After reports emerged about his future we look back at Pete Sharland's feature on how Barcelona wasted the talents of Lionel Messi. This article was initially published for the re-start of La Liga and has been updated since.
The phrase Messidependencia is fairly self-explanatory. It is the term used to describe Lionel Messi’s importance to Barcelona.
Now more than ever Messidependencia is just another way of saying Barcelona have wasted a superhuman genius.
Let’s make this very clear first, because sadly it is probably going to have be said at some stage. Messi is an exceptional footballer, in this author’s opinion the best to ever play the game. That is not to diminish players like Diego Maradona or Cristiano Ronaldo, nor the people who believe they are the greatest player ever.
With that established let’s get on with looking at Messi at Barcelona. There are six Ballon d’Ors (more than anyone else ever), over 700 senior goals for club and country and 34 trophies for Barcelona.
A pretty impressive resume and it can certainly be argued that the schooling Messi received at La Masia as well as the influence of Ronaldinho and Pep Guardiola amongst others has allowed him to become the very best version of himself. That best version is in this writer’s opinion the perfect combination of the genius of Maradona and the relentless production of Ronaldo.
Lionel Messi reacts after winning the Ballon d'Or France Football 2019 trophy at the Chatelet Theatre in Paris on December 2, 2019
Image credit: Getty Images
But doesn’t it feel as if he could have achieved more?
Part of our series on La Liga's return a couple of months ago saw us look back to the turn of the last decade, both for Barca and Real. If you rewound ten years and someone had told you that over the next decade Real would win twice as many Champions League titles as Barca would you have believed them? It’s doubtful.
Yet here we are. Messi has won four Champions League trophies, but three of those came in the first six seasons of his professional career. There has been just one more in the following eight. That speaks to something being seriously wrong.
Realistically Messi might still win one or two more European titles but that’s almost not the point. It’s not about how many he has won relative to his peers. That’s missing the point entirely, in the entire history of the sport Messi might only have three or four peers. It’s about comparing Messi to his own remarkable ability, and by those standards, he’s fallen way short but he can not have been expected to do it all on his own.
It’s impossible to overstate how much Messi and Ronaldo have changed our perception of what is normal. There is going to be a gaping void left when they both hang up their boots, it’s simply not normal what they’re doing. Ronaldo once hit 48 goals in a 38-game league season, in a league that is either the best or second-best in the world. Messi answered him by hitting 50. It’s utterly astonishing.
Yet whilst Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti and Zinedine Zidane constructed an environment conducive to theirs and Ronaldo’s ambitions, Barcelona have badly let their superstar down. Zidane and Real asked Ronaldo to do less and less, focusing only on the big games, particularly in Europe, and focusing only on doing what he does best, score goals. By contrast Barcelona expected Messi to shoulder even more of a burden, asking him to cover even more on the pitch thereby covering up their bumbling off it.
Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid poses with the UEFA Champions League trophy following the UEFA Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Liverpool at NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium on May 26, 2018 in Kiev, Ukraine.
Image credit: Getty Images
Consider Michael Jordan, another other-worldly athlete who deserves to be put into the pantheon of those who transcend their sport entirely. We got a fascinating glimpse into Jordan and the Chicago Bulls thanks to the documentary The Last Dance which aired during lockdown.
Jordan’s greatness was never in doubt, he is right up there as one of the two or three best players in the history of basketball, quite possibly the best. The thing this documentary tried to do was provide an insight into Jordan’s greatness and where it came from. It did that.
But it also did more, it showed the way the much-maligned Jerry Krause built two teams around Jordan, allowing him to lead the Bulls to two historic three-peats. The way it ended was a sour note, but the point it tried to get across was clear: great, or even good organisations build around their superstar to get the best out of them. Krause had his flaws but he did that.
It’s not to say that Barcelona have constantly wasted their superstar. The team built during Guardiola’s era is one of the greatest in history and that wasn’t entirely down to La Masia products. But how many good signings have there been since Guardiola left in 2012? Jordi Alba, Neymar, Luis Suarez, Marc-Andre ter Stegen. Is that it? Alex Song, Samuel Umtiti, Clement Lenglet and Ivan Rakitic can all make arguments but that’s a pretty poor ratio even if you consider them successes.
Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona disappointed during the La Liga Santander match between Real Madrid v FC Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu on March 1, 2020 in Madrid Spain
Image credit: Getty Images
Messi’s talent is such that he should be out of sight of everybody else when it comes to personal and team accolades. Barcelona cannot be blamed for the chronic failures of Argentina but over the past decade or so they haven’t equipped Messi with a team that could dominate Europe the way they did 10 years ago.
Instead Messi has had to watch as club legends have failed to be replaced and issues within the team haven’t been addressed. Instead there have been a spate of signings that in reality were never good enough for Barcelona, and unlikely to ever reach that level. The managerial selections have been inconsistent and for whatever reason La Masia has failed to produce in the same way. Generational groups like the one Guardiola inherited are rare but he gave the opportunity to players like Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique, are today’s academy players getting that same opportunity? Ansu Fati and Riqui Puig might suggest yes but the past few years as whole tell a different story.
Now, Messi is 33. As much as we would like to believe he won’t leave us at some stage he will lose his battle with Father Time. And he will do so having not achieved all he could have done.
Without wishing to sound as if all blame lies with the Barcelona board, particularly given the issues explored in this article, it’s hard to look at it another way. The board are ultimately responsible for the signings and team structure. Messi probably has more say than your average player in transfers but still these are decisions made by the board. As we concluded in the aforementioned article the only light at the end of the tunnel for fans is the 2021 elections, where a return of Joan Laporta or maybe even Victor Font may give a new lease of life to both Messi and the playing squad as a whole.
‘Lionel Messi will stay for his career' - Josep Bartomeu on Barcelona star and huge wage bill
What once seemed impossible, almost laughable, now could become reality and if it does, could you really blame Messi? The relationship between he and the club is clearly not one of respect if they continue to operate in the manner they have up until this point. Why would he continue to bail out this board who he doesn’t share a good relationship with?
It might be just what he needs as well. Messi’s body-language on the pitch has been widely dissected, and rightly so, but perhaps it’s partly a visual manifestation of carrying the load for so long? A different team might be able to give him more breathing room and the perfect platform to rejuvenate himself ahead of the back end of his career.
But what team? That is the multi-million dollar question. Realistically you can only see three teams being able to afford the Argentine: Manchester City, PSG and Inter Milan. Each provide different pros and cons. City is a reunion with Pep Guardiola, PSG a chance to play with one or both of Neymar and Kylian Mbappe whilst Inter would renew his rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo. Even for these ultra rich clubs, pulling off the Messi signing would be the biggest undertaking in football, one that is almost destined to fail. Or at least so we thought. Suddenly it's not so impossible...