Lionel Messi’s Departure From Barcelona Has Upended The Soccer Universe
What Michael Jordan was to basketball at his peak, Lionel Messi has been for the world of soccer for the past decade or more. One could take up paragraphs upon paragraphs simply listing the accolades that he has garnered in his career. A record six Ballons D’Or (matching Jordan’s six NBA MVP awards). Ten titles in the Spanish Liga, four in the UEFA Champions League. The most goals in the history of La Liga, most assists, most hat tricks, most goals in a single season. His transcendence has to be seen to be believed, with YouTube highlights providing just a taste of what he has accomplished over the years.
In the time that Messi has played, only Cristiano Ronaldo has provided any semblance of competition to him for the title of best football player in the world. Their rivalry has justly been compared to the greatest ever in the history of global sport, in the same breath or even exceeding Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson, or Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. As much as their rivalry was made compelling by both of their spectacular talents, it would not have achieved the status that it did if not for the fact that they played for the two premier soccer clubs in the world- Messi’s Barcelona and Ronaldo’s Real Madrid.
Barcelona and Real Madrid’s rivalry over the years has been one of the most iconic rivalries in sports. It is rooted in blood, literally, as during the Spanish Civil War the two clubs were each closely associated with Francisco Franco (Real Madrid) and the Catalonian leftist movement that opposed him (Barcelona). Thankfully, in the 21st century Messi and Ronaldo’s combat was limited to the soccer pitch, as they each faced each other at the highest levels of the sport. Between 2008 and 2019, the Ballon D’Or (honoring Europe’s best player) was won by either Messi or Ronaldo every year except one.
All great sports rivalries must come to an end, and the Messi-Ronaldo rivarly would prove to be no exception. After Ronaldo lead Real Madrid to a fifth Champions League title in 2018 (a record for a single player), he seemed to have come to a decision that his time with Real Madrid would be coming to an end. Shortly thereafter, Ronaldo was transferred to the Italian Serie A club Juventus for a sum of 100 million euros, the highest transfer fee ever paid by an Italian club, and the most ever for a player over the age of thirty.
Even after Ronaldo left Juventus, it seemed inconceivable that Messi would ever leave Barcelona behind. After all, Ronaldo had jumped clubs multiple times before, from his original Portuguese club Sporting CP to Manchester United, and then from Manchester United to Real Madrid. But Messi had come up with Barcelona, joining their youth academy at age 13 and staying with the club for the twenty years since.
However, in recent times Barcelona has declined precipitously from its peak years earlier in the decade and in the decade previous, even with Messi. The club’s pipeline of developing young talent through its academy has fallen off, and a series of big-money signings did not work out. The club lost fellow superstar Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017, unable to contend with the club’s near-limitless resources thanks to its deep-pocketed Qatari ownership.
Barcelona has not made a Champions League final since 2015, suffering a series of increasingly ignominious defeats in recent years. The most recent of which came this year, an 8–2 drubbing at the hands of Bayern Munich. Barcelona and Bayern had once been on equal footing competing for the best titles in Europe, but this defeat seemed to signal that Barcelona could no longer count itself among the truly elite clubs.
Shortly thereafter, Messi announced that he was seekiing a transfer away from Barcelona. His frustration has likely been building for some time, but the 2020 Champions League defeat likely was the straw that broke the camel’s back. For a champion of Messi’s caliber, the thought of not being part of that elite tier of European clubs is almost certainly intolerable. In recent years, his relationship with club management and his recent coaches has also gotten progressively worse. A fresh start has become desirable for Messi, and his contract with the club allows for an “out clause” at the end of each season.
Already, some of the top clubs in Europe are circling Messi like sharks circling a wounded seal. Manchester City emerged as an early frontrunner- that would reunite Messi with his former coach at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola. City has been one of the most dominant clubs in the English Premier League, and would hope that the addition of Messi would enable them to capture the one title that has eluded them- the UEFA Champions League. The other major suitors seem to be Paris Saint-Germain, with their aforementioned limitless resources, and Italy’s Inter Milan of Serie A.
If Inter were to acquire Messi, it would reignite the rivalry with Ronaldo, putting the two of them in the same league once again. If that were to come to pass, the rivalry will likely not quite have the same gravitas as it did when both Ronaldo and Messi played for La Liga. Then there is the most outlandish, but possibly the most exciting scenario- that of a team up between the two rivals, as Juventus has joined the race for Messi.
Messi leaving Barcelona marks the end of an era of incredible football, both for him and the club. With him, they enjoyed one of the most successful periods in their history, and they helped him reach new heights as a player. Barcelona has a history dating back to 1899, the club will continue to be one of the greatest in Europe even after Messi is gone. But even so, a player at his level may never take the field for them again.