Contractually, it all started with a napkin. Not even the most creative of writers would have dared to write such a paradox: the first contract of Lionel Messi, the best player in the history of FC Barcelona — and in my opinion of soccer — was “tied” with a signature on an informal piece of paper. That piece of paper was taken to a notary and went down in history as the first official document that tightened the bond of the most exciting soccer relationship of this century. Messi and Barça, soccer synonyms, the ultimate couple of the beautiful game.
It’s not just the ovations at the Camp Nou after a goal, the titles lifted, the melodic assists handed out or the whisper of the ball coming into contact with the net. It goes much, much further. Messi arrived in Barcelona, his city of life, at the age of thirteen back in 2000. An Argentinian boy from Rosario, he carried with him two sorrows: the illness that could disrupt his career and the distance from his family. However, the destiny of the myth was much stronger than any obstacle in the way.
Messi and the routine of the unreal
Just as he is seen dribbling rivals since he was four or five years old, Messi has been overcoming obstacles all his life. In Argentina, they did not want to pay for his treatment, but in Barcelona they did, and thank goodness for that because what he achieved in Catalonia was not seen in anyone else and is unlikely to be repeated.
His track record speaks for itself: 10 Spanish leagues, 7 King’s Cups, 8 Super Cups, 4 Champions League titles (in 3 of them as a leading figure), 3 European Super Cups, 3 Club World Cups; a total of 35 titles. In individual distinctions, the records were systematically smashed: top scorer in the Spanish league, top scorer in the history of the sport, top goal scorer of the same club and top winner of the golden ball. I am missing many more, but there is no need to name them all. Messi marked an era.
Argentine journalist Juan Pablo Varsky baptized Messi’s epic as La rutina de lo extraordinario (The routine of the extraordinary). He rightfully did it in 2017, just the day after Lionel scored the 3-2 against Madrid at the Bernabéu — his second home — in the 92nd minute. That classic was a spectacle, probably one of the best in recent history; and that celebration of Leo could not have been more historic, taking off his jacket and showing his dorsal 10 in the white temple.
Messi’s daily life at Barcelona was unreal. Not only because of his absurd statistics, which in the end are just numbers but also because of his evolution as a player. Lionel went from being a spicy winger — agitator and dribbler — to a false 9 with Pep; that brilliant coach who changed the way of seeing soccer between 2008 and 2012. If what Guardiola and Messi achieved together was immense, elevating the Argentine to the highest individual expression, what Lio did on his own has no record in this sport.
Messi evolved according to what the game, his team and context asked of him. In 2014-2015 —with the arrival of Suarez— he could no longer be a false 9; not because he couldn’t, but because Barcelona needed him elsewhere. Then, he moved to the right, as a starting point, but with the freedom to take possession of the gestation zone and begin to connect with all the offensive lines. This is how Messi went back to being a winger and became the total footballer we have witnessed in the last 3-4 years.
He began to close towards the center, but in the midfield. To create, combine and generate partnerships. At some point, as a number five, distributing. At other times, as ten or eight, feeding the strikers; also as a link player and then, as always, arriving in the box, because the goal could never disappear.
Barcelona’s creative shortcomings and Messi’s own transformation forced or led the Argentine to understand all phases of the offensive game. That is why, in his first stage in the first team, Messi was seen at his most “raw”, that is, the diamond that needed to be polished. Under Pep’s (Guardiola) mantle, the most lethal Messi was forged; tactically indecipherable and with the ideal context to break any data that was put in front of him. In the post-Pep era, the most divine Messi arrived; from unrepeatable to unreal footballer.
Curiously, this last Messi was the one who suffered the most, bearing the brunt of Barcelona’s economic debacle, generated by the terrible management of Bartomeu and company. The heavenly Messi was mistreated, insulted and betrayed to the point that Lionel himself decided to rebel, announcing his intention to leave through a burofax. He probably never wanted to leave, but that document, sent last year, was the beginning of the end of the worst board of directors Barcelona has ever seen. Even in that, Messi won.
Downcast and depressed, after the burofax, Messi had one of his worst starts of the season; but he got back on track in the middle of the season, even the most diligent student has moments of calm. He began to score, to play and to have fun; angered by the critics, he decided to silence them by leading a team that needed a leader reference. It could be none other than Lionel.
After the bad end of the season for the league and the early elimination in the Champions League, at least Barça was able to lift titles, with the Cup. Messi, in truth, wanted to stay in Barcelona; the burofax, Bartomeu and the tragic European eliminations were behind him. As much as Koeman can be criticized, at least he created a context where the team worked for Messi and Messi for the team; managing to convince the Argentine that his idea could work.
Messi’s legacy is not only titles and goals, it is the sense of belonging. If there is one thing you can’t reproach the Argentinean for, it is the love he professed for the shield he defended. Money did not matter to him, as he himself offered to lower his salary in order to stay. He also stood firm in the most tragic sporting moments. And if he ends up leaving, it will not be because he lacked intentions to continue. Few footballers in life have represented the club where they were born with such affection.
The farewell he doesn’t deserve
But the story, it seems, will not end as well as the beginning. If a story begins with such a strong symbolism as a signed napkin and develops with Messi’s unique career, many expect the end to be with a plethoric farewell; with the Camp Nou chanting his name and Lionel lifting a title. Today that, as much as it hurts, it seems that it will not end that way.
Although everything was on track for a long contract, with Messi signing a contract for several more years, the Blaugrana’s economic problems and the strict rules of LaLiga prevent Barcelona from signing the Argentine. This problem had already been raised and was no secret, but no one imagined that Laporta and his board could not juggle the numbers and put Messi on the payroll. Then, on August 5, Barcelona made it official that Lionel Messi would not remain with the Blaugrana.
It’s a cold bath. A reality check. Those of us who grew up watching Lionel, from a young age, are especially affected. We have to get the idea that what started with a signed napkin will not end with a farewell to match the circumstances. That Messi’s last game with FC Barcelona was a decaffeinated league defeat. The feeling is that, in recent years, the best Messi was mistreated and wasted. The incomprehension from Argentina transferred to Catalan lands and the Catalan affection transferred to Argentina, where Messi has been valued without any kind of reticence for a long time.
The “culé” fan suffers, as well as the one who dreamed of seeing Messi playing with the number 10 at the Camp Nou. Today, many will not be able to fulfill that wish.
LaLiga also loses a lot with Messi’s departure. He is by far the most valuable asset in its history. First Neymar left, then Cristiano, now Lionel. Little by little, and in the face of the increasing evolution of the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1; Spain is losing its place in the top-3 of the most important leagues.
This end is sad because the suit of one-club men that Messi put on for two decades was the hardest and heaviest to wear. He propelled FC Barcelona to the top of the world and held them up in times of trouble. His departure, painful for him and his entourage, is tattooed with an undeserved end; for that statement or any video posted on any social network is not in keeping with his legendary figure.
We have to wake up. Time goes by, we are growing up and the stories are unraveling. Messi, that kid who came to Barcelona to live his complicated dream, will take another step in his career.
It is incredible, but it seems that soccer is leading Lionel to break each of his “pending”. He won a title with his national team and now, probably, he will go to rule in another kingdom, as many of his critics asked. However, and although it sounds cliché, Leo will always be blaugrana. Where he will always remain in the retina of the fans and will be loved.