Futbol Club Barcelona, like Real Madrid, is a club whose natural state is chaos. Often you hear Barca fans complain about the club’s tendency for “autodestruccion,” or self-destruction. Throughout its history, brief periods of joy are inevitably met by instability caused by power struggles for control, conflicts between stars and the club, and a general feeling of discontent among what’s famously known as the “entorno” (rough translation: entourage).
Under normal circumstances, Barca would be in an absolute crisis right now:
- The club’s best player, Leo Messi, is still under investigation for tax fraud.
- Its president and former president are facing real jail time for irregularities in the transfer of the other major superstar, Neymar.
- FIFA banned the club from signing players for two transfer windows, meaning Barça can’t bring in new players from other clubs until Jan. 2016.
- The club fired its Sporting Director in the middle of the season, a highly unusual move which led one of its all time legends, Carles Puyol, to abandon the club as well.
- The institutional state of the club is in such disarray that president Josep Maria Bartomeu has been forced to call early elections.
This laundry list of issues would usually spell doom for any club.
But Barca has Messi, the greatest player of all time.
All of these problems simply do not matter when you have someone like Messi at your club.
There are handful of transcendental figures at certain clubs that can carry the institution through almost anything. Think of Alfredo Di Stefano at Real Madrid, Johan Cruyff at Barca, Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, Diego Maradona at Napoli, and Kenny Dalglish at Liverpool. Messi is undoubtedly that, and probably more.
Messi has undergone a bit of a transformation this season. Early in the year I sensed it when the unthinkable happened: two months into the season Messi was not Barcelona’s top scorer. It wasn’t that he wasn’t playing well. He was actually playing better than he had in years. It was that he was doing a lot more all over the field. In essence, what we’ve witnessed this year is the Maradonaization of Messi.
Messi is doing what Maradona used to do, which was throw the team on his back at all times and basically do everything on the field. For example, how many times have we seen him make this exact pass this season, the one where he cuts in towards his left from a deep position then loops it over to the right wing perfectly to the run of Jordi Alba?
Except, unlike El Pelusa, Messi scores over a goal a game (54 goals in 53 games this season).
During the best days of Guardiola, Barca was a perfect orchestra in which Messi was the final masterstroke. Now, Messi is the orchestra.
A lot has been made of Messi’s return to the right wing, but this version couldn’t be more different from the one we saw in 2004-08. Back then, Messi played on the right as a pure attacking spark. Now, he starts off on the right but he’s just as comfortable initiating the play, helping Dani Alves and Ivan Rakitic bring the ball out of the back. Messi’s solidarity in this regard has been one of the keys in Barca’s ability to make its seemingly suicidal 4-3-3 actually work. It’s like Messi has eaten Xavi Hernandez and taken all his powers with him. If he wanted to, he could be the greatest central midfielder in the world.
But thing is he does all this and still scores a crazy science fiction amount of goals. Thiago Alcantara, his former teammate, believes Messi could play goalkeeper and still score 25 goals a season.
The first half of the season was difficult for Barcelona. The results were okay, but the team lost big matches against Paris Saint-Germain and Real Madrid. The club was in the midst of an institutional crisis, and then there was massive controversy over some of the players taking extra vacation time during the winter break. After the loss against La Real Sociedad at Anoeta, Messi skipped an open training session meant to give fans a look a closer look at their heroes during the holiday season. At the time, this was seen as a massive controversy, as rumors were swirling around that the relationship between Messi and Luis Enrique was completely broken.
Oh how quaint that all seems now. By all accounts, it looks like Messi absorbed that loss by deciding to take over. Ever since that loss at Anoeta, when Messi sat on the bench for the first half, he has played every single minute of every single game. According to Luis Suarez, it was Messi who told him to play more centrally, while Messi shifted more to the right.
The smartest thing Luis Enrique has done all season has been to not let his ego get in the way, and back down from a confrontation with Messi. (Luis Enrique had originally threatened Messi with disciplinary measures after he skipped that training.) It offends many fans’ idea of authority, and The Right Way To Do Things, but when you have someone like Messi, you’re allowed to give him more power than any other player. In fact, you should.
It’s scary to think of what Messi can become if he can build on this season and added even more to his game. I don’t even want to think about it.
Note: This article originally stated that Barcelona is banned from signing players for the next two transfer windows. The piece has been corrected, and Nando has been reminded that he may in fact be an idiot.