A Look Inside the World's Most Unthinkable Story: Lionel Messi to Quit Barcelona

Dean Jones@DeanJonesBRFootball Insider at Bleacher ReportAugust 18, 2020

Barcelona's Lionel Messi holds his head during the Champions League quarterfinal match between FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich at the Luz stadium in Lisbon, Portugal, Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez/Pool)
Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

In any other season, Lionel Messi would not have had to take matters into his own hands.

In any other season, Barca fans would have stood jeering in the stands of the Camp Nou, waving their white handkerchiefs to demand change as their team lost grip on the Spanish title.

But this season—the one that has lasted over a year and left fans locked outside thanks to the impact of COVID-19—Messi has decided to take a stand.

He had been angry for months. First because of a perceived lack of effort from the board in trying to bring Neymar back, but more recently—as Real Madrid clinched La Liga in July—a frustrated Messi made clear how he felt about the team. 

"We didn't want to end the season like this, but it represents how the season has gone," he told broadcaster Movistar+ (h/t Goal.com) after Barca were beaten by Osasuna at home in the penultimate game of the season. "We were a very erratic, very weak, low-intensity team." 

The 8-2 UEFA Champions League quarter-final humiliation against Bayern Munich was final evidence of everything Messi had spent time worrying about. 

And now reports have surfaced that he is truly fed up. That Messi is seriously considering quitting Barca.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Reporter Marcelo Bechler is the man who broke the story. He's the same man that first broke the news that Neymar was joining Paris Saint-Germain. He is considered a highly reliable transfer source around Barcelona.

His report for Esporte Interativo flew around the world, and as his words were translated and scrutinised, the message was clear: Messi wants to leave Barcelona. Not in 2021 when his contract expires. Now.

Speaking to this week's B/R Football Ranks podcast, available now, Bechler explained: "At the beginning of the season he said what was important was not a big contract or money, but a strong project. And with no titles and that loss to Bayern, he still has three or four years left to play and he knows he can help Barca—but they can not help him.

"Messi has always thought him and Barca were 'just one thing,' but now he is thinking maybe he can be another thing without Barcelona. He can make another step and try to win without Barcelona. 

"He is angry with the board and disappointed with the club and wants to leave now. Barca are pessimistic because they can't offer a solid project and can't do much to help him.

"It is very likely he leaves Barcelona if there is another project, I don't know where or which club. It is impossible in this economy to pay 700 million, but I think Barca don't want him here unhappy. After all that Messi gave to them, they don't want him here as a prisoner."

Every now and then, there is a transfer that stops and leaves you gobsmacked.

There was Luis Figo switching from Barcelona to Real Madrid, David Beckham moving to MLS to sign for L.A. Galaxy and Neymar leaving Barca for Paris-Saint Germain.

Make no mistake about it—Messi leaving Barcelona for another European club would eclipse them all.

There had been murmurs of Messi's exit decision ahead of Bechler's report, with Spanish radio station COPE reporting that he would leave if the club was not restructured. But they were reporting that he would leave in 2021—not now.

Since the initial news, Barcelona have removed their coach, Quique Setien, and he is expected to be replaced by Netherlands boss Ronald Koeman any day now.

It's one step towards pacifying Messi, who was never much of a Setien believer. But how much more work is there to do?

Barcelona have not won the Champions League since 2015 and ended this latest campaign without a major trophy for the first time in six years. Aged 33, Messi surely can not face the reality of not winning Europe's elite the competition again before retirement. 

Andy West is a commentator on LaLigaTV and also wrote the book Lionel Messi and the Art of Living.

He told B/R, "Messi has considered leaving before. At the start of his career he contemplated a big offer from Inter Milan, and more recently he seriously struggled to connect with Luis Enrique during the early days of his managerial stint at the Camp Nou.

"It came to a head at the start of 2015 when Luis Enrique left both Messi and Neymar on the bench for a game at Real Sociedad because they had only recently returned after spending Christmas in South America. Barca lost the game 1-0, Messi skipped the following day's open training session for young fans and mischievously started following Chelsea on Instagram.

"It was a fraught week, but reconciliation came with a stirring victory over Atletico Madrid and the two enjoyed a decent relationship after that.

"I think it would be perfectly understandable if Messi chose to leave now. The club has become a circus, and for the last few years he has been asked to do far too much to paper over the ever-widening cracks.

"Messi is fully aware of the poor state of the team and the club in general and feels that his public warnings have not been heeded.

"Considering the ageing profile of the squad and their dire financial situation, it's hard to see how Barca will be able to challenge for a major trophy next season, and Messi must be wondering whether he is prepared to effectively waste one of the few remaining years of his career." 

Omar Hawwash is editor-in-chief of Barca site Blaugranagram and he finds it hard to believe that Messi could walk away.

He has been with the club since the age of 12, when he signed a napkin to confirm he would be joining. He has played 731 games, scored 634 goals and produced 285 assists. He's a club icon, a club legend.

Hawwash told B/R: "It's a club that helped form and shape him into the player and man we know him as today. I do not deem it as an easy choice for him, and quite frankly, after all he has been through with the Catalans, I don't see him leaving.

"With the presidential elections around the corner (announced for March) and Barcelona's delicate situation at the moment, however, I could see him remotely considering whether his future would be at another club.

"If he does leave? I think for Barcelona, it would be a big blow, without a doubt. Having built the team around him for years, it takes a lot to find 'the next Messi,' which quite frankly is a term that has been used a lot over the years.

"Personally, I think Neymar seems as the natural heir to the Argentine, but given his situation with Paris Saint-Germain and their potential willingness to keep one of their key players, Barcelona would have to do a lot to convince him to go back to the Catalan city, not to mention the impression the Brazilian has left on Barca." 

Fans continue to hold concern over the way President Josep Bartomeu is steering the club, and there have been threats of protest within the Barcelona region. Had it not been for the impact of COVID-19, protests would probably have been happening for some time.

There is a growing fear that Messi really might be thinking of a move.

Thankfully for Barca fans, there are not many realistic avenues for Messi to head down if he is serious about leaving. And there has to be hope this is all just an aggressive stance to ensure his beloved Barcelona do not suddenly suffer a cataclysmic collapse.

Barcelona say they have not had any word that he wants to leave. But at the same time, Messi's camp have not played down Bechler's story.

This is a complicated time economically. Most clubs can not even consider spending 100 million on a big transfer—Messi has a release clause of 700 million.

If he was to move, it would be for less than that amount, given his age and that his contract expires next year. This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sign the world's best player. A genius on the pitch and a marketing manager's dream. 

Manchester City have looked into signing him before, and the Txiki Begiristain/Ferran Soriano/Pep Guardiola Barca link makes them an obvious contender.

They might be able to come up with the money, especially at a time when Financial Fair Play rules are being eased, but we have to bear in mind that the club have been reasonably disciplined in terms of transfer fees up to this point.

Still, City were ambitious enough to land Guardiola—we can't rule out that they would make a push for Messi.

Then there is PSG, who found the cash to sign Neymar for 222 million and seem to have the power to do whatever they like. However, they are currently trying to tie up Neymar and Kylian Mbappe to new contracts. Unless Neymar becomes part of a swap deal, it's going to be unlikely.

And then we have Inter Milan, who have been linked because of their rich owners, Suning Holdings, and words from former president Massimo Moratti that they could make it happen.

"I am just a simple fan of Inter now, so I don't have any inside information," he told Italian newspaper Quotidiano Sportivo (h/t Goal.com). "Having said that, I do know this: Suning have everything it takes to bring Messi to Milan, in terms of both resources and competence."

The prospect of putting him head-to-head with Cristiano Ronaldo once again would certainly bring another dimension to Serie A. But Bechler explained on B/R/s podcast that Inter have not had any contact and a move is not seen as likely.

One thing for sure is that for the first time ever, Messi seems obtainable. And if that truly is the case, the biggest transfer of all time might be just around the corner.