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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

With his new Barcelona contract, Lionel Messi is committing to a generational rebuild

Messi Barcelona contract
Messi will remain at Barça to help the likes of Ansu Fati take the next step. Alejandro Garcia/EPA

For the last minute of June 30, a Spanish soccer TV show counted down the seconds to the expiration of Lionel Messi’s Barcelona contract. This was pure theatre, as is the calling card of El Chiringuito, which has become something of a viral sensation for its over-the-top reaction to certain stories. Over two weeks later, Messi still had yet to put pen to paper. The drama might well have been justified.

Noises out of the Camp Nou had suggested Messi would ultimately stay, and at long last, the uncertainty around the Argentine’s future – previously growing with every day that passed without any news of a new contract – finally came to an end last Wednesday. Barca’s financial troubles reportedly complicated matters, and Messi ultimately signed a 5-year deal that comes with significant wage cuts.

In the end, Messi had a duty to stay at the club. More specifically, he had a duty to Barcelona’s next generation to play his role as mentor and help ensure a brighter future at the Camp Nou. With Messi passing on his wisdom to the likes of Ansu Fati and Pedri, the Catalans can emerge from their current situation in good shape.

Of course, Ronaldinho was Messi’s mentor in the early days of his Barcelona career. The Brazilian playmaker was the best in the world during his time at the Camp Nou, but recognised the role he had to play in helping Messi make his breakthrough into the first team. The bond between the two players was a strong one and Messi benefited for it.

Pedri has already benefited from the mentorship of Messi, with the Argentine very open about the quality of the teenager. At just 18, Pedri is already seen as a key figure for club and country with Luis Enrique even insisting after Euro 2020 that he has more talent than Andres Iniesta had at the same age.

Ansu barely played last season, but only because injury stopped him after scoring four goals in six La Liga starts. If Pedri is the new Iniesta, then Ansu might just be the new Messi, such is his dribbling ability and eye for goal. He’s another young prospect who could benefit from learning off Messi for a few years more.

Not so long ago, the discussion around Barcelona keeping Messi was a very different one. The Argentine seemed unhappy with the standard of teammates around him. He was disgruntled at Barca’s recent failures in the Champions League and wanted assurances that the club could continue to compete for the sport’s biggest honours both in Spain and in Europe.

This led to a lot of posturing from Barcelona presidential candidates over the players they would target to appease Messi. Even after Joan Laporta was elected, Erling Haaland’s agent, Mino Raiola, visited the Camp Nou for discussions, giving the impression Barca were in for the sought after Norwegian striker.

Now, it has become apparent that Barcelona never had the money to sign Haaland this summer, with free agents like Sergio Aguero, Memphis Depay and Eric Garcia their only new additions so far. The Catalans couldn’t even sign Georginio Wijnaldum on a free transfer after Paris Saint-Germain offered the Dutchman double the salary.

Messi had the freedom to speak to any club that will answer the phone (which is every club if you’re Messi) and may have even felt the pull of the Premier League, with Manchester City widely believed to have been interested in signing the Argentine. Not only would Messi have had the chance to test himself in another country, he would have been reunited with Pep Guardiola, the manager who got more out of the Argentine than anyone else.

Instead, Messi committed the final years of his elite level career to a rebuild. The Catalans are unlikely to win the Champions League this season. In fact, it might be a number of seasons until they are competing for top honours again. This won’t be to Messi’s liking.

However, as the embodiment of Barca’s values and principles as a club, it’s up to Messi to deliver some sort of continuity between generations. Ansu and Pedri are ready and waiting to take the baton and Messi’s role as their mentor is to hand it to them just as Ronaldinho did to him. Messi might not be able to help Barcelona win this coming season by staying, but he can help them win in the future.

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