The clock is ticking in Barcelona. There is little over a month to go before Lionel Messi—whose contract with Barca is running down—is free to negotiate with other clubs for a transfer.
However, none of Messi, his father Jorge Messi—who acts as his manager—or a member of the player's legal team has made a statement confirming the deal.
In the absence of an official announcement from the Argentina international's camp, anxiety has been hanging over the Camp Nou. When pressed on Messi's predicament last week, Ronaldinho fuelled the speculation, telling Goal: "If it takes his heart to go to another club—even though I am an ambassador for Barcelona—I would support him."
On Saturday, Joan Manuel Serrat, Catalonia's most famous living singer-songwriter, was less philosophical when writing a long opinion piece on the impasse in El Pais (in Spanish).
Serrat was "worried" and "confused" by the delay in nailing down Messi, and he hit on one particular sore point in the saga that is giving Barca fans the jitters: "The Neymar thing was also fixed. Remember?"
The reference dredged up painful memories of the moment when Barcelona vice-president of football Jorde Mestre claimed he was "200 percent" sure Neymar was staying with the club, a couple of weeks before the Brazilian was unveiled as a Paris Saint-Germain player.
If Messi has agreed a new contract with Barcelona, normal practice would be that he poses for a publicity photo with club president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
"There is something which is not right," said Ramiro Martin, a Messi biographer, who works as a reporter in Barcelona.
"It is assumed the agreement is in place, but the [absence of a] photo—which is symbolic but it has a very high value—is important because it symbolises he is not staying. And this is troubling.
"It's surprising that Barca has permitted this situation to drag on—that the club hasn't the ability to make Messi happy and take this long-awaited photo."
Despite his endless excellence on the pitch, having scored 12 goals in 12 league games to help Barcelona race into an early-season lead at the top of the table, Messi has been unsettled off it.
"The people who know the reality from within know that Messi has not a very good relationship with the president and his board for a number of reasons," said Victor Font, a potential presidential candidate at Barcelona in the near future.
"The most remarkable one is the whole treatment that he had vis-a-vis Neymar. The former president Sandro Rosell, in theory, bought Neymar to potentially replace Messi at some point and to become the key franchise player. The Neymar agreement was not very transparent in part because of this—it could not be seen that Neymar was making as much money or maybe even more than Messi. That created already some problems.
"The one that made the whole situation very complex was when the club didn't stand behind Messi when he had all the fiscal problems with the Spanish tax authorities. He was expecting the club to defend him much more. That's why in the summer of 2016 he was very close to signing for Manchester City, but luckily for us, that decision was reversed."
Font also cites Messi's disillusionment with the club's recent bungling in the transfer market, which the player worries will hamper the club's ability to win more titles.
"Messi is interested to know how the club plans to strengthen itself football-wise, to confirm that the club will be competitive," Font added. "Messi wants to win. He wants good players on his side. It's no coincidence that there is so much talk now about (Philippe) Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann and so on, as possibilities and imminent signings."
The timing, too, is a factor in Messi dragging his heels. Only a couple of months have passed since a motion of censure was brought against Bartomeu's regime by Agusti Benedito, a man who ran against Bartomeu in the club's presidential elections in 2015.
Benidito's vote-of-no-confidence motion failed, coming up about 4,000 signatures short of the 16,570 mark required, per Diario Sport. Messi realises that a PR picture of him beside Bartomeu in a fraught political environment would be seen as an endorsement.
"A photo of Messi renewing his contract with the president would be showing favour to Bartomeu," said Santi Gimenez, a journalist with Diario AS. "Barca wants the photo. It's the chance for a big event, for some propaganda for the board of directors, but Messi has no interest in this so he said, 'I don't care about this photo. My father can sign the contract and my lawyer and that's it.'
"The Barcelona board is intelligent enough to live in a situation like that where you can't confront the star of the team: 'If you want to do the photo great, but if not, you tell us when.' It is Messi who is in charge."
Messi doesn't enjoy a close personal relationship with the president. "The relationship between Messi and Bartomeu is normal and cold," said Gimenez. "Messi isn't friends with any of the club's directors. He doesn't have a good or a bad relationship with them. I think they come to the dressing room and he actually doesn't know their names.
"He didn't get on better with the former club president Joan Laporta, for example, than he does with Bartomeu. He doesn't get on badly with Bartomeu nor does he get on well with him. Messi is interested in footballers, football people, and in trainers. When he sees a guy with a tie, he's suspicious."
It seems inconceivable that Messi would leave Barcelona. The exception perhaps is a move in the autumn of his career to the team he supported as a boy, his hometown club, Newell's Old Boys. It's a possibility he hinted at last year in an interview with Urban Planet (h/t FourFourTwo).
"I believe that he is content here," Martin said. "His sons are growing up here, the club, the city, everything adds to an ideal ecosystem for him to continue extending his reign. Besides, he could only go to three or four clubs—Manchester City, PSG, Manchester United, few more."
Manchester City have been top of the queue of suitors for a while. They have several appealing ingredients, which include a serious footballing project run by former Barcelona executives, Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano. Messi's good friend, Sergio Aguero, is on the books at the club and, of course, former Barcelona trainer Pep Guardiola is at the helm.
"Man City really are desperate to sign Messi," B/R Insider Dean Jones said. "I've spoken to quite a few sources around the club over the last few months, and if they get the vaguest hint that Messi is get-able, they'll throw everything they can at it because the Abu Dhabi owners see him as the ultimate proof they are one of Europe’s elite.
"The owners have made it clear that if the door is open, if Messi ever wants to leave Barcelona, they are there for him. It's not often the case that players usually know that they've got a situation like that open to them."
But Messi is no ordinary player. It is extraordinary that his club's board, which has endured several crises over the last few months, has allowed the doubt over his contract renewal to linger. It is their most pressing administrative and political issue. That Messi has left the club hierarchy hanging speaks volumes about his confidence in them.
"The uncertainty is not good for the whole club and its environment," Font said. "We're hoping that the situation gets clarified, that all these rumours get cleared up.
"In my view, the probability that he does not sign and continue for Barcelona, having given his word to the club is very, very slim. I want to believe it's close to zero. There would be a very significant institutional crisis. The board would be accused of lying and not being trustworthy.
"Once he has given his word, I'm sure he will honour it, and he will stay. He cares about the club. The club is his home. It's like his family. He's given everything to the club as well. He knows it will be very difficult to move somewhere else.
"His main motivation is that he has a competitive team and that he has a chance to win everything. Probably what he does not like is when people are not direct and honest. Some of the situations he has been faced with in his place of work recently are not consistent with this."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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