Lionel Messi and Barcelona: How Their Love Affair Became All About Money

Duncan CastlesFeatured ColumnistNovember 27, 2014

Getty Images

There really shouldn't be an issue. Barcelona want to keep a footballer they value so much their president has just unilaterally declared him "the greatest player in football history." And Lionel Messi himself has just recently told Argentine newspaper Ole (via ESPNFC) that he "would like to stay there forever."

Yet all this talk of desires and intentions on the part of club and global icon, all the background noise of alleged tax evasion and court cases (on the part of both), merely underlines the discord in the Barca-Leo relationship.

When Johan Cruyff told Radio Cope this week (via Marca) that "maybe things are always happening with Messi that we don't know about," he wanted it to be known that he was aware that all is not well.

You don't have to spend much time chatting with Barcelona insiders to get to the essence of the issue: money.

Yes, the financial question is wrapped up in political and administrative disorder, but were Team Messi to be satisfied by his Camp Nou pay packet and the Barca hierarchy happy to satisfy them, there would truly be no "Caso Messi."

Former Barca president Sandro Rosell
Former Barca president Sandro RosellDavid Ramos/Getty Images

Stated simply, Messi believes there is no better footballer than himself and he should be paid appropriately.

The vastly improved contract the Argentine signed in May stipulates a basic salary of €18 million a year, after tax. Cristiano Ronaldo's basic, unfortunately, nets him €21 million per annum at Real Madrid.

That is one reason why Messi's services have been offered around the few clubs in Europe that could potentially afford such a stratospheric salary—in addition to the €250 million transfer fee Barca have allowed to be floated on the market.

No one has been able to make the deal happen. Not the Financial Fair Play-handicapped Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City. Not even the profligate new hierarchy at Manchester United.

And this is no one-way street. Ever since Sandro Rosell deposed Joan Laporta as the club's elected president, Barcelona have been exploring the possibility of cashing out on Messi's global success.

EIBAR, SPAIN - NOVEMBER 22: Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid reacts during the La Liga match between SD Eibar and Real Madrid at Ipurua Municipal Stadium on November 22, 2014 in Eibar, Spain. (Photo by Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)
Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images

Part of this is pure pragmatism. Now 27 and with nine seasons worth of senior football on the clock, Messi cannot keep on improving indefinitely.

In fact, the forward's goal-to-game ratio for the past 18 months suggests he may already have hit peak form. (Ronaldo, meanwhile, has returned at least a goal per La Liga game since 2010 and has a barely credible 20 from 11 matches so far this campaign.)

In contrast to the easy-going ingenue image, those inside Camp Nou know another aspect to Messi. They have experienced the disgruntled superstar who reacted to Pep Guardiola taking him out of the lineup by failing to turn up for training—the false nine who David Villa believed was deliberately refusing to pass to him.

Add all this together and you have a potential quarter-billion-Euro asset, demanding an increasing percentage of club revenue. So a decision was made to try to capitalise on the asset, ideally by the summer of 2015.

There was also a political aspect to the board's manoeuvres on Messi. Intent on doing everything possible to differentiate his presidency from that of former ally Laporta, Rosell knew he could never gain credit for Messi's success at Barcelona.

Instead, he embarked on a grotesquely expensive—and potentially illegal—mission to beat Real Madrid to Neymar's signature and establish the young Brazilian as Messi's stellar successor.

A month before the hidden-fees scandal that emerged from Neymar's acquisition resulted in Rosell resigning the presidency, one of Barcelona's vice-presidents declared that he saw no reason why "that senor" should be rewarded with yet another pay rise.

"I do not know why we have to renew again," said Javier Faus in December. "We do not have to improve a contract every six months."

Though a Rosell-removed board ended up doing just that before the season was out, their attitude towards Messi remains ambivalent. If Messi is unimpressed with all of this, it is understandable. While his recent form mitigates against any claim to be the planet's current No. 1, he remains Barcelona's and has some cause to be unhappy with his treatment.

It is a situation riddled with irony. Few modern footballers have an identity as entwined with their club as Messi does with Barcelona, yet this pair have become uneasy bedfellows.

Until someone gathers together the cash to satisfy both, however, they shall remain stuck with one another.

Duncan Castles writes for the Sunday Times, Sports Illustrated, UEFA Champions magazine and others. A respected figure with an inside track, he has built a reputation for breaking transfer stories.