Lionel Messi says he has reluctantly agreed to remain at Barcelona to avoid taking on the Spanish giants in court.
In an emotional interview with Goal Spain on Friday, the club's record scorer and most decorated player confirmed his dramatic U-turn days after serving Barca notice that he wished to leave the club on a free transfer.
Messi believed under the terms of his contract he could walk away from Camp Nou for free as long as he served notice within 10 days of the season ending.
But the club claimed the clause expired on June 10, a stance backed by La Liga president Javier Tabas, while Messi and his representatives argued that, given the extraordinary circumstances of this season due to the coronavirus pandemic, the season officially ended on August 23 with the Champions League final.
With Messi refusing to link up with the rest of the squad for pre-season training, his father and agent, Jorge, flew to Barcelona to meet with club officials on Wednesday in a bid to end the impasse.
But Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu insisted the only way Messi could leave was if any interested suitors activated his staggering €700 million (Dh3.039 billion) buyout clause.
While it is believed Manchester City, the frontrunners to sign Messi, were guiding the 33-year-old Argentine through the process to push through with his wishes to free himself from his contract, neither party were prepared risk a legal challenge by Barca if Messi had signed a deal with the Premier League club and requested Fifa issue an international transfer certificate.
Messi, scorer of more than 630 goals during his Barca career, accused Bartomeu of going back on his word to let him leave, thus forcing him to remain at the club.
Read the full transcript of the interview here:
Why did it take you time to break your silence
"Firstly, because after the defeat in Lisbon [8-2 Champions League defeat] it was very hard. We knew Bayern Munich were a very difficult opponent, but not that we were going to end that way, giving such a poor image of the city and the club of Barcelona. We gave a very bad image. It was wrong, I didn't feel like doing anything. I wanted time to pass and then come out to clarify everything."
Why did you tell Barca that you could go?
"I told the club, including the president, that I wanted to go. I've been telling him that all year. I believed it was time to step aside. I believed that the club needed more young players, new players and I thought my time in Barcelona was over. I felt very sorry because I always said that I wanted to finish my career here. It was a very difficult year, I suffered a lot in training, in games and in the dressing room. Everything became very difficult for me and there came a time when I considered looking for new ambitions. It did not come because of the Champions League result against Bayern, no – I had been thinking about the decision for a long time. I told the president and, well, the president always said that at the end of the season I could decide if I wanted to go or if I wanted to stay and in the end he did not keep his word."
Have you ever felt lonely?
"No … I didn't feel alone. Not alone. There are those who have always been by my side. That is enough for me and strengthens me. But I did feel hurt by things that I heard from people, from journalists, from people questioning my commitment to Barcelona and saying things that I think I didn't deserve. It also helped me to see the truth in people. This world of football is very difficult and there are many false people. This happening has helped me to recognise many false people. It hurt me when my love for this club was questioned. No matter how much I go or stay, my love for Barcelona will never change."
Everything has been spoken of. The money factor, your friends. What has hurt the most after 20 years defending the Barca shirt?
"A bit of everything, my friends, money … many things that have been said have hurt. I always put the club before anything else. I had the possibility of leaving Barca many times. The money? Every year I could have left and earned more money than at Barcelona. I always said that this was my home and it was what I felt and feel. To decide there was somewhere better than here was difficult. I felt that I needed a change and new goals, new things."
In the end it is very difficult to give up 20 years, a whole life, a family that is in Barcelona, a city, and that is what weighs more when making a decision. Because I understand that in the end you will stay in Barcelona. You are still at Barcelona...
"Of course, I had a hard time deciding. It does not come from the Bayern result, it comes from many things. I always said I wanted to end here and I always said I wanted to stay here. That I wanted a winning project and to win titles with the club, to continue expanding the legend of Barcelona at the top level. And the truth is that there has been no project or anything for a long time, they juggle and cover holes as things go by. As I said before, I always thought about the welfare of my family and the club."
What happened when you told your family that you can leave Barcelona?
"When I communicated my wish to leave to my wife and children, it was a brutal drama. The whole family began crying, my children did not want to leave Barcelona, nor did they want to change schools. I looked further afield and I want to compete at the highest level, win titles, compete in the Champions League. You can win or lose in it, because it is very difficult, but you have to compete. At least compete in it and let us not fall apart in Rome, Liverpool, Lisbon. All that led me to think about the decision that I wanted to carry out. As I said, I thought and was sure that I was free to leave, the president always said that at the end of the season I could decide if I stayed or not. Now they cling to the fact that I did not say it before June 10, when it turns out that on June 10 we were competing for La Liga in the middle of this awful coronavirus and this disease altered the whole season. And this is the reason why I am going to continue in the club. Now I am going to continue in the club because the president told me that the only way to leave was to pay the €700 million clause, and that this is impossible. There was another way and it was to go to trial. I would never go to court against Barca because it is the club that I love, which gave me everything since I arrived, it is the club of my life, I have made my life here. Barca gave me everything and I gave it everything. I know that it never crossed my mind to take Barca to court."
Is that what has hurt you the most, that there are people who think you could have hurt Barca? You have been defending the club for years. Has it hurt you that they doubt your commitment?
"It has hurt me a lot that things are published against me and, above all, that false things are published. Or that they came to think that I could go to trial against Barca in order to benefit myself. I would never do such a thing. I repeat, I wanted to go and it was entirely my right, because the contract said that I could be released. And it is not 'I'm leaving and that's it'. I was leaving and it cost me a lot. I wanted to go because I thought about living my last years of football happily. Lately I have not found happiness within the club."
That is vital, to be happy. You are a born winner. You are in a team that fights for titles and in recent seasons Barcelona has not competed in Europe. You are going to continue leading the team at Barca. But something will have to change at Barca, right? Something will have to change at the sporting level, right?
"I will continue at Barca and my attitude will not change no matter how much I have wanted to go. I will do my best. I always want to win, I'm competitive and I don't like to lose anything. I always want the best for the club, for the dressing room and for myself. I said it at the time that we were not given the support to win the Champions League. Actually, now I don't know what will happen. There is a new coach and new ideas. That's good, but then we have to see how the team responds and whether or not it will make us compete at the top level. What I can say is that I'm staying and I'm going to give my best for Barcelona."
What was the first thing you thought when there were people saying you could leave and that you really didn't care about Barcelona? What was the first thing you thought? A feeling of rage?
"I felt a lot of pain that my commitment to Barcelona was doubted, with how grateful I am to this club. I love Barcelona and I'm not going to find a better place than here anywhere. Still, I have the right to decide. I was going to look for new goals and new challenges. And tomorrow I could go back, because here in Barcelona I have everything. My sons, my family, they grew up here and are from here. There was nothing wrong with wanting to leave. I needed it, the club needed it and it was good for everyone."
Family is something very important in your life. Your father has had a bad time, your wife too, your children. What have they asked of you? What did they tell you? They must have told you 'dad, this', 'dad, that'. Did they watch the news on TV and ask you anything?
"All this time it has been hard for everyone. I was clear about what I wanted, I have said what I felt I wanted. My wife, with all the pain of her soul, supported and accompanied me."
But the important member of the family is Mateo
"Yes, Mateo is still little and he doesn't realise what it means to go somewhere else and make your life a few years elsewhere. Thiago yes, he is older. He heard something on TV and found out something and asked. I didn't want him to know anything about being forced to leave, to have to live in a new school, or make new friends. He cried to me and said, 'let's not go', I repeat that it was hard, really. It was understandable. It happened to me. It is very difficult to make a decision."
And to anyone. Of course, it's 20 years, that's a lifetime. You came to Barcelona at the age of your children now. That gets harder. There are two fundamental things that people would like to know ... You stay at Barca, you lead the team again. An optimistic message for Barcelona fans for the future?
"As usual, I am going to give my best, I will do my best to fight for all the objectives and hopefully I can dedicate myself to the people who have had a bad time. I had a bad time this year, but it is hypocritical to say that if you compare it with people who have really had a bad time with the coronavirus, with people who have lost relatives and who have lost many things. Hopefully I can give my best and dedicate victories to all those people who accompany us and their families, to be able to dedicate the best to those people who are having a bad time and that we can overcome once and for all we can overcome this virus and return to normality."
The famous burofax. There has been a lot of talk about Messi being badly advised and badly advised regarding the decision to communicate that you wanted to leave by burofax. Why did you decide to send that burofax? What did you want to demonstrate? What was your position?
"The burofax was to make it official in some way. Throughout the year I had been telling the president that I wanted to leave, that the time had come to seek new goals and new directions in my career. He told me all the time: 'We'll talk, not now,' this and that, but nothing [happened]. The president did not give me a clue at what he was really saying. Sending the burofax was making it official that I wanted to go and that I was free and the optional year – I was not going to use it and I wanted to go. It was not to make a mess, or to go against the club, but the way to make it official because my decision had been made."
So, if you hadn't sent the burofax, maybe everything would have been forgotten and no one would have listened to you?
"Clearly. If I didn't send the burofax, it's like nothing happened, I have the optional year I had to have continued all year. What they say is that I did not say it [that he wanted to leave] before June 10 [when the clause expired] – but I repeat, we were in the middle of all the competitions and it was not the [right] moment. But apart from that, the president always told me, 'when the season is over, you decide if you stay or leave', he never set a date, and well, it was simply to make the club know that he was not [sticking to his word], but not to get into a fight because I did not want to fight with the club."