"I live the present. All I am thinking about is making this a great year and winning titles, and that's it," Lionel Messi said. But that was not it. "After that, we'll see," he continued. "Football is full of unexpected twists and turns ... it is true that I said I would like to stay there [at Barcelona] forever, but sometimes not everything turns out the way you want."
And there it was. In just a few words in a Manchester hotel, Messi had set the most sensitive of alarm bells ringing. The interview with the Argentinian newspaper Ole went round and round. The Catalan newspaper Sport called it "worrying". The best players in Barcelona's recent history have had a nasty habit of leaving out a back door that has been left open for them. Now some saw the threat hanging over them once more: Messi could head the same way as Ronaldinho, Ronaldo, Romario, Bernd Schuster or Samuel Eto'o.
"If Barcelona came to us tomorrow and said 'we have had an offer; we want to sell you,' we would have to study it," Messi's father, Jorge, said the following day. But, Jorge Messi added, "today we're not even thinking about it." He insisted that there was "nothing, nothing at all." And Sport's front page claimed: "There is no '
They might be right, of course. Messi's words could be read as little more than a platitude. Who knows what the future holds? And he had said his intention is to stay. In Barcelona, it often feels like there is a need to hear players declare undying love, for ever and ever, amen, even when that is both a lie and, in truth, unnecessary.
But there was another reading, and even if the context may not have warranted the wailing, the context that surrounds it is worth considering.
Seen through that prism, this was not nothing, there is a Messi case and there was something a little desperate in the Photoshopping. Messi's dad was quite right when he pointed out that people like to "exaggerate" and to "read between the lines;" meaning is often sought where there is none, controversy created. The reaction this time may well have been exaggerated, too.
Yet these were not just a few lines. Indeed, it's hard to believe that Messi, who is media-savvy, wouldn't have known the impact of what he said, and besides, his words were not pulled from his mouth with a pair of forceps. Messi volunteered the information. And even if his words did not contain a conscious warning, an implicit warning was there. Or perhaps just a reflection of a reality that is not as idyllic as supporters would wish, but is in fact more nuanced.
Messi is not going to leave Barcelona tomorrow, and he will probably not leave Barcelona at all. He has three and a half years left on his contract, he would surely command a world-record fee, and his salary is close to 20 million euros a year. How many clubs could actually sign him? Two that are usually projected as obvious destinations -- PSG and Manchester City -- are limited by Financial Fair Play. But what he said did matter.
"Today we're not even thinking about [leaving]," Jorge Messi had said. But the thought has, naturally, indeed crossed their minds.
Messi's response now did not come in a vacuum. A glimpse of that came when he talked about pressure and criticism. "From the outside it looks easy, but it is not," he said.
Messi's standards are no one else's standards, but by his standards, the last 18 months have not been that good. Barcelona finished empty-handed last season. Messi missed two months of the campaign, an absence that did not just provoke doubts of a physical nature but of a psychological nature, too. His commitment lay elsewhere, some felt. At times the accusations were sharp. There was increased focus on his nausea during games, gleefully seized upon by the pro-Real Madrid media.
The target became the World Cup, and he reached the final, performing superbly en route, but in the end it was Germany that won it. It says something about how high Messi had set the bar that finishing as runner-up was somehow, ridiculously, seen as a failure. He will almost certainly not win the Ballon d'Or, for the second year running, after having won it four years in a row. Few truly questioned his supremacy before; right now, surprisingly few would defend it. Since the departure of manager Pep Guardiola, and over the last 18 months especially, the team he plays for has been searching for an identity. The search goes on; the uncertainty has not been eradicated.
And Messi is due in front of a judge, facing charges of having defrauded the Inland Revenue. He has already made additional payments over the course of the year, in outstanding taxes, fines and interest. In total, Messi has paid an estimated 53 million euros, said the Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia, more than anyone else in Spain this year. But that has not released him from a date in court. His image is no longer so impeccable; nor are his performances. "You can't discredit the best player in history," his teammate Javier Mascherano said. But you can.
All of which
When Sandro Rosell came in as president in 2010, he sought to stamp his own identity on the club. That meant his own players. Messi was not one of them. According to sources, some at Barcelona doubted Messi. Put bluntly, some did not like him, for what he represented (for
According to sources, some thought Messi was a problem. They did not want him to be the undisputed protagonist; they resented the fact that his contract was renewed so often -- he has had seven since 2005 -- and distrusted his symbolic and public power. They also knew that selling him would bring in a gigantic fee and knew that losing his wages would represent a big saving. However, they knew that they could not been seen to actively try to sell him: to do so would be political suicide. But they could nudge him toward the exit; then it would be his fault, not theirs.
It is a familiar tactic, one that is so often repeated in football. Read Jorge Messi's comment again and you can see it there too: "If Barcelona came to us tomorrow and said 'we have had an offer; we want to sell you' ..." The key word is "Barcelona." "We".
None of the players in this game are completely naive. Messi's camp was not impervious to the way the board maneuvered. Rosell's connection to Brazil runs deep: judges will decide how deep. The plan contemplated a situation in which Neymar did not arrive to play with Messi; he arrived to play instead of Messi. At the very least, they considered that Neymar's arrival enabled them to sell Messi if the offer came and still have, potentially, the world's best player. Messi could not help but know that.
Just before last Christmas, by which time Rosell had been forced out by the scandal that surrounded Neymar's signing, the Barcelona director Javier Faus publicly sniped that he did not see any reason why "that senor" should get a new contract so often. The words "that senor" stung most -- dismissive and disrespectful. Messi is probably the best player in Barcelona's history and Faus had not even named him. Messi was furious and said, "Mr. Faus is someone who knows nothing about football."
Barcelona has changed; it is not the club into which Messi had grown to become the best player in the world. That surely had an impact on what he said; and what he said will surely have an impact on the club itself. These are delicate days; sensitivity is high.
Presidential elections are 18 months away, but pressure builds to bring them forward. Former president Joan Laporta is preparing a return, and his popularity grows. Messi knows that, of course and it is tempting to see that as lurking somewhere in his thinking. What he says influences people.
The credibility of the club, and of a board that was not voted into power, its board, faces greater challenges and greater criticism than ever before. The "Messi Case," if it is not astutely handled, may yet become another battleground, drawn into divides that have long existed, another symbolic struggle for space. Not least because perhaps he always was.
All of which means that even if there was literally no meaning in Messi's comments, it is natural that at times like these they appear to mean something. In fact, they end up meaning something, whether that is the intention or not.
At times these days, it feels like Barcelona is adrift. The threat of losing their Messiah only increases that. This is delicate, a matter of faith.
There is a simple, computer-generated drawing that goes round, of which some fans are fond: the men who have built Barcelona's modern identity. It shows three Barcelona shirts: Cruyff, Guardiola, Messi. The father, the son and the Holy Spirit. But Johan Cruyff has gone, his honorary presidency returned. Guardiola has gone too, and he says he won't be back. This regime never identified with them, and they never identified with it.
Guardiola, Cruyff, Messi -- right now that picture is like Barcelona's very own version of Marty McFly's family photograph in "Back to the Future"; the snap that defines who he is and measures the threat to his existence, standing there alone, fading away without his siblings. Dave and Linda McFly have disappeared from the picture.
Only Marty -- Messi -- is left.