Where next for Lionel Messi?
Lionel Messi’s decision to leave Barcelona has shocked the football world, but the list of clubs that he could go to is extremely small
“Which coach says no to Messi?" said Thomas Tuchel rhetorically after his Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) side lost the Champions League final to Bayern Munich on 24 August. He was being asked by the media if he would sign Lionel Messi this summer if he was available. Tuchel generally played it down, and pointed out that the French champions need to reinforce in defence. However, with Messi now making it clear to Barcelona that he wants to leave, the destination of the Argentine is the biggest source of speculation in world football.
According to reports, Messi had already been in favour of leaving Barcelona after the 8-2 shellacking at the hands of Bayern Munich eleven days ago. His decision to leave was reinforced when new manager Ronald Koeman informed him that, as Barcelona rebuild, Messi will be losing his usual privileges at the club. Since Messi doesn’t think that the Catalan club is likely to compete for the Champions League any time soon, he might feel that at the age of 33, his time to win the European Cup is running out. This leaves only a clutch of other super-clubs as likely destinations for the best footballer in the world. Sentiments aside, letting Messi go would make sense for Barcelona too, but only if they can gather the €700m buyout clause in his contract, making any potential transfer the biggest football deal ever. Messi wants to leave for free, pointing to a contractual clause that allows him to do so. The club and player are likely to be involved in a messy legal dispute in the interpretation of the clause if the impasse isn’t sorted soon. There exists a slim possibility that this is a power-play to force out the unpopular Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu.
Signing Messi (and paying his £500,000-a-week wage) would make perfect sense for the Qatari owners of PSG. The club came very close to fulfilling the dreams of the middle-east nation when it reached the Champions League final this year, and the club might see Messi as the missing link that lands them the Champions League next season. Thomas Tuchel has tried to refashion PSG as a cohgerent team and not just a mismatched gathering of superstars, but if PSG can find the cash, then Tuchel might not have much of a say. It remains to be seen if Messi’s great friend and former Barcelona teammate Neymar would see such a move in a favourable light. After all, Neymar left Barcelona for PSG in 2017 so he could escape Messi’s long shadow and be a star in his own right.
Another club that’s desperate to win the Champions League and can muster up the money is Manchester City, owned by Sheikh Mansour. Mansour is a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family and the deputy prime minister of the UAE. City’s rise as a global footballing power has been bankrolled with Emirati wealth, and just as at PSG, the only missing symbol of new-found pedigree is the Champions League trophy.
But a City move for Messi poses some uncomfortable questions too. Manager Pep Guardiola’s legendary Barcelona side (2008-2012), which won 14 major titles and revolutionized world football, was shaped around a young Messi. Together, manager and player won the Champions League twice, in 2008-09 and 2010-11. Separately, while they have both gone on to win great success, regular Champions League victories have been elusive. Messi won the trophy one more time with Barcelona in 2014-15. Guradiola has reached the semi-finals thrice. Despite his managerial brilliance, Guardiola has often faced taunts that he cannot win the Champions League without the world’s greatest player in his team. It must rankle. Winning the European Cup next season with Messi might just add to this perception. However, Guardiola remains a firm admirer of Messi, who he has called the best player he has ever coached. A reunion is a mouth-watering prospect.
Other clubs that might have the money and the desperation to bring in Messi would include Manchester United, Inter Milan and Italian champions Juventus. Each of these clubs seek the Champions League trophy, though if Messi lands up at Juventus, it might make for a strange ending to his career, playing alongside his greatest competitor for the title of ‘greatest footballer in the world’, Cristiano Ronaldo. And while scenarios exist where English champions Liverpool and German and European champions Bayern Munich try to find the money to buy Messi, they can be ruled out on the basis that Messi would severely disrupt the established systems at both clubs. Both Bayern and Liverpool are on the ascendant, have a settled squad and a distinct style of play that’s reliant on high pressing and lightning quick attacking transitions, which wouldn’t necessarily suit Messi. As Barcelona have revealed in the past few seasons, giving the ball to Messi and hoping for magic doesn’t make for a good tactical plan.
Having won 34 titles with Barcelona since his debut in 2003, while scoring 634 goals in the process, Lionel Messi might be bigger than the Catalan club. But his power in the football world may well be the reason why champion sides think twice about signing him.
FIRST PUBLISHED26.08.2020 | 03:55 PM IST