In four days’ time Lionel Messi can begin negotiating with any team he likes, but he won’t. That’s the good news for Barcelona fans, and there is more. Like the Argentinian declaring “I feel good now, enthusiastic”, describing the arrival of Ronald Koeman as coach as a “great choice”, and insisting that the “difficult, terrible” summer in which he tried to force his way out is “behind me”. Or the fact that he called Barcelona “my life” and his connection to the club “a relationship of love”.
Many of those settling in to watch Sunday night’s hour-long Christmas TV interview – a kind of King’s Speech only significantly more important – did so in search of optimism, reasons for hope. If they really looked hard – and they did – they might also have found it in how Messi talked about his problems in the past tense and his desire for the new president to return Barcelona to winning ways. They could cling, too, to the ousting of the former president Josep Maria Bartomeu, who Messi said had “conned” him and briefed against him, and whose handling of Luis Suárez had been “mad”. With Bartomeu gone, maybe things can get back to normal.
Nor was there any sign of a departure having been decided. During the course of the interview on La Sexta, Jordi Évole pulled out two Lonely Planet guide books – one for Manchester, one for Paris – but Messi told him to keep hold of them. He said he had spoken to Pep Guardiola, the best manager he has had along with Luis Enrique, but “not about getting together again”. And the mentions of Neymar were about him coming back to Catalonia, not Messi going to France. Above all, the Barcelona captain told Évole that he’s not leaving.
And that’s the bad news for Barcelona fans.
When he was asked if he would start to talk to potential suitors in the next few days, Messi’s answer was clear and definitive. “No, far from it”, he said. But the rest of them were not. They were honest and sometimes surprisingly open – he talked about how his wife Antonella has encouraged him to see a psychologist and how he agrees that he should – but not definitive. Messi will play this season, he said, doing “all I can for the club”. But then? But then, who knows?
“I wouldn’t be right to say what I’m going to do because I don’t know either,” Messi insisted.
There was another standout line when Messi said that he had “always” had the desire to play in the US one day. That was something new, a revelation – previously he had talked about finishing his career at Barcelona or maybe even at Newell’s Old Boys – and it was intriguing too, inevitably drawing the mind to clubs, like City, with US connections. But perhaps that is looking too hard and this answer could be (and mostly was) interpreted as a pre-retirement plan, something still a little way off. The short- and medium-term was a different matter. Yet listening to Messi talk, watching him too, there was no guarantee that those plans are focused on the club he joined 20 years ago. In fact, there was little glimpse that they are.
Messi’s mind may not be made but he didn’t seem convinced that Barcelona is the best club for him any more. He sounded like a man who would still need significant persuading to stay, proof of changes he doesn’t think plausible. Put bluntly, he still sounds more out than in. While things have calmed, the anger subsiding and the main culprit gone, there was no attempt to distance himself from his actions last summer nor any suggestion that the problems that led him there have been fully resolved.
Messi said he would send the burofax again. It was just a way of formalising a decision he had repeatedly communicated internally; one, importantly, that had been a long time coming and carefully thought through, taken against the desires of his family. He insisted that had it gone to court, he would have won. He said he felt he “needed” a change back then; he didn’t say he still needs a change now but nor did he say he doesn’t. He sounded pretty much like he does.
Rather than rule out that decision, he postponed it. And the focus on success suggests that this is far from resolved. “In June, we’ll see,” he said.
He insisted that he wants to compete, and doing so here is complicated. Messi called this a transitional season, a dressing room with young players, few of them homegrown. That, he said, was one of the reasons he wanted to go before: “A cycle had closed.” Transitions take time and, at 33, convinced he has won too few Champions Leagues and aware that his opportunities to do so are running out, one thing Messi doesn’t have is time. “I wanted to keep competing to win trophies,” he said. Will he be able to this season in Barcelona? Or by next season?
He doesn’t appear to think so. The desire for a new president to fix things came with a caveat: “Whoever comes in will find a very difficult situation. He will have to be intelligent, put everything in order and make a lot of changes for things to go well.” And that, Messi conceded, is almost impossible; having seen Barcelona’s steady decline, he is under no illusions. Asked about the potential return of Neymar, he replied: “How do you pay PSG? It would be very expensive.”
“They need to bring in various players and it’s going to be hard to bring in quality players because there’s no money,” he admitted. “The club is in a difficult moment, everything that surrounds Barcelona is bad. It’s in a really bad, bad way. And it’s going to be difficult to get back to where it was.”
To a place, in short, where Messi wants to be.