Bitter battle lies ahead for Lionel Messi and Barcelona

Unprecedented schism between Barca and their superstar leaves Catalan club in chaos

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It’s about a decade and a half since the term ‘Messidependencia’, Dependence on Messi, first came into mainstream use in Spain and Argentina.

Lionel Messi was still only a teenager, but so good his club and his country tended to lean heavily on him. At aged 33, Messi keeps getting better. Relying on Messi is, at Barcelona, a simple fact of life.

When, on Tuesday, the club's offices received from Messi's legal representatives a letter effectively demanding a free transfer, Barca's executives were stunned.

They knew their superstar and captain has been unhappy with the direction of the club, because he has said so several times this season.

They knew he took the 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-final badly. But the idea that Messi would initiate an abrupt departure with no compensation for the club where he grew up genuinely shocked.

Supporters, though many had been fearful of this day, were also taken by surprise, a small group angry enough to demonstrate at the Camp Nou, demanding that the board, led by president Josep Maria Bartomeu, stand down.

Bartomeu, whose strategy Messi has criticised through the last 12 months, will take much of the flak for this unprecedented schism between Barca and their superstar.

Bartomeu may not survive it. His mandate expires in 2021, and he has scheduled elections for his successor in March.

By breakfast-time on Wednesday, a motion of no-confidence, a device the club’s members – most of the season-ticket holders – could use to ultimately push Bartomeu out of office and bring forward elections, had been submitted at the club’s offices.

But any hope that scenario could reverse Messi’s apparent desire to leave is far-fetched.

The battle over the coming days will be between a captain and a sitting president whose relationship is toxic. And the contents of Messi’s letter puts them at two very distant extremes.

Messi’s lawyers argue that the contract the player signed in 2017 – which stipulated that if he wanted to leave in 2020, he would have to inform the club before June 10 this year – was valid only as long as it assumed the club season would end in early June at the latest.

Because of the Covid-19 crisis, the season was extended until the second half of August; so, Messi's lawyers argue, his decision on his future should be allowed to follow after the last match, which turned out to be the humiliation against Bayern, hot on the heels of Barca losing out on La Liga to Real Madrid.

But under the terms of his contract as Bartomeu reads them, Messi’s current buyout clause stands at a massive €700m (Dh3 billion).

Messi drops a bombshell on Barca

Messi drops a bombshell on Barca

This is a figure designed to deter any possible predatory bid, even from possible suitors with as much wealth as Paris Saint-Germain, or Manchester City – where the idea of working Pep Guardiola, Messi’s former mentor, would be welcomed by the Argentinian – or Inter Milan, Juventus or Manchester United.

None would pay anywhere near that buyout clause, even for the greatest footballer of this century.

But whatever the legal strength of Messi’s claim he should be allowed to immediately leave for free, the club know his contract would allow him to leave in July 2021 without a fee. That deadline urges them to sit down and negotiate down from €700m.

Barcelona have told Messi they want him to remain, and to retire as a Barca player, icon and legend.

He will always be feted, for having starred at and defined Barcelona in the most successful period of their history, but Messi knows a contentious departure, and one where he could be seen to be depriving the club of much-needed transfer funds would damage his reputation.

Barcelona has not only been his home for most of his life, but its fans are his core constituency, the base of a lucrative commercial juggernaut built around him.

Bartomeu, in turn, will be advised by his loyalists to try to save some political capital by setting a baseline fee of €222m. That was the figure Barca sold Neymar for, to PSG in 2017, and remains by far the highest fee ever paid for a footballer.

And Barcelona need money, because they need new signings, with or without Messi.

They have the highest wage-bill in the sport, a large share of it Messi’s salary, and their income, a substantial portion of which comes from tourist visits and on-site merchandising sales, has been badly affected by the pandemic.

Bartomeu promised overhaul of the squad after the dreadful end of season: “We need to evolve, players will move on and others come in,” he said.

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A new manager, Ronald Koeman, has already been appointed and within 48 hours he heard directly from Messi that the player was thinking of a future away from Barca.

Koeman then told Luis Suarez, Messi’s contemporary, closest friend in the squad and most productive ally on the pitch, that he was free to leave.

The next day, Messi issued, by recorded delivery, his bombshell.

“On behalf of every Barca fan, I would get down on my knees and beg him to stay,” declared Joan Gaspart, who was president when a 14-year-old Messi first enrolled at the club. “But if getting on our knees doesn’t help, then he should not leave for a euro less than what it says on the contract, even if it means going for free in 2021.

“I have seen that contract, and it’s clear. There can be no backtracking.”

Other clubs, several of who have privately expressed their interest in Messi, will be studying the key clauses in that contract today.

The wise ones will wait for Barca to set a true asking price, while assuring Messi that they can offer him the best alternative home. City know they would certainly get a sympathetic hearing from the Argentinian. They will certainly not be alone in the bidding.