It was an unlikely day in the history of Barcelona. They had gotten yet another otherworldly kid; one filled with immense potential. Football clubs don’t usually get over the moon over the acquisition of kids, but Lionel Messi was different. Barcelona’s then 12-year old new boy from Rosario, playing beyond his years at Newell’s Old Boys was one that will make headlines. They saw what he could become. Whether they saw what he would become was a question of blessed eyes.
A Brilliant Beginning – Basis of the Greatness
Argentina has had many football talents before Messi. The entirety of the country had placed the standard of greatness and surrealism on the shoulders of Diego Maradona. Who they would discover would sent them sprawling in awe. Pint-sized, small, but energetic, Messi’s skills were an outrageous sight for neutrals. A kid swivelling past players like they don’t exist is a possibility, but doing it time and again was outright appealing, endearing and heartwarming.
For a kid with such clear objectives about where he was headed, everything Messi eventually became were heights he could touch. After earlier troubles with his registration, he eventually featured for the Barcelona U14B, under the tutelage of Rodolfo Borrell. Messi sent tongues wagging, yet unsettled. He played for Tito Vilanova’s Barcelona U16B side in 2002, and scored nine goals in ten games despite initial challenges.
Impressing his coaches, he was drafted into the U14A where he scored 38 goals in 31 games including four hat-tricks, nine braces and one four-goal haul. Messi’s greatness was palpable, and Barcelona must have found a level of bias in caring for him. He was a level above the rest.
In 2003, Messi played in four different Barcelona teams. He had made his debut with the U19B, and instantly caught the attention of Juan Carlos Perez Rojo who was then the coach of the U19A.
His rapid rise brought more responsibilities, and he soon found himself playing for the senior team in a friendly against FC Porto, aged just 16 years and 145 days. At that point, it was unseen of such a kid to be at that level. It was a height deemed too tall, but Messi was knocking its ceiling.
In the same season, he featured for Barça C and at its end, he had played for the U19B, U19A, Barça C and Barça B, including a senior appearance in the friendly, and he had netted 35 times in 37 games.
In the 2004/05 season, he found himself alternating with Barça B and the senior team, under Dutchman, Frank Rijkaard. He was growing more popular for his ability and notorious for his disarmament of the senior players’ stiffness. He had become a coveted asset. The best of his ilk. On the last day of the 2004/05 season, he scored his first Barcelona goal. The first of hundreds. And the beginning of a period of waves and influence.
Trusted Asset, Trusted Talent
When former Barcelona President, Joan Laporta campaigned in 2003, his selling point was the promise of David Beckham’s signature. He had other plans.
Laporta delivered Ronaldinho to the Cules and he became one of the finest players in the history of the club. With Messi, he didn’t have to go through that stress of introduction. The faithful knew him and the vehicle to take him where he truly belonged soon came.
Pep Guardiola was announced as Barcelona’s new coach in the summer of 2008, after being drafted from the B side. He replaced Rijkaard, who was misfiring and had lost grip of the team. He made sweeping changes that affected Ronaldinho and a host of other senior players.
That was the genesis of Messi’s superior outlook.
The biggest project on Guardiola’s hand was Messi and making him become the toast of the world. It was a grand, yet effective plan that gave Barcelona astounding successes.
In Guardiola’s first season, he guided Barcelona to 6 trophies. They won everywhere they participated and with Messi, supported by Xavi Hernandez, Jordi Alba, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquet, Victor Valdes and some other unsung heroes like Adriano Correia, Seydou Keita, Guardiola won 14 trophies in his four seasons at the helm.
Messi was the main piece of the Barcelona team under Guardiola. To accommodate the immense potential Barcelona were capable of, the former Barcelona skipper phased out every marquee signing that reared a head, including Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It worked!
Messi, with his cast, seemed enough. And that was always the case for every manager who came after Guardiola.
Tito Vilanova, Gerardo Tata Martino, Luis Enrique, Ernesto Valverde, Quique Setien and now Ronald Koeman; every Barcelona coach managed with Messi at the centre of their dominance, until recently.
Enrique had nursed a penchant for the different when he took over, putting Messi on the bench in some games. It lacked appeal and spark, and the solution was not far fetched. The former Barcelona midfielder went on to win the Champions League, Barcelona’s last since 2015 and won nine trophies in his three seasons in charge. Messi was again, at its centre.
Barcelona grew in Messi’s image as he became part and parcel of the club. There was however a feeling that he’d grown bigger than the institution.
His place had become historic, and the beats of his achievement rang louder than every other man in the history of the club.
He was untouchable, as his influence and overriding importance grew more undeniable.
Walls, Bridges And Cracks
Since the demise of Vilanova and the appointment of Martino, Messi had begun to wield great influence. It was beyond football.
His contract situation always consisted of deadlocks and lengthened talks. He had become the image of the Barcelona brand, and he milked his new status to delight.
Managers would come and go, but their successes were dependent on Messi’s mood, and form!
Valverde perhaps, would be considered the one most hard done by Barcelona’s swathe of dismissals.
After seasons of successive league triumphs, he was shown the door for his inability to take the step up in Europe.
Messi again, was central to the criticisms.
Barcelona transfer policy reeked with round pegs in square holes and that came with a careless consistency.
Messi’s power to draw attention was never in question, and his ability was never debatable. His status as the best in the world, however became more arguable.
At the other side of Spain, Cristiano Ronaldo stole headlines, as regularly as Messi and the competition had gotten to its head with both players using the other as yardsticks for comparison. Some of their fans even compared the trajectory of their sons.
While Messi seemed to have an edge domestically, Ronaldo stole the show in Europe, to the chagrin of the Argentine.
The UEFA Champions League is always where the best are expected to conquer and the Portuguese carried the day, flying high and wide. To Messi, it was for far too long. The dominance in Europe had become irredeemable.
Bitter pills came Messi’s way – Roma and Liverpool; and they were hard to accept for the Argentine great. The latter especially rubbed salt on some deep wounds.
It highlighted the core player personnel problems in the team.
Since Neymar’s bumper €222m transfer to PSG, Barça have spent €767.2m on Phillipe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele, Clement Lenglet, Arthur Melo, Arturo Vidal, Yerry Mina, Maxwell, Antoine Griezmann and others.
Of these, the most expensive have been shadows of themselves, and have hardly impressed at the club. The burden for the goods was still on Messi’s cringing and now angry shoulders.
The need for a difference soon arose. He wanted out.
The Contract: Life-Changing, Club-Ruining
A 4-year contract was signed in 2017 after protracted talks, which had now become an appetiser for huge deals. It was due to expire in 2021 but Messi became increasingly impatient about the leadership of the club, failing to hide his feelings about the direction which the club is taking.
This often became the subject of a heated debate between the Barcelona hierarchy and Messi, but his complaints amongst many other administrative misdemeanours were hardly seen to. While he complained about the hierarchy, the world got more disenchanted with his leadership of Barcelona as a player.
He had started to count days, and an exit was imminent.
“I would never go to war against the club of my life,”–– Messi
The details of Messi’s contract, it was later confirmed, was ethereal for an individual. Outrageous, it was, for a team swimming in debts.
Messi’s friends had all departed. Many of them left for reasons that ranged from contractual disagreements to treatment, and the Argentine would become more vocal with his insistence on leaving too.
His wages meant Barcelona found it difficult to please other important players.
Dani Alves left feeling disrespected by the club and Messi had formed a telepathic relationship with him but that wasn’t his biggest grouse yet. It came when Barcelona decided, in what was a hard-biting move, that Luis Suarez’s time at Camp Nou was over. The nature of his exit was considered too disrespectful for a player of his ilk and stand within the club.
Messi’s ranks had been successfully decimated, and his desire of having Neymar back at the club hadn’t seen the light of day. The club could not afford it. The numbers were blinking and they were in uncharted waters.
In a long-drawn social brawl that saw words flying expressly between sides, Messi eventually decided to stay and respect his contract. The contract, it has now been discovered, may partly be the reason Barcelona is hanging on a thread.
“I would never go to war against the club of my life,” Messi had said.
“I wasn’t happy and I wanted to leave,”
“I have not been allowed this in any way and I will stay at the club so as not to get into a legal dispute. The management of the club led by Bartomeu is a disaster.”
He never hid his indifference and disavowal of Josep Bartomeu’s leadership. Many agreed with Messi on that front, but begged him to stay, irrespective. Throughout the summer, he was linked with moves to various clubs, most especially, Manchester City.
With billions streaming high at the Etihad, a reunion with Guardiola was considered a strong appeal. But it never materialized.
Many still have doubts about how Messi would cope outside Barcelona but with a club-high 650 goals and 284 assists in 753 games, with every living club record smashed, it was time to move.
Koeman has struggled to bring a smile out of Messi’s face. He has found very few reasons to smile too. A club legend himself, there are indications that they don’t have the kind of relationship Messi shared with most Barcelona managers.
The Argentine doesn’t wield as much control under the Dutchman and often cuts a frustrated figure.
The Big Figures & The Bleak Future
El Mundo’s revelations show Messi is by far the biggest sportsman in the world. His salary alone is enough to wrestle what top sportsmen earn in wages, bonuses and endorsements.
An annual salary of €138m including variables, a renewal fee of €115m, and loyalty bonus in the region of €77m show how Messi is funded with virtually 60% of Barcelona’s players’ budget. With five months to the end of Messi’s contract, he has earned €511m in wages and bonuses alone.
The humongous size of this deal has left Barcelona clutching on to hope, as they prepare to wade through shallow waters of cash crunch and economic hardship.
Currently, the club owes up to €1.173 billion, with a net debt of €488 million.
An upcoming Super League amongst Europe’s elites, which was deemed a way to raise some cash has been dealt a blow by UEFA, with Real Madrid also caught in the mix, owing almost €1bn. An election is on the horizon to bring new leadership for Barcelona. The future however looks like the difficulties of the late 90s seeping through all over again.
Resounding applause greet Messi’s moves on the pitch, as he continuously stakes his name as the biggest and best in the history of the club. Despite his heroic status, fingers will also be pointed to the star man, for Barcelona’s current state.
While Jorge Messi, his father did an excellent job of bargaining largely to his son’s favour, one would question what became of the passion and love seen on his face when he opens his arms in front of those fans who adore him.
That friendship seem to have ended on the pitch. Off it, Messi got rewarded for every mark he made, handsomely, and dangerously, for the club.