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Lionel Messi, arguably the greatest player in soccer history, has informed Barcelona that he intends to leave the club with immediate effect, and to do so by activating a clause in his contract that would mean the team where he has spent his entire career would not receive a cent in compensation.
Messi, 33, has spent the days since Barcelona’s humiliation by Bayern Munich, in the Champions League quarterfinals just over a week ago, watching his club descend into yet another bout of internal turmoil. Quique Setién, the manager, and the sporting director, Eric Abidal, both departed, and Ronald Koeman, a former Barcelona player, was appointed as coach.
Among his first acts was to tell several senior players — Samuel Umtiti, Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic and Messi’s neighbor and close friend, Luis Suárez — that their services were no longer required. Suárez was reportedly told in a brief telephone conversation that he was free to find a new club.
Koeman also spoke with Messi, who at that point had stopped short of committing his future to the club. News reports in Spain on Tuesday night suggested that Koeman had warned Messi that he would no longer receive special treatment — a threat, it was suggested, that made up the Argentine’s mind.
Regardless of the trigger, Messi put his decision in writing on Tuesday. He and his representatives sent a burofax, a signed and legally recognized communication, informing Barcelona that the player intends to cancel his contract. A club spokeswoman confirmed the club had received the document.
Messi’s representatives believe he can make that decision unilaterally, thanks to a clause in his contract that enables him to leave free as long as he announces his intention to do so before the end of the season.
Barcelona is expected to contest, though, quite when the end of the season is. The club probably will argue that the clause expired at the end of June, when the Spanish and European campaigns were scheduled to finish. Messi’s side is reportedly convinced that the exceptional circumstances of a pandemic-delayed season rendered that timing irrelevant. It is his, and his representatives’, belief that he is able to activate the clause until the end of this month.
Sending the burofax, in this interpretation, triggered that clause, ending a spell at the club that has lasted for 20 years. Messi joined Barcelona at 13, recruited when an emissary from Barcelona, sent out to watch him play in his hometown, Rosario, Argentina, drew up a contract on a napkin.
His rise, in that time, has mirrored that of his club. Messi’s list of honors extends to 10 Spanish championships, four Champions League trophies and six world player of the year awards. His tally of individual records, if anything, is more remarkable.
He has scored more goals than anyone else in La Liga history, and holds the assist record, too. He has won more Ballons d’Or — the famed trophy awarded annually to the world’s best player — than anyone else, played in more victories than any other Barcelona player, scored more hat-tricks and doubles than anyone else.
As Messi developed first into the best player of his generation and then, possibly, into the best in history, so Barcelona was transformed into arguably the most popular sports team in the world. For almost a decade, the club represented soccer’s gold standard.
Messi has previously insisted that he wanted to finish his career at Camp Nou — despite earlier suggestions that he would, eventually, return for a season at Newell’s Old Boys, his hometown team — but the chaos of the last few seasons, in which Barcelona has suffered a succession of haunting defeats in the Champions League and run through three managers in the last eight months, appears to have been too much to bear.
Should Barcelona not be able, or willing, to challenge his decision legally, Messi will not be short of suitors. More complex is which of the myriad clubs who would love to call on Messi would be able to afford his salary, which in some estimations runs at around $90 million a year, including image rights and bonuses.
Manchester City — managed by Messi’s old mentor, Pep Guardiola — and Paris St.-Germain, home to his close friend Neymar, would be the likeliest candidates, ahead of Chelsea, Manchester United and even Real Madrid. Inter Milan, though less successful in recent years, has maintained a yearslong dialogue with Messi’s family, and has long attempted to position itself as his first alternative.
On Tuesday night, fans gathered outside Camp Nou, where Barcelona’s executives were holding an emergency meeting, to demand the resignation of the club president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, and his board. Their hope was that a change of leadership might be enough to prompt Messi into a change of heart, and keep the finest player in Barcelona’s history with the only club he has ever known.
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