when the manager was strong enough to actually manage Messi (i.e. occasionally deny him what he wanted) and the board was strong and competent enough to make certain decisions that, by definition, should only be taken at that level.
Messi has almost no parallels in modern football, and few in sporting history. Michael Jordan might be one of them—but even the example of Michael Jordan underlines that being the greatest player in history does not mean every whim should be indulged.
Competitive fires are stoked more by occasional defeat than constant victory: On the pitch, Messi has Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and others to provide that motivation. Off the pitch, one wonders if anyone else at Barcelona right now has the required spine.