Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 November 2020

Lionel Messi plays hardball as warning signs flash for Barcelona

Testing times at Camp Nou as star player and captain delays contract talks while team stumbles in La Liga title race

A picture can be worth 1,000 words. Or tens of thousands of votes for anyone aspiring to be the next president of Barcelona, a post up for election within the next year, when the mandate of current president Josep Maria Bartomeu expires.

The picture Bartomeu would like his preferred successor to show off to the club’s voting season-ticket holders is of Barca’s most important asset, flanked by the old president and the would-be new one, signing a new contract.

That asset is Lionel Messi, 33, whose current deal runs out in June 2021. It was reported on Cadena Ser, Spanish radio, on Friday that Messi and his advisers have paused ongoing discussions over an extension that would keep the Barca captain at the only senior club he has ever played for, until at least 2023.

There is plenty of time to have a new contract signed, but also a growing belief that Messi is not ready to grant Bartomeu and his allies in the boardroom that special photo-opportunity – not until the player has regained faith that a future Barca is one Messi can lead as proudly as some of the superb Barca teams he has graced in the last 15 years.

Messi has spent most of his adult life declaring he intends to be a Barcelona player for as long as he is wanted at the club.

After his career is over, Camp Nou will owe him a statue in the most prominent place possible. But Messi is also aware that one downside of being the emblem of the club is that doubts stir over how healthy it is to be so dependent on a single player; and that there are mutterings from upstairs that too much power and authority are held by one genius.

Last week, Messi scored his 700th career goal. The towering milestone passed by almost in the background to a gathering crisis. Barcelona were busy conceding a lead for the second match in three days, allowing Real Madrid to push ahead in the race for the Spanish title. Madrid, who travel to Athletic Bilbao on Sunday, could be seven points in front when second-placed Barcelona kick off this evening at in-form Villarreal.

Just as last season, when a 3-0 lead over Liverpool was squandered in the Champions League semi-final, Barcelona are capitulating in the last yards. When La Liga resumed last month, after its shutdown because of the Covid-19 emergency, Barcelona were clear at the top of the table.

The shutdown hurt them. Extensive pay cuts were imposed on employees of a club who rely not only on big matchday crowds, but visitors to the Barca museum and on-site merchandise sales to support the highest salary bill in club football.

The pay-cut negotiations were undignified, Messi and the players announcing after they had accepted a 72 per cent reduction that they felt the club’s executives had misrepresented their eagerness to help.

That marked another chapter in a year of open tension between dressing-room and boardroom. In January, Bartomeu sacked head coach Ernest Valverde – with Barcelona top of La Liga – and when Eric Abidal, the sporting director said the players had become unresponsive to the coach, Messi publicly called Abidal out.

Messi is no loudmouth. He does not like rows being played out in the media. But there have been many. Nor are Messi’s firm opinions on how Barcelona should operate tactically and strategically any longer disguised.

If a picture can be worth a 1,000 words, last week’s images of Messi repeatedly ignoring instructions from Eder Sarabia, assistant coach to Valverde’s successor, Quique Setien, as Barcelona drew at Celta Vigo told plenty about a lack of trust in Setien, who was third choice to replace Valverde.

Back in September, Messi also criticised Bartomeu’s signing policy, and specifically a failure to bring a willing Neymar back to the club: “I don’t know if they did everything they could with Neymar,” Messi said.

Unless Barcelona, whose budget has shrunk because of the shutdown, make a dazzling signing this summer, poor recruitment will be a dominant issue in the spiky presidential election campaign.

Since 2017, Bartomeu sanctioned well over €100 million (Dh413m) each on signing Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann. None have been anything like a new Neymar, or as effective a striking partner for Messi as Luis Suarez, now 33, has been.

Messi wants to reach his mid-30s at a Barcelona where creativity and goals are shared more widely, a Barca less dependent on their resident genius. But his faith in the club’s capacity to build that sort of Barcelona has waned. Any hint he might step away is, right now, just a warning to his bosses. They dare not call his bluff.

Updated: July 4, 2020 03:11 PM

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