The smile lasted only 90 minutes. Having been forced to take a three-month hiatus due to the global coronavirus pandemic, Lionel Messi’s burning desire to get back on a soccer pitch was evident in his first performance back, grinning his way through a 4-0 away win over Real Mallorca.
Messi’s newfound happiness didn’t last long.
By the following week’s lifeless draw to Sevilla the week after, the scowl was back on the Argentine’s face, as it has been for much of the season. For someone who used to play the game with such joyful abandon, someone who regularly puts a smile on the face of so many others, it’s jarring to see Messi so troubled by the goings on at the Camp Nou.
While the 33-year-old is undoubtedly disgruntled at the way things have unravelled for Barcelona on the pitch this season, it’s the boardroom politicking and general culture of mediocrity around the club that has pushed him to the edge. Last week, it emerged Messi had broken off contract talks with Barca, raising the prospect that he could look elsewhere to enjoy the twilight years of his career.
Of course, this isn’t the first time such rumblings have come from the Messi camp. These sort of reports have surfaced periodically over the last few years and are invariably used to strong-arm Barcelona into handing the Argentina a pay raise. But this time feels different. This appears to be about much more than just a new contract.
Now 33, Messi has never been more in need of a support system to help him handle his fading physicality, but there is no such thing in place. In fact, more is being demanded of Messi than ever before. When Messi doesn’t play well, Barcelona tend to falter. Without him, the Catalans would be much further adrift of Real Madrid at the top of La Liga. That Barça are even still in the title race at this stage of the season is testament to the strength of Messi’s will to keep dragging his team alongside him.
For the first time in his career, Messi might be better off away from Barça. The club that unearthed him and took him to Spain as a 13-year-old, the club that gave him a platform and cultivated him into the greatest player in history, the club he has come to define over past 16 years no longer looks to be the best place for him.
If Bareclona's captain were to search for a new home, he would have plenty of suitors—of that there is no doubt. The question is where he could thrive better than his current club.
At Manchester City, for instance, Messi would now stand a better chance of aging gracefully than he would should he remain in Catalonia. Messi wouldn’t just be reunited with Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium, but with Txiki Begiristain and Ferran Soriano, two boardroom figures who built the club around Messi during their time at Barcelona. The Argentine could certainly use allies at executive level, something he is seemingly without at the Camp Nou.
With David Silva set to leave City at the end of the season, Messi would be allowed to complete his transition into more of a creator than a goalscorer. This was always predicted, that as the Argentine aged he would sink a little deeper into midfield, and it has happened to a certain extent at Barcelona this season—see Messi’s record tally of 19 assists in La Liga—but the Catalans expect their number 10 to score the goals as well as create them.
There is still the possibility that Barcelona will turn things around, but Messi might have to bide his time for that to happen. There is simply too much toxicity around the current regime. Even if Barca president Josep Bartomeu delivers Lautaro Martinez to the Camp Nou this summer, even if he somehow lures Xavi Hernandez as the club’s next manager, Messi will surely remain inherently suspicious of a man who has more than once done his best to undermine the number 10 (see the Twitter abuse scandal of only a few months ago).
Victor Font has emerged as the favourite to replace Bartomeu as Barcelona president, winning favour from club legends such as Xavi and Carles Puyol. Unfortunately for Messi, timing is everything at age 33. With the election likely still a year away, he is being asked to tread water to stay afloat before he's allowed to swim again. The Argentine doesn't have 12 months to wait for things to change at this stage of his career. In the end, the water might be warmer somewhere else.