Could Lionel Messi actually leave Barcelona?

Lionel Messi took advantage of the international break to drop a nuclear bomb in Can Barça when he gave an interview to Diario Olé, an Argentine newspaper,

“While it’s true that I said I wanted to finish my career at Barça,” Messi explained, “sometimes things don’t work out the way you want them to.”

Cue the panic in Cule hearts around the world.

Messi has a bit of a habit of lobbing grenades like this whenever he goes back to Argentina. Back in December of last year, when he was in Buenos Aires recovering from a muscle injury, he unloaded on Barça’s board of directors, specifically vice president Javier Faus, who Messi said “Has no idea about football.”

Then, in May of 2014, in his native city of Rosario, Messi told the Argentine press, “I’ve often said that Barça is my home but if they don’t want me or they doubt me, I won’t have a problem in leaving.” This came fresh off the heels of a fat new contract that reportedly pays Messi close to 20 million euros a year after taxes.

FC Barcelona v SL Benfica - UEFA Champions League

So what the hell is going on? Could Messi really be planning to leave Barcelona, the club he’s been with since he was a pre-pubescent teen?

Many Cules are sounding the alarms. The truth is that Messi has been visibly glum for a couple of years now, and how to make him happy again is being treated like a national security concern at the Catalan club.

One can’t discount the stress and anxiety that his highly publicized fight with the Spanish tax authorities has caused him. You would be pretty pissed if you had to give the IRS a check worth 53 million freaking euros. There have been rumors that Messi hasn’t felt totally protected by the club during this whole affair. I’m not quite sure what Barça’s responsibility should be in helping its players pay their taxes on time, but Messi is not like most players.

And the truth is that the general instability at an institutional level seems to be a major concern for Leo. The famous “entorno” at Barça is in the middle of a vicious civil war. On one side you have the current administration led by president Josep Maria Bartomeu (who took over after Sandro Rosell stepped down last year). Bartomeu and Rosell have been at odds over a philosophy that can broadly be called “Cruyffism,” whose institutional head is Joan Laporta — the president that led the club to the otherworldly heights last decade.

Johan Cruyff of Barcelona

The spiritual leader of this movement is, of course, Johan Cruyff (above), the legendary player and manager who pretty much single-handedly transformed the club from perennial second-tier status into the superpower it is today. Since Cruyff’s time as manager in the early 1990s, Barça have played with a very clear identity. The height of the movement came when Cruyff disciple Pep Guardiola took that identity and made it unstoppable by moving Messi to center forward, transforming a very good right winger into the greatest player of all time.

If Messi didn’t overtly align himself with the Cruyff camp, he certainly felt more comfortable there. For whatever reason, he just can’t see eye-to-eye with the current leadership, no matter how much money they pay him. When Bartomeu brought in Luis Enrique this summer, it looked to be an even more drastic departure from the way things were. Now, the new manager is looking to change the way Barça plays, even asking Messi to play a different role — one that asks him to set up his teammates rather than score the goals himself.

So far everyone is playing nice, but how long will Messi put up with it? He may not be one of the top three finalists for the Ballon d’Or this year, which is crazy, if you think about it. And he certainly isn’t going to blame himself for that. It’s normal that a person who is so used to winning everything constantly points to others when things aren’t going well.
Argentina v Portugal - International FriendlyIt’s a trait that’s part of a difficult, enigmatic person, one that’s so reserved he’s hard to read. One has to understand him as a basically overgrown child — somebody who is very competitive, but needs to feel coddled and safe. That coddling was an obsession for Guardiola, who constantly made Messi feel loved, and it’s one of the reasons that Barça kept re-signing Pinto, a mediocre goalie who was also Messi’s best friend. This summer, the club finally let Pinto go while also parting ways with Messi’s other best friend in the squad, Cesc Fábregas — another player who just couldn’t seem to vibe with Barça.

The chances of Messi leaving are still probably very slim, but at this point, seeing him in a different shirt is not inconceivable. You know things are bad when Sport, a pro-Barça newspaper, is running articles speculating what teams could potentially buy Messi.

These days, Messi sees his friend Cesc tearing it up at Chelsea, revitalizing a career that looked like it was stalling. Could he be looking at him, thinking “that’s the perfect way to get my groove back?”

Photo credits, from top to bottom: Messi reacts after being injured on Dec. 5, 2012 in Barcelona (David Ramos/Getty Images); Portrait of Cruyff before a UEFA Cup match against PSV Eindhoven in 1996 (Gary M Prior/Allsport); Messi of Argentina looks on during a friendly on Nov. 18, 2014 in Manchester (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images).