By Luke Thomas, BA Politics and African Studies
Barcelona icon Lionel Messi has revealed he is looking to play in the United States upon his departure from Spain. In an interview with Jordi Evole for La Sexta, Messi discussed his fallout with Barcelona, managerial relationships, and lingering ambitions in unprecedented detail.
After relocating from his native Argentina to join Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy in 2001, the Messi-Barca footballing love story may finally be coming to an end. His contract with the Catalan club expires this summer, meaning he has been free to negotiate with other clubs since the turn of the year. Last summer marked the most turbulent period of Messi’s time at Barcelona, with turmoil behind the scenes at the Camp Nou and disappointment on the pitch resulting in a much-publicised dispute between Messi and the club’s hierarchy. Messi attempted to activate a clause in his 2017 contract, permitting him to leave for free at the end of any season so long as the clause is activated by 10 June 10 (the end of the season).
Coronavirus rescheduling meant the La Liga season played on well into August, leaving Messi and his lawyers adamant the clause could and would still be activated past June. Those tensions were only ever temporarily healed, and the thinking that this 2020/21 season would be a final swansong for Messi has been reinforced by his latest comments.
Messi suggests he will be waiting until the end of the season to decide his next move, but it can be sure the wheels are now in motion for several top sides around Europe, and across the Atlantic, to make what could be the best free transfer signing the game has ever seen. Here are a few ways it could play out.
“I would like to play in the United States and experience life and the league there”
The last Lionel to make so many waves in America was Richie – though Messi does his dancing on the pitch instead of ceilings. Messi says he ‘would like to play in the United States and experience life and the league there’. By leaving now, close to his prime, he stands to make an indelible imprint on Major League Soccer (MLS). David Beckham chose to do the same in his pomp, and Beckham is now co-owner of new MLS outfit Inter Miami, who are looking for statement signings with global reach. MLS rules allow each club to sign up to three players whose pay exceeds league salary caps. Miami offers the project, glitz, sunshine, and Hispanic culture that could just tempt Messi. And there’s Phil Neville. Los Angeles FC, LA Galaxy, and New York FC are alternatives.
Time in the MLS could also precede one final move too: back to his homeland, Argentina, to play for his childhood club, Newell’s Old Boys. Messi’s compatriots, Carlos Tevez and Juan Roman Riquelme, both made similar fairy tale returns home.
In terms of the The Premier League, it seems to harbour only one realistic suitor: Manchester City. Arsenal failed to sign him as a sixteen-year-old. Chelsea’s overtures have been rebuffed year after year for a decade. In his interview, Messi states his Barca delusion was in part because he ‘wanted to win titles and battle for the Champions League and felt it was time for change’. Man City offer near guaranteed domestic success, gargantuan wages, and they may see Messi as the final piece in the jigsaw for their European quest. They host an all-star cast guided by Messi’s past mentor, Pep Guardiola. The manager’s recent contract extension will not have harmed City’s bargaining power.
Where would Messi fit in? A false nine has been a feature of City’s upturn in performances since Christmas, with Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling often utilised centrally in the absence of Sergio Aguero and Gabriel Jesus. Messi would be another in a cast of a fluid frontline. This also provides a stop gap solution for City’s most pressing need – replacing the 30 goals a season Aguero has consistently provided over the last decade of club success. This temporary fix could open the door to a long-lasting solution come 2022, when Erling Braut Haaland’s £66.6m release clause at Borussia Dortmund will be activated. Conveniently, City Football Group also own New York FC, providing a clear pathway into the MLS at the conclusion of Messi’s time in Manchester – or even split stints between the two clubs, in the style of Frank Lampard.
In terms of Ligue 1, Paris St-Germain – sporting director Leonardo has not been shy in publicly expressing a desire to bring Messi to France, recently declaring he has a ‘place reserved’ for him in Paris. Much like Cristiano Ronaldo’s switch from Real Madrid to Juventus, the Paris move offers a guarantee of domestic success to further decorate Messi’s trophy laden career. And much like Ronaldo’s move, Messi’s arrival would undoubtedly be seen by the club as a way to bring the Champions League success its fans and Qatari owners desperately crave. Do not be surprised if soft negotiations have already begun through the persuasion of Messi’s former Barcelona brother in arms, Neymar. If the much-hyped transfer of Kylian Mbappe from PSG to Real Madrid is to go through this summer, there are few replacements who could soften the blow quite so soundly as Messi. Cue the unbridled elation of Madrid supporters who find themselves gifted a seismic arrival by the departure of Barcelona’s greatest.
In terms of La Liga, Messi categorically ruled out a move to either of Barcelona’s Madrid rivals, but could he stay in Spain by staying at Barca? Messi says he has ‘all my life in this city’, and circumstances have improved – ‘I’m happier now and it took some time… even with the new players coming in, that all takes time to build’.
Josep Maria Bartomeu resigned as club President in October, and subsequent elections remain delayed by Covid. The two main candidates sell dreams of the past and the future. Former President, Joan Laporta, hopes to entice Guardiola back as manager. Victor Font, meanwhile, aims to invest heavily in La Masia and recruit former captain, Xavi, as manager. As things stand, a myriad of free signings are planned for the summer (Eric Garcia, Georginio Wijnaldum, Memphis Depay), which should help to balance the club’s finances while improving results. And Messi currently sits as La Liga’s top scorer. By the time summer comes around, the 8-2 Champions League quarter final drubbing by Bayern Munich (summing up Barcelona’s turmoil last year) may seem a distant memory. The chance to bow out with success and harmony as a one club man may prove too tempting to resist. If this were to be Messi’s farewell season, it would have been in the absence of a packed-out Camp Nou. Might he stay, even if just for one more season, to say goodbye properly?
Photo caption: Messi addresses a crowd in his signature number 10 (Credit: Getty Images).