Lionel Messi faced up to what he called “the toughest moment of my career” on Sunday, his formal farewell to the club where he has spent his entire, glorious professional career so far. In a sometimes tearful press conference staged adjacent to the Camp Nou stadium he has illuminated on countless nights over the last 17 years, he said a reluctant adios.
Messi, who admitted there is a strong chance of his joining Paris Saint-Germain in the coming days, said the reality of leaving Barcelona, where he has won the Ballon D’Or six times and scored more goals for the club than any other footballer, “had not yet sunk in.”
He had, he insisted, little time to come to terms with the shock announcement by the club, last Thursday, that they were unable to budget for even the reduced salary Messi had agreed for a new contract on a basic wage of around €20 million ($23.5m) per year. La Liga’s Financial Fair Play limits made it, according to Barcelona president Joan Laporta, “impossible” to keep the club captain and icon, whose previous deal expired in June.
“I thought it was all sorted to stay,” said Messi. “But it couldn’t happen because of the issue with La Liga.”
La Liga rules mean Spanish clubs must balance their outgoings, on salaries and transfer fees, against income, with the guidelines set at costs of a maximum of around 70 per cent of revenues. According to Laporta, accommodating Messi’s new contract at a club where there are several very high earners whom debt-laden Barcelona cannot sell or loan out, would mean spending 110 per cent of income on overall wages.
Messi directed no anger at Barca or La Liga, but wanted to clarify some points. “I have been transparent and never deceived anybody,” he said. “I wanted to stay. I did everything I could. I lowered my salary by 50 per cent and was never asked to go any lower.” He directly addressed reports that Barcelona had asked him to cut his salary expectations by a further 30 per cent. “That is untrue,” he said firmly.
He added that, 12 months ago, when he still had one year left on his contract, he had wanted to leave, but the March election of Laporta as president had helped convince him Barcelona remained his best fit, although the 2020-21 season ended with a disappointing third-place finish in La Liga and elimination by PSG in the last 16 of the Champions League.
But set next to Messi as he wiped away tears behind a podium was last season’s Copa del Rey, alongside the 34 other trophies he has won with Barcelona since his competitive debut in the autumn of 2004.
“This is our home,” said Messi, nodding to his wife and children in the audience. “There have been so many beautiful moments here, and a few bad ones, painful defeats. But the affection I have felt from the people, the supporters here, has always been the same.”
Among his regrets was that his last action as Barcelona footballer had not taken place in front of a full, adoring crowd - because of the pandemic, and because the end of his era has come so abruptly, with the contract talks suddenly, unexpectedly stalled.
There will, in time, be a tribute occasion at Camp Nou. Before then, there will be more club silverware for Messi, 34. He acknowledged PSG have approached him - “but there is nothing signed” - and that his ambition remains undimmed. He joked: “I’ll take this opportunity to congratulate Dani Alves on winning the Olympic gold medal. But I want to catch up with his titles.”
Alves, a former Barcelona teammate, won his 45th career title in the Tokyo Games final, Brazil beating Spain, at the weekend. Messi, who has won the Olympics and a Copa America with Argentina besides all his Barcelona trophies, could plausibly still reach that sort of total.
“Barca fans know I am ambitious. I want to carry on winning titles.” PSG know that while the various Barcelona colleagues - now ex-colleagues - who lined up, one by one, at the end of Messi’s official farewell speech to embrace him know their next major trophy will be far harder to come by without a magnificent, peerless superstar wearing Barca’s No 10 jersey.