Lionel Messi has stunned Barcelona by asking to leave the Spanish giants.
Lawyers for the Argentina star sent Barca a fax in which they announced Messi's desire to end his contract by triggering a release clause. The club confirmed to the Associated Press that Messi has asked to leave.
However, the club maintains the clause expired in June and he remains under contract until the end of the 2021 season.
"In principial, this clause expired on June 10, but the unusual nature of this season disrupted by the coronavirus opened the way for Messi to ask to be released from his contract now," wrote Spanish sports daily Marca.
"It's the first step towards opening negotiations over his departure, on the basis of which his release clause amounts to €700 million [Dh3 billion]."
Barcelona suffered a humiliating 8-2 defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals in Lisbon earlier this month, resulting in the sacking of manager Quique Setien after barely six months in charge.
According to Spanish media, Messi met with Setien's replacement Ronald Koeman last week and told the Dutchman he saw himself "more out than in" the club.
"The end of the glorious era of Leo Messi at Barcelona seems to be close. After the arrival of Ronald Koeman, what looks like the exit of his friend Luis Suarez and a difficult and turbulent end to the season, Messi told Barcelona in a fax of his intention to leave the club," said Once radio station.
The 33-year-old has won a record six Ballon d'Or awards during his time at Barcelona as the top player in the world, and has helped the club win 10 Spanish league titles and four Champions League crowns.
Messi arrived at Barcelona as a teenager in 2001, joining the club’s famed La Masia youth academy. He first-team debut happened in 2003 as a 16-year-old, and since then he led Barcelona to 34 titles.
He holds most individual records at the club, scoring 634 goals and making 276 assists in 731 appearances.
However, his attempt to leave the Catalonians could now lead to a bitter legal battle between the two sides.
Barcelona say the document sent by Messi referenced a clause allowing him to leave for free at the end of the season.
However, the club said the deadline for triggering that clause expired in June and that it would seek legal advice.
If Messi can leave for free, he will have no shortage of suitors. However, only a handful of clubs could realistically afford to pay his wages even without a transfer fee — with mega-rich Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City widely seen as perhaps the most likely destinations.
Messi had been outspoken about his dissatisfaction with some of Barcelona's decisions this season. He had been silent since the loss to Bayern, though, raising doubts about his future.
Club president Josep Bartomeu had said he was confident that Messi would finish his career with Barcelona.
Former Barca captain Carles Puyol backed Messi's wish to leave the club by writing on Twitter: "Respect and admiration, Leo. You have all my support, friend."