Imagining a world without Lionel Messi at Barcelona
19 years ago this month Lionel Messi and his family moved into a small apartment near Camp Nou, after a contract was signed on a napkin.
Today, he is as close as he has ever been to leaving. Which still isn't very close at all, but there is a chance. Like squid raining from the sky or Piers Morgan finally leaving Meghan Markle alone, it is drastically unlikely, but you cannot rule it out.
In his current deal, presumably signed on the finest grade of A4 known to man rather than a bit of margarita-soaked tissue, there is a clause that allows the player to move on from Barcelona for free at the end of the season. All he has to do is inform the Director of Football in May, his former teammate Eric Abidal.
This week, tensions were escalated after Abidal blamed the Barcelona players for the sacking of Ernesto Valverde, whilst Messi snapped back (via social media) that he was unnecessarily 'dirtying' the reputation of the squad, before asking him to name names and take responsibility for his own decisions as sporting director.
As a result, it didn't look as though Abidal was going to keep his job. That's the power Messi wields. When he arrived at Barcelona he was just a small boy. Now he is a planet and they are nothing but space debris in his orbit, just like the rest of us.
For the first time, football can dream. It can reimagine itself. The greatest player in the history of the game has every door and window open to him. He has total freedom and control. He can do anything. We are essentially in Football Manager territory, where this simulation of reality fractures into pieces and Cristiano Ronaldo is 40 years old and scoring 7 goals a season for Middlesbrough. At the time of writing, an ambitious, possibly clairvoyant Romanian football fan has already taken the liberty of adding The Club Formerly Known As Steaua Bucharest to Messi's Wikipedia page.
The incongruity is heartwarming but, if he does decide to leave, nothing is off the table. It is too soon for Messi to be throwing himself into the wartorn battlefield that is the Romanian top-flight, but did we ever think we'd see Xavi play for four seasons in Qatar? Or Andres Iniesta captaining a midtable J-League side? Everything in football seems outside the realms of possibility until it actually happens. Just ask Odion Ighalo.
Does a one-club career inherently mean more? The question is a pertinent one. The recent passing of Kobe Bryant evidenced the kind of eternal bond that can be forged between a person and a place over nothing more than a 20-year sporting career. Messi has long reached the same degree of inseparability. He is Paolo Maldini in Milan or Francesco Totti in Rome; footballers ruling in cities as kings.
An ill-judged move or three at the end of his Barcelona couldn't possibly diminish anything he ever did at the club. Ask Liverpool if they care that Steven Gerrard spent his final two seasons hobbling about in the MLS. They don't, and Barcelona wouldn't, but the truth is that it would frustrate the sensibilities of countless others to look at Messi's playing stats when all is said and done and find something as fundamentally abhorrent as:
2020 - 2022 Manchester City 66 (45)
2022 - 2024 Inter Miami 35 (31)
2024 - 2027 Al-Rayyan 28 (52)
2027 - 2028 Arsenal 7 (2)
Do you not just feel an uncontrollable need to shower after looking at that?
The likelihood, of course, is that we are spared the slow torture of a Lionel Messi farewell tour in the far-flung corners of the world, and North London, and he signs one-year rolling contracts for a few more years until he feels the time is right. Maybe he wins the World Cup in 2022 and goes out as the undisputed g o a t. Maybe he shocks everyone and hangs up his boots this summer, spending a year out reading 2666 before coming back to inspire his team - floundering without him - to one last league title à la Paul Scholes. (Disclaimer: Paul Scholes has never read 2666. He has possibly never even read a book.)
On the other hand, it remains hard to escape the feeling that Messi has simply had enough. There's a sullenness to his game now. A silent resentment that is hard to ignore even if he is still dropping the shoulder, glissading around tackles and top-spinning the ball into the corners with the same otherworldly, surgical calm. Perhaps he feels that he has shouldered the burden for too long and, with Pique, Busquets, Alba and Suarez all ageing, and a manager without a single trophy to his name, it is finally time to move on. There are very few people who would begrudge him spending his last few years enjoying his football given that he is the player who has brought the most enjoyment to us.
Ray Hudson has been speaking almost exclusively in breathless, dizzying metaphors for years now thanks to him. When he goes to restaurants and the waiter asks him how everything was he says things like "The cannelloni? MAGISTERIAL. More flavour than a member of Public Enemy covered in hot sauce!" That's got to be worth something. That's got to be worth a few years of strolling through games in the blistering sun somewhere, collecting half a million pounds a week at least.
The truth is that if he does walk away, wherever Messi goes will feel like a substantial lessening of his talent. He is in the rather impossible situation of being too good for whoever he joins, an intrinsic field generator-born God-man acquiescing to the human plane. That makes things difficult, not least because he is currently the highest-paid player in the world and will surely continue to be so if he stays at Barcelona.
There is perhaps really nothing motivating him beyond a fissure with Abidal, a vague sense that Barcelona are a relatively spent force and the mild curiosity to experience football outside The Truman Show dome he has existed in for almost two decades. Whether the combination of those things is enough to turn the head remains to be seen. Just don't be too surprised if, in five years time, he is lining up for Nottingham Forest against Cristiano Ronaldo's Middlesbrough, as squid rains from the sky.