Uncertainty around Lionel Messi’s future plans hangs over Wednesday’s Champions League last 16 second leg between Barcelona and Paris Saint Germain – just as the Catalan outfit’s hierarchy wonder how best to approach increasingly tricky negotiations with the Argentine and his family.
Barca go into Wednesday’s game following a disastrous 4-0 defeat in the first leg in Paris last month, with everyone around the Camp Nou knowing their only hope rests on a miraculous performance from their number 10. Barca warmed up pretty well on Saturday at home to Celta Vigo.
It was striking how Messi marked the first game following Luis Enrique’s exit confirmation with his best showing in ages – two superb solo goals, a couple of lovely assists, and just general all-round excellence. There was also the cryptic ‘telephone’ celebration of his first goal, aimed at the Camp Nou’s VIP seats.
Messi made the gesture a couple of times, both straight after scoring and when returning to the halfway line to restart the game. He was very clearly keen to get his message across, delivering it with a very serious expression on his face throughout. That immediately led to mischievous but understandable speculation that it was a public message to Barca president Josep Maria Bartomeu to get him to call Messi's agent/father.
Reporters close to the club were quickly assured the gesture was in fact for a nephew who was sat in the executive zone, as [according to Mundo Deportivo] “he had called various times during the day to congratulate him for a family celebration and the calls had not been answered.” Messi’s brother Rodrigo then posted a short video of the celebration to Instagram with the short message ‘Just a great’ - which was taken by some to be further confirmation that Leo was just using a very public moment to send a private message to a young boy.
Maybe so, but the fact that onlookers even wondered if Messi could really be calling out the Barca board in such a way was telling. It followed closely from a non-celebration of his last minute penalty in the lucky 2-1 win at home to Leganes a few days after the PSG debacle, when he seemed upset and embarrassed at the team’s poor performances.
It now looks like the next few weeks are a crucial moment in Messi’s career – and that if he is ever going to try his luck at another European club then the time could be right. He turns 30 next June, and has already played almost 700 games for club and country. While capable of adapting his game and taking a deeper playmaking role, if he is ever going to test himself at the top level elsewhere realistically it should be soon.
The five-time Ballon D’Or winner is also now less than 12 months away from being able to sign for another club on a free transfer, with no real sign of progress on agreeing a new deal with his current side. Jorge Messi returned to Argentina recently letting El Pais know that “things had advanced slowly, and just a bit” but suggesting that any agreement remained a long way away.
The relationship between both Messis and Barca’s hierarchy has not been good for a long time. Even when his current deal was signed just before the 2014 World Cup, there was confusion amid mixed public messages given by the two parties, with the star clearly not fully happy after a season in which the team had won zero trophies for the first time in years.
Messi and his family have also clearly been upset with what they saw as a lack of support as he was found guilty of tax fraud last summer, with a suspicion that the club’s directors were too worried with saving themselves from trouble in the ongoing investigations into Neymar’s purchase. It cannot be easy dealing with Messi, or his father, especially when it comes to contracts. But that is what any employer must do – and for sure there are no shortage of other rich clubs who would be happy to give the pair what they want.
At various times over recent years Chelsea, Manchester City, Paris Saint Germain and Bayern Munich have all been credibly linked with interest, while Real Madrid president Florentino Perez would surely love to pull off another ‘Luis Figo-style’ move. A move to China looks very unlikely anytime soon, but prospective new super rich Chinese owners at Milan and Internazionale appear keen to make a big splash next summer.
On Sunday, high profile Marca columnist Marcos Lopez claimed that both parties remained keen to do a new deal that would keep the superstar at the Camp Nou, but that the club were working within fixed financial boundaries. The report said that Messi had turned down untold riches from unnamed Chinese clubs, and made a lot of the idea that his partner and sons were both very happy and settled in Catalonia. A pay rise to around €35million net per year was suggested, but with some of the annual salary withheld until the end of the contract as a loyalty bonus, as Barca cannot afford to pay so much just at the moment.
This seemed like the kind of idea that would not go down well with the other side in any negotiations – especially when dealing with such sensitive natures. Meanwhile, long-term rival Cristiano Ronaldo got a new bumper deal from Real Madrid last November. Even before that, according to Forbes, the Portuguese was the highest earner of the pair.
Although Messi reportedly bought his next-door neighbour’s house recently as they were making too much noise at night, his total salary figure is mostly a way of marking his status publicly to the world. He wants to be recognised as the best player around, especially by his own club, so he should be paid that way. Messi’s current form suggests he is worth it. He now leads the Golden Shoe race for Europe’s top scorer, with 23 in La Liga so far this term, and has found the net eight times while scoring in each of his last six league games.
Keep that up and he looks a shoo-in for another Ballon D’Or, with Ronaldo blowing hot and cold so far in 2017. Barca’s board cannot really afford to let him go either from a PR perspective, with his future even more important than whoever they decide to name as the club’s new coach for next year.
But there was also Messi’s hard to explain shocker of a performance amid his team’s total meltdown in Paris last month. More than anything with him it seems to be winning trophies that counts. If Barca do crash out of Europe this week, and they will unless he personally can save them, then talks with Bartomeu and the board will be even harder over the next few months.