At his home in a pair of shorts and flip-flops, not quite relaxed or at ease but certainly in his element, Lionel Messi made it clear in an exclusive conversation with Goal that he adores Barcelona as a city and FC Barcelona as a club as he plans to remain for a 16th season. The current management of what has been his team for 20 years, however, has failed at the essential job of assuring the world’s greatest player feels comfortable.
“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 and to continue expanding the legend of Barcelona at the title level,” Messi told Goal’s Ruben Uria. “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.
“I wanted to go because I thought about living my last years of football happily. Lately I have not found happiness within the club.”
This, Messi said, is why he presented a transfer request following Barca’s elimination from the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League in an embarrassing 8-2 defeat against Bayern Munich. He said it was not the shame of that result that led to his decision to leave.
He will remain in Barcelona for the 2020-21 season, however, because the club insisted notice came too late to permit him to depart as a free agent. Their position: Because he missed the established June 10 deadline to depart freely, he would only be released for a fee of 700 million euros.
Under ordinary circumstances, June 10 would have been subsequent to the end of La Liga’s season and the planned May 30 Champions League final in Istanbul. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the end of La Liga to July 19, and Champions League was completed in an altered format in Lisbon in late August.
Messi said he believed his exit would be permitted at the end of the season, that he’d been telling team president Josep Bartomeu this all year and that Bartomeu “always said that at the end of the season I could decide if I wanted to go or if I wanted to stay” but generally brushed off such conversations.
“And, in the end,” Messi said, “he did not keep his word.”
Keeping track of contract language and its ramifications, of course, is why players have agents and attorneys. Messi’s agent is his father, Jorge.
“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 all the season,” Messi told Goal. “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.
““Barça gave me everything and I gave it everything. I know that it never crossed my mind to take Barca to court.”
In the past five years, on the way to age 33, Messi has scored 221 goals in all competitions and Barcelona has won La Liga four times and the Copa del Rey four times. Eight major trophies in five years would seem like a lot in most professional sports organizations, but the highest level of European soccer is the Champions League, and Barca has not just failed to win since 2015, it has failed miserably.
The 8-2 loss to Bayern was its most lopsided defeat since 1951. In 2018-19, Barcelona blew a 3-0 lead after the first leg by surrendering four unanswered goals in a frantic scene at Liverpool’s Anfield stadium. It was a similar outcome against AS Roma in the 2018 quarterfinals, when Barca led 4-1 after the first leg but allowed three goals in the second and was eliminated on the basis of away goals.
“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,” Messi said. “At least compete, and let us not fall apart in Rome, Liverpool, Lisbon. All that led me to think about that decision that I wanted to carry out.”
Under Bartomeu, Barcelona management has spent its player budget wildly at times in recent years and not always protected its most valuable assets. Perhaps confident a release clause of 222 million Euros would be too rich for any club for any single player, Barca failed to anticipate superstar attacker Neymar might feel some discomfort in Messi’s shadow. When Paris Saint-Germain agreed to meet the clause and Neymar indicated his willingness to leave, Barca lost one of its brilliant players in his prime.
Barca then attempted to atone for that blunder by signing Philippe Coutinho away from Liverpool but failed to find a way to incorporate his talents into their system and wound up loaning him 18 months later to Bayern. Sure enough, he scored the final two Bayern goals in Barca’s ultimate humiliation.
“It was a very difficult year,” Messi said. “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.
“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 give us enough to compete at the top level. What I can say is that I’m staying, and I’m going to give my best for Barcelona.”
It bothered Messi to hear and read criticism from journalists and fans regarding his decision to depart.
“This helped me to recognize many false people,” he said.
He was insulted by those who questioned his commitment to FC Barcelona, having started with the club at age 13 and contributed at an extraordinary level to nine La Liga titles, six Copa del Rey victories and four Champions League triumphs, the most recent in 2015.
“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,” he said. “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.”
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