Madrid, Spain, Sep 5 – Lionel Messi is staying at Barcelona but for how long?
Messi can negotiate with other teams from January 1 and leave next summer, when his contract expires and this time he really will be able to go for free.
Until then, Barca have to find a way to re-integrate the club’s greatest ever player, who no longer wants to play for them.
His announcement laced with bitterness on Friday was not greeted with celebration, even among the fans, many of whom had supported his decision to go, finding some relief in the idea of him rediscovering success elsewhere.
There was silence too from the players, none of whom gave the kind of public show of support that Luis Suarez and Carlos Puyol offered when Messi told Barca he was leaving.
Even the club seemed unsure how to react. It took almost three hours before a picture of Messi dropped on their social media accounts, featuring the only positive words he had spoken during his earlier interview, not through the club’s official channels, but with Goal.
“I’m going to give my best. My love for Barca will never change”, it read.
But even if Messi’s intentions are honest, how can he not be changed by this? His bitterness was obvious and his feelings clear.
If Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu had not stood in his way, Messi would be gone, perhaps now holding up a Manchester City shirt and doing kick-ups on the Etihad turf.
Instead, he has been forced to stay against his will and to remain part of a project he no longer believes in.
“I’m staying because the president said the only way to go was to pay the 700 million euro clause, which is impossible, or the other way was to go to court,” Messi said.
Ronald Koeman is trying to look to the future but Messi is still seething about the past. His first words about his new coach were hardly a ringing endorsement either.
“Now I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “There is a new coach and a new idea. That’s good but then we have to see how the team responds and if it will get us to compete or not.”
Koeman said he wanted Messi to be the cornerstone of his project at Camp Nou but he also said: “I only want players who want to be here.”
A happy and motivated Messi could have led the reform but, full of resentment and disappointment, his presence might become an obstacle.
What now for Antoine Griezmann, who Koeman said he wanted to field in his best position, coming in off the right where Messi plays?
And for Philippe Coutinho, who has struggled in Messi’s shadow, his own preference for cutting inside seen as a hindrance to his captain?
When Messi rejoins pre-season training next week, some of his closest allies may not be there. Luis Suarez, his best friend and striker partner, as well as Arturo Vidal are nearing the exit door.
Those that do remain will be tasked with managing Messi’s future, every game followed by questions about the 33-year-old’s commitment, intensity and mood.
– Will time heal? –
Bartomeu had said he would only sit down with Messi to renew his contract not cancel it, but there was no extension announced on Friday.
As the clock ticks down to July 1 next year, the speculation will continue.
Time could yet prove a healer, particularly if Bartomeu’s board lose the elections in March and a new president brings fresh optimism, a different plan and perhaps Xavi Hernandez as coach.
But by then Messi will have been able to talk to other clubs, even agree his move regardless of the change of direction.
In that sense, Barcelona will be under pressure from the start of this season, not just to keep pace with Real Madrid but to convince Messi they can.
At some point there may be fans back in Camp Nou, enough to hold up banners and sing songs in support of their captain continuing.
But the relationship will never be quite the same, the damage done as soon as Messi’s burofax landed in the stadium’s offices 11 days ago.
Ever since, Barcelona had wondered how they would recover after Messi. Now they have to recover with him.