Lionel Messi doesn’t forget. By the sound of it, he hasn’t entirely forgiven, either.
On the evening of Aug. 4, 2021, he and his family flew from Ibiza to Barcelona, touching down at El Prat around 8 p.m. local time. Holiday over, the way he recalls it, his kids were excited about another year at school in Castelldefels and he was looking forward to another season at Camp Nou. It would have been his 18th.
Everything was sorted: an agreement had been reached to renew his contract at the club where he had played since he was 13. His salary would be halved, but he was happy. All he had to do was go in the following day and sign it.
Overnight, literally overnight, everything changed. Messi was told to leave: go and find another club. A statement was released by Barcelona that evening; the captain could not continue. He hadn’t even been back in the city 24 hours.
Three days later, Messi spoke, although it wasn’t easy to speak at all. “This is hard, I’m not ready for this,” he said. It was the worst moment of his career, he admitted, and it wasn’t about to get better. The league’s financial fair play rules didn’t allow him to renew, which is one way of putting it, the way many prefer as it suits them. Barcelona’s finances didn’t allow it is another. That came as news to him.
“I thought it was all sorted,” Messi said. “I was convinced I would continue, there would be no problem. I never had any doubts. We were decided, we would stay.” Instead, he went to Paris. And Paris was terrible.
It is because Messi remembers having to leave Barcelona, how it happened and everything that followed it, the impact it made on him and on his family, what a miserable time he had away from his home, that he is not going back to Barcelona again two years on and joining Inter Miami in MLS instead. Which might sound a little contradictory, even slightly mad, but it is the truth. A big part of it, at least.
“Last time was extremely hard, very, very hard, and one of the reasons for this,” Messi said about passing on a Barcelona move.
There are many things that have been made clear in the wake of Messi’s announcement that he will be joining Miami and the interview that he gave to explain why, but above all there is one thing, a recurring theme that hits hard: how bad it was then and how little he trusted Barcelona not to let him down once more. How little faith he had in them actually making his return happen. He certainly wasn’t going to risk it, not this time. Last time, he had paid for it, and heavily.
“I didn’t want my future in someone else’s hands,” he said. Not theirs, that’s for sure.
Last Wednesday afternoon, Messi sat down in the Paris home he will soon depart with two Catalan newspapers, Sport and Mundo Deportivo. In the interview he announced where he was going next, but didn’t really talk about it. There was little about what he hopes to achieve there, not much in the way of enthusiasm.
Instead, he talked about Barcelona. And above all, he talked about the past. It was a long conversation, and often hugely revealing. Mostly, it revealed how hurt he had been that he had to leave Barca in the first place, and how nothing at PSG had changed his mind, which only made it worse.
“We never, never wanted to leave Barcelona,” he said. “I had to go to Paris.” That’s had to, not chose to. He said he was “hurt,” “angry,” that it had been “ugly.” He had felt like he had been made out to be the “bad guy, and I didn’t like that.” He “missed Barcelona,” he said. He had “two bad years” at PSG. “I didn’t enjoy it,” he said.
“I had a spectacular month at the World Cup,” he said, and you couldn’t help but think: thank God for that. Because he added: “But the rest was difficult.”
All of that left him and his family wanting to come back. Yet, it also made them nervous about risking trying to come back, being caught out again. Once bitten, twice shy and all that. There were conversations with Barcelona, especially with manager and former teammate Xavi. Messi heard the rumours, the leaks. He even said he liked them, when they seemed to be pointing to the possibility of heading home.
“The family got excited by the things they heard,” he said. He contacted Xavi. Do you really want me? Can this really happen? There were conversations with those managing the finances, and reassurances were sought. There were discussions about contracts, although no concrete proposal.
“We were hopeful,” he said. And yet, what happened two years ago was still there, that fear, that reluctance to really believe it. To really believe them. As talks continued, so Barcelona were more open about it, excitement building. “There were a lot of leaks,” Messi said; there were a lot of public declarations, too. Barcelona said they were in contact with him. They said they were making progress. They said that they were just waiting on the league to validate their financial viability plan.
“We hope he wants to join us,” Xavi said. It was “99% in Messi’s hands,” he said. Barcelona president Joan Laporta didn’t so much make Messi his priority as his everything. In a way, he always had: Laporta had been cautious about it, but Messi being at Barcelona had been key to his electoral campaign in the first place.
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You may remember that footage of him hugging a mannequin in a Messi shirt. He had said he would find a way of keeping him, but had ended up being the president who lost him, and while many were at fault — starting with the previous president, Josep Maria Bartomeu — there was a lingering sense from Messi, and others, that he had been let down. That came clearly back into focus. There was a kind of emotional need for Laporta to make up for his departure, a kind of desperation to make amends. To try, at least. And to be seen to try.
A lot of it was played out in public, which was always going to be a double-edged sword. The story being built by Barcelona allowed for two people to blame if it didn’t come off: Messi himself and, above all, LaLiga president Javier Tebas. There’s nothing like an external enemy, someone out to get you to bind people together. But it is a risky approach, even in communications terms: it gets the hopes of supporters up, setting them up for disappointment and exposes you: fair or not, you can end up looking either incompetent or a liar.
“The last thing I want to do is con the Barcelona fans,” Xavi said, but some supporters will have felt that way.
It didn’t come off. Messi’s father had said he wanted to go back to Barcelona. The league approved Barcelona’s viability plan. Xavi described Messi as a priority. But almost as soon as all that had happened, Jorge Messi informed Barcelona that his son was not coming home. Or, more to the point, that he was not going to commit himself to returning if they could make it happen, that he was not going to put himself back at their disposal, trust them to fix it all.
The club put out a short, cold and, when you unpack it, quite an unpleasant statement about a player who does not belong to them. In it, they said they respected his decision to go to a lesser league with less pressure. In essence, they were stripping away all the other elements, to make him the only agent of this outcome; they were reducing it to one thing and one man, blaming him. Never mind the doubts that remained, never mind the financial crisis, never mind the fact that they couldn’t really do this. They were basically were saying: this guy can’t do it any more, he’s running away. He didn’t dare. He bottled it. The same player who had said he wanted to return to play for them. They same player they wanted was no longer elite.
Even if Barca thought that to be true, even if they suspected he was always going to walk away and had only wanted to save face by looking like he tried, even if they felt played by him, it was startling. Above all, there was something in that statement — it’s tone, gratuitousness and gracelessness — that retrospectively underlined that perhaps he had been right not to trust them. Messi had felt like the “bad guy” before; now he could be forgiven for feeling the same way again.
Besides, let’s get back to basics: how were Barcelona even going to make this happen? How were they going to escape their financial reality? “I had felt over the last couple of weeks [of talking to Messi] that it didn’t seem so certain,” Xavi later admitted. It hadn’t looked so certain to Messi either.
Xavi had said that it depended on Messi. “But that’s not entirely true because there were still lots of things missing,” Messi told Sport and Mundo Deportivo once it was over. There were lots of explanations and all of them essentially said the same thing: he had wanted this, but he didn’t trust them to make it happen, that he had been hurt before, that he was a bit tired of this. That it was their fault.
Look at the lines he offered: there would still need to be sales and salary cuts, “and I didn’t want that; I had been accused of many things that weren’t true before,” Messi said. And there was no actual formal contract offer, nothing was certain, still. Every line left Laporta looking bad: at one point, Messi even noted that he had not spoken to the president more than a couple of times in two years, and only briefly, even then. At another, asked if Barcelona had done all they could, he replied: “I don’t know.”
Every line essentially said the same thing: this might not happen, I couldn’t trust that it would, look what they did to me. Like last time, he might be stuck. And last time, it was not only that he had to leave Barcelona but, as it turned out, that he had to go Paris. His bad time there was on them. That memory weighed; the damage was done, not forgotten. Not forgiven either.
“When I had to go [the first time] they also said the league had agreed everything and in the end it couldn’t be done,” Messi said. “I feared the same thing happening as last time.” At no point is there excitement over Miami, a sense of a future to embrace. Every word of his interview returned to the last two years: to how bad it had been, to how the home he held onto had been taken from him. To the moment that forced it all on him.
And there is an inescapable fact here: of all the people involved in his departure, for all the blame to be spread around — Bartomeu, Laporta, Tebas, Jorge Messi, Leo — the only one who actually had to go, the only one who had to “pay” for it, the only one wasting two years of his life, the end of his career, was him. And with him, his family.
Which is why he wanted to come back, but also why he said he couldn’t. The finances hadn’t been fixed yet, Barcelona only able to spend 40% of what they can raise. He could have waited — it is only early June, after all, the window not even formally open yet — but what was the guarantee that things would change, that they would succeed in raising the money? How could he be sure that they could register him when they can’t yet register some of the players they already have?
“I feared having to run like I did last time,” he said. “It looked like being a long summer and I didn’t want to go through what I went through two years ago. I preferred to take the decision to end this and think about my future knowing what is possible.”
And yet, it was the past that mattered most. It was early still, but this had gone on long enough. There was no going back and no one had won. Except Miami.