It seems unthinkable, impossible even, but for the first time since he burst onto the footballing scene against Espanyol nine years ago, Lionel Messi has shown some signs that he could be on his way out of Barcelona. Messi’s love for the club is well-documented and it is unlikely that he would ever truly want to leave, but a rollercoaster 12 months has put his future in the balance, although not necessarily for footballing reasons.
The four-time World Player of the Year has recently been reportedly unhappy at remarks made by Barcelona director Javier Faus, saying that he “doesn’t know anything about football and wants to manage Barcelona like a business, which it is not.” However controversial as his comments may be, keeping Messi happy is one of the most important jobs for any Barca manager.
In the past, Pep Guardiola went as far as marginalizing and eventually selling Zlatan Ibrahimovic to appease Messi in his desire for a central role, so there is no one who can’t be cast off to keep him happy. Barca would not want to risk upsetting him, so it is unlikely any disciplinary action will be taken against the Argentine. However, this is not the first time Messi has been reportedly unhappy at the Nou Camp in recent months, with a reported rift between player and management causing problems for both parties.
Following an injury-hit year, Messi hasn’t had the happiest few months. The arrival of Neymar has taken some of the responsibility for the team off his shoulders but also knocked him out of the limelight. His relationship with the club is not what it once was, with recent troubles regarding alleged tax fraud with his father and agent blackening his once squeaky-clean name. He has mostly been cleared, but the whole situation has stretched the relationship between player and club closer to breaking point than at any point in the past. Injuries have hit his form (but not enough to keep him off the Ballon d’Or shortlist) and the trophies haven’t been flowing to the Nou Camp as easily as in recent years; if Messi comes to feel he has hit a plateau, he could easily try to seek a new challenge.
The most important question would seem to be even if Messi does want to leave and Barca are willing to let him, could anyone afford his astronomical transfer fee and wages? His current contract apparently contains a whopping £205million release clause which, according to The Independent, has already been triggered by an unnamed Russian club.
PSG are one club who could afford to trigger such a clause and have the ambition to do so, and they are undoubtedly one of the most exciting projects in world football at the moment. Ligue Un might be poor, but Messi is no stranger to a two-horse title race. Ibrahimovic gets on well with him despite differences in the past, repeatedly insisting that Messi is the best player in the world. Despite this, owner Nasser al-Khelaifi has ruled the French champions out of a move due to the size of any potential transfer fee. Messi won’t be going to Paris as of yet.
Other potential suitors would be Manchester City or Bayern Munich, both of whom pack the sufficient economic punch to pull off such a transfer. Bayern would seem the most attractive destination as European champions in a growing league with Messi’s mentor Pep Guardiola at the helm. A string of trophies and an often sold-out Allianz Arena has made Bayern one of the richest clubs on the planet, but whether Messi is even necessary there is another question. Would Bayern really be so likely to replace Mario Götze in the centre so soon after splashing out over £30million on him? Bayern’s team is already packed with stars and is a perfectly assembled footballing machine, and an arrival like Messi could tip the balance and ruin the chemistry of the team.
At the end of this season, City could be in one of two positions – in need of a big signing to perk up a deflated squad or a show of power to assert their dominance at the top of the English game. They too have the spending power necessary, and director of football Txiki Begiristain is trusted by Messi following his time at Barcelona. The Premier League is undoubtedly more competitive than La Liga, and it has been said that Messi would have to prove himself outside of Spain to assert himself as one of the best of all time. Rainy Tuesdays at Stoke may not seem so appealing, but he could be swayed by manager Manuel Pellegrini, respected throughout Spain as a great man-manager and leader.
So could any of these moves really come off? It still seems unlikely at best, but it would certainly pose some interesting questions; could Bayern get even better? Can Messi do it without Xavi and Iniesta? Would City finally take a permanent place at the top of the English game? Whichever team could convince Barca to let him leave would almost certainly pay back the transfer fee in shirt sales alone, and the footballing implications alone would be fantastic. I, for one, would pay good money to see Messi plying his trade in the Premier League.