Lionel Messi is leaving FC Barcelona. On Tuesday, the star soccer player announced his desire to leave his Spanish club after nearly two decades with the team. It was a huge announcement in the sports world. And it stirs up in me questions of loyalty, resistance to change, and feelings of grief.
I didn’t think it would come to this. I hoped it wouldn’t come to this. But then, two weeks ago, Messi and company were taken apart bit by bit in a devastating 8-2 loss at the hands of German side Bayern Munich in the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League. My stomach ached as I watched it. I knew then that Messi was probably not going to start next season in a Barca jersey.
It wasn’t just that loss. Every team loses. It was the pattern that it laid bare. For three years straight, Barcelona have suffered embarrassing defeats in the Champions League, the biggest tournament in world soccer apart from the World Cup. The past two years, the Spanish giants exited the tournament in its knockout rounds as they allowed teams to come back from three goal leads both years. But the defeat to Bayern Munich left me wide-eyed in shock. And it was the final catalyst to Messi’s request to leave.
Again, it wasn’t just the loss. The board at Barcelona has been notoriously bad. They’ve let go of superstars, sold off rising stars, and failed to bolster their renowned youth academy. What’s worse, it was reported earlier this year that the board allegedly paid social media accounts to attack Messi’s character as well as other individuals associated with the club.
As a lifelong soccer fan and Messi devotee, I’ve had a strong reaction to the news. Why do I care so much? It really comes down to three things: the value of loyalty, a fear of change, and the grief I feel that Messi’s magic at Barcelona is coming to an end.
Apart from players’ fidelity to national teams, loyalty is a rare thing in modern day sports, especially world soccer. Yet faithfulness is a virtue. I hoped for, and was convinced, Messi would end his career at Barcelona. I wanted that. Every Barca fan wanted it. His fidelity to the club made it feel like that relationship transcended the sport itself.
And the club has been loyal to Messi for so many years. He came to Barcelona from Argentina at just 13-years-old. Despite the fact Messi was born with a growth hormone deficiency, the club took a chance on a slight Argentinian boy whose nickname was “La Pulga” (“The Flea”). They paid for his medical bills, educated him, and gave Messi and his family a chance at a better life. Now, Messi is 33-years-old, and has spent the majority of his life as an FC Barcelona player. That is special.
But the club’s fidelity has waned over the past couple years. Sure they are paying Messi well enough- he makes an exorbitant amount of money. But they’ve spoiled the relationship they had with their star man. Whether it was after the sacking of coach Ernesto Valverde, or when players chose to take pay cuts to support clubs’ employees during coronavirus lockdown, Messi’s comments on Instagram have revealed a growing distrust between him and club management. And that’s a real tragedy in the classical sense of the term.
While Messi is a hero in Barcelona, it is the club that has held itself up to be the golden standard of soccer. Its motto is “Más que un club” (“More than a club”). That’s what it’s felt like for so long, given its focus on its youth academy and the loyalty so many players have shown (including players such as Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Sergio Roberto, and more).
Yet, through hubris, mismanagement, and generally bad leadership, the club is experiencing a disastrous fall from grace. It doesn’t only have to do with their star man, but his exit seems like the completion of the club’s downward trend in recent years.
I admit I’m afraid of this change. With Barcelona, Messi and company created magic. They dazzled fans and opposing teams alike with joyful, free-flowing, inspired soccer. Not only were they explosive, but they were technically brilliant. They’ve been a team that made me feel like anything could happen. And when Messi, wearing a Barcelona kit, gets the ball, I hold my breath waiting for the impending genius to be displayed.
Now that is changing. I don’t know where he’ll end up next. The biggest clubs in the world are panting at the prospect of signing perhaps the greatest player to ever step foot on a soccer pitch.
My one consolation in his leaving is the possibility of being reunited with former coach Pep Guardiola at English Premier League squad Manchester City. Guardiola, a product of Barcelona himself, coached the Catalan Giants from 2008-2012. Under his guidance, not only did Barcelona win every possible trophy, but they played the most breathless and tantalizing ‘tiki-taka’ soccer I’ve ever had the privilege of watching.
My fear is that with Messi leaving Barcelona, the spell of alchemy he’s able to produce will somehow be lost, wherever he ends up. And that leads me to grief.
As ESPN writer Graham Hunter put it, “I defy you to argue that your life hasn’t been better, brighter, jauntier, more fun after watching Messi during his time at Barcelona.” I agree wholeheartedly. Barcelona is the only squad I made sure I cleared my schedule to watch, in large part because of the things I knew I would witness Messi do during those 90-plus minutes.
It remains to be seen how this all plays out. Messi has expressed his desire to leave, but nothing is final yet. It’s clear that the relationship is damaged. It appears he is actively negotiating with Manchester City. Even though reuniting with his former coach is exciting, I’m still left feeling sad that it’s come to this. Long and storied relationships deserve a good ending, or at the very least an ending that doesn’t leave all involved—Messi, management, teammates, and fans—feeling bitter and resentful. We all deserve better than that.