Lionel Messi’s preferred posture is to turn the other cheek. In a career spent bearing thousands of brutal tackles, he has made a virtue of dignified stoicism. When Messi strikes back, his sport takes note.
The Barcelona captain had something urgent to get off his chest on Tuesday, a wrong that needed to be righted. His confrontation with Eric Abidal, Barcelona's director of football and a former Messi team-mate, carries heavy repercussions.
Abidal had given interviews to a pair of Catalonia-based sports newspapers, containing provocative statements, including suggestions that players had moved to have head coach, Ernesto Valverde, removed and an accusation that some in the Barcelona squad had lowered their work-rate.
Messi answered back, by posting an image of one of the published interviews on social media, a red ring drawn around an explosive Abidal quote: “The players were not satisfied, and did not work much.”
Messi challenged Abidal: “When you say things about players, you should name them because if you don’t, you are throwing dirt at everybody, and starting rumours that aren’t true.”
Messi had felt uncomfortable responding publicly to Abidal’s words. “Honestly I don’t like doing this sort of thing,” he posted, “but everybody has to be responsible for their jobs and their decisions: Players for what happens on the pitch, and we are the first to admit when we haven’t been good. The executives also have to take responsibility for decisions they make.”
A number of issues at the club have pushed a growing schism between dressing-room and boardroom out into the open.
The sacking of Valverde, who had guided Barcelona to two league titles in his two full seasons as head coach and had them top of the table – they have now slipped to second – when he was dismissed, was by no means a decision welcomed by a majority of senior players, least of all in the middle of a season.
And then there is Messi, who in a previous public intervention had subtly criticised the club’s failure to bring Neymar back to the club in the summer, and his own medium-term future.
Messi, the most important figure at Barcelona this century, has 18 months left on his current contract. Negotiations to extend it are ongoing, with a point of argument understood to be whether the 32-year-old commits to one further year or longer, as the club prefer. His bold rebuke to Abidal will spread alarm from the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, downwards. Barca need Messi more than Messi needs Barca.
Bartomeu's mandate expires in the middle of next year, by which time elections for his successor must be held. And, assuming there those opposing his board’s suggested continuity candidate, the future of Messi and the success of the team will be factors.
Confidence in the current governorship is weakening, Valverde’s Barca having crashed out after giving away large leads in the knockout phases of the last two Champions Leagues and the defence of the domestic title looking brittle as an efficient Real Madrid consolidate after leapfrogging Barca in the table.
The haphazard management of major transfers – from Neymar’s 2017 departure and the will-he-or-won’t-he return; to the signings of Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele, two €100m-plus (Dh404m) underachievers; to the delayed arrival and so far low-key impact of Antoine Griezmann – has also diminished the authority of the governing junta.
Abidal is the fourth technical director in as many years. As various crisis meeting over the fallout of the Messi spat took place at the club on Wednesday, the position of Abidal looked more and more vulnerable.
Meanwhile Quique Setien, the coach appointed to follow Valverde, scarcely emerged feeling strengthened. Abidal had, in his interviews with Sport and Mundo Deportivo, addressed the awkward process by which Setien was appointed, apparently as third-choice after former Barcelona players Ronaldo Koeman and Xavi had been sounded out and said 'no'.
But Abidal challenged the idea Xavi, currently coaching in Qatar, had been approached and suggested Xavi produce proof ‘of an offer’, an incendiary idea given the popularity of Xavi among supporters and among current Barcelona players like Messi, Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets.
Setien, not yet three weeks into his job and busy preparing for Thursday’s Copa del Rey quarter-final at Athletic Bilbao, acknowledged he needed to address the Messi-Abidal controversy with the players at practice. “We talked about it for a minute,” he reported. “Problems will arise at a club like this, but my job is to focus on the football.”