With the beard gone, clean-shaven for the first time in years, Lionel Messi’s expression was clearer than ever as Barcelona celebrated an emphatic 4-0 win over Athletic Club in Saturday’s Copa del Rey final. Also for the first time in years was a beaming smile. This was not the look of a player on his way out.
Messi’s body language has been closely examined ever since he made public his desire to depart Barcelona last summer. The Argentine had grown tired of the incompetence at the top of the Camp Nou club and pulled the ultimate political move, only backing down when it became apparent a transfer would result in an almighty legal tussle.
The whole episode, however, led to Josep Bartomeu being toppled and a new (or old, depending on your viewpoint) president installed in his place, with Joan Laporta returning to Barcelona for a second stint at the helm. For Messi, the landscape the shifted dramatically both on and off the field, as demonstrated by what unfolded on Saturday.
Ronald Koeman’s team are a work-in-progress, but Barca are competitive again. There has been a gradual improvement over the course of the season to the point where they have dragged themselves back into the title race at the top of La Liga. Barcelona could still finish this campaign with a league and cup double.
One of Messi’s previous complaints concerned a lack of support on the pitch. The 33-year-old had been denied the chance to age gracefully with more and more demanding from him as Barcelona’s squad as a whole grew weaker season-on-season. Key figures like Andres Iniesta, Neymar and Dani Alves left without ever truly being replaced.
There was a hollowing out of the Barcelona squad with Messi required to stretch further and further to cover the gaps. This was compounded by reckless in the transfer market, with hundreds of millions splurged on players who didn’t really fit the club’s ethos or system - see Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembele and Antoine Griezmann.
Now, though, the outlook is much brighter. Koeman has fast-tracked a number of talented youngsters this season with Pedri, Ronald Araujo, Oscar Mingueza and Ilaix Moriba all breaking into the first team. This is without even mentioning Ansu Fati, arguably the most prodigious young talent Barcelona has produced since Messi.
No longer required to do everything all on his own, Messi has been liberated in recent weeks and months. He has been able to focus his efforts on areas where he can exert the most influence - Messi has registered 21 goals and seven assists in 22 appearances (all competitions) in 2021. The Argentine is a different sort of player now, but he is no less devastating.
Of course, Barcelona’s biggest problem right now concerns the €1 billion worth of debt they are currently carrying. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this could cripple the club, posing an existential threat to one of the sport’s most storied and illustrious institutions. It’s not yet clear how Laporta plans on getting Barca out of this perilous situation.
But Messi wanted a new president he could trust and he got that in Laporta, someone he has known for nearly a decade-and-a-half. He also wanted a squad and a dressing room that could support him rather than one that needed pulling along behind the Argentine, and it would seem he has got that too.
Barcelona might not be the force they were a number of years ago, but there are signs of a recovery. Their exit from the Champions League at the last 16 stage wasn’t exactly satisfactory, but there was at least some dignity in the defeat to Paris Saint-Germain. This was more than Barca have had in previous Champions League exits.
With a new elite level centre forward to replace Luis Suarez, who left for Atletico Madrid last summer, Barca would surely have the quality to be crowned European champions again. As much as league and cup titles put a smile on Messi’s face, as Copa del Rey glory did on Saturday, it’s in the Champions League where he really wants his team to be competitive.
Discussions between Messi and Barcelona over new contract terms are expected at the end of the season when the Argentine will be a free agent. Unlike last summer, he will be free to take any route he wants, with Manchester City and PSG among those interested. But why would Messi go anywhere else when Barca have given him what he wanted all along?