After years of putting club before country, it’s now ‘Family. Argentina. Barcelona’ for Lionel Messi
Lionel Messi’s broken relationship with Barcelona football club has been patched up, but the wounds have opened again and the season hasn’t even started for the club yet. That can only be bad news for Ronald Koeman.
Messi’s reaction to Luis Suarez’s departure is no surprise. The fact that he made his discontent so public maybe is – it shows he no longer has any interest in being an ambassador of an institution that he has, at least all the time it has been under its current management, lost respect for.
President Josep Bartomeu will be out by March at the latest and his relationship with Messi was already beyond saving. Koeman’s destiny at the club depends on it, and he will now wait to find out how this plays out on the pitch.
Koeman already had an XI without Messi in his head when Messi’s move to Manchester collapsed. He is delighted to have the world’s best player at his disposal after all, but it comes with certain drawbacks. Koeman would have been the undisputed king of the castle without Messi. The captain staying makes for an uneasy power share.
And perhaps just as unsettling for Koeman is that it’s clear from the vote to keep him as captain that Messi still very much has the dressing room on his side. He has lost his two best friends in the squad but neither the departure of Arturo Vidal or of Suarez will diminish his standing, for as long as it remains the case that the team’s best chance of winning things remains intrinsically linked to Messi.
No one in Messi’s career has given him more assists than Suarez and it was like one more pass through on goal on Thursday when he spoke about players wanting to stay at the club and not being able to, and players want to leave, also not being able to.
Messi took the pass and did not miss the target when he posted his feelings uncut on Instagram. Bartomeu inherited a team with the greatest forward line in its history. He could be forgiven for losing Neymar. Even Messi must realise Neymar jumped. But Suarez has been pushed.
The club could have signed his replacement but let him play though his final year. He made a point of giving an interview to El Pais last month in which he made it clear that would not be a problem.
But a whispering campaign suggesting Suarez’s mere presence would be counter-productive and that his influence now bordered on toxic was used by the club to try to justify moving him on and getting him off the wage bill. Suarez hit back on Thursday when he spoke of lies and leaks. Messi supported him on Friday.
What will perhaps help Koeman is that Suarez smiled and shook his head on Thursday when asked if he thought the Dutch coach had made the decision to move him on or if it had come from the club. The implication is that Koeman was merely carrying out the will of the board when he made a brief phone call to the club’s all-time third highest scorer and told him he was excess to requirements. He remains however Bartomeu’s man.
For Messi now there is a major priority shift. For years he has put Barcelona before playing for his country. Now it’s very much Family, Argentina, Barcelona. In that order. All he is missing is the ‘Gareth Bale style’ flag to paste it on.
Fuelled by anger at the board we may see him start the season in a positive way. But when the first bumps in the road come the head might go down a little more quickly. Barcelona supporters hoping to see him back to his very best can only hope a new president changes the dynamic at the club and so lifts the spirits of its greatest ever player.
Running a massive sporting institution such as Barcelona is not straightforward. A global fanbase and budget as big as any in the world does not guarantee peace, success and ongoing prosperity. Bartomeu will leave the club soon with none of those three things assured.
Of all the jobs he had to carry out successfully, keeping Messi happy was the number one. And, as Messi has always argued, it was never just about money. It was about building properly around him – Messi’s view now is: they make bad signing after bad signing for the best part of five years, and when a trophyless season provokes a clear-out, my mate and one of the greatest signings they ever made, is top of their list.