Time to break (NOU) camp & leave

Clause in contract may allow Messi to leave for free, as Barca fight on to keep their star

Lionel Messi. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BARCELONA • Lionel Messi has informed Barcelona that he intends to leave with immediate effect, and to do so by activating a clause in his contract that would mean the team where he has spent his entire career would not receive a cent in compensation.

The 33-year-old has spent the days since Barca's 8-2 humiliation by Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals watching his club descend into yet another bout of internal turmoil.

Coach Quique Setien and sporting director Eric Abidal have since departed, with Ronald Koeman leaving his position as Netherlands boss to take over at the Nou Camp.

Among the Dutchman's first acts was to tell several senior players - Samuel Umtiti, Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitic and Messi's close friend, Luis Suarez - that their services were no longer required.

Koeman also spoke to Messi, who at that point had stopped short of committing his future to the club.

News reports in Spain suggested that Koeman had warned Messi that "his privileges were over" - a threat that reportedly made up the Argentina skipper's mind.

Regardless of the trigger, the Barca captain put his decision in writing on Tuesday, which was reinforced by his decision to skip training yesterday.

His representatives believe he can act unilaterally, thanks to a clause in his contract that enables him to leave for free as long as he announces his intention to do so before the end of the season.

Barca are expected to contest the definition of when the end of the season is. The club probably will argue that the clause expired on June 10, when the Spanish and European campaigns were scheduled to finish before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Messi's side is reportedly convinced that the exceptional circumstances of a pandemic-delayed season rendered that timing irrelevant, with the Champions League final between eventual champions Bayern and Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) held only last Sunday.

  • IN NUMBERS

    AGE 33

    CLUB Barcelona (since 2004)

    CLUB HONOURS

    CHAMPIONS LEAGUE 4 titles

    LA LIGA 10 titles

    KING'S CUP 6 titles

    EUROPEAN SUPER CUP 3 titles

    SPANISH SUPER CUP 8 titles

    CLUB WORLD CLUB 3 titles

    INDIVIDUAL HONOURS

    BALLON D'OR 6-time winner

    UEFA'S PLAYER OF THE SEASON 2 times

    CHAMPIONS LEAGUE

    TOP SCORER 6 times

    LA LIGA TOP SCORER 7 times

As Messi developed first into the best player of his generation and then, possibly, into the best in history, so were Barca transformed into arguably the most popular team in the world.

Messi has previously insisted that he wanted to finish his career at the Nou Camp - despite suggestions that he would, eventually, return for a season at Newell's Old Boys, his hometown team.

But the chaos of the last few seasons, in which Barcelona have suffered a succession of haunting defeats in the Champions League and run through three managers in the last eight months, have appeared to be too much to bear.

The La Liga side are enduring their first trophyless season in 12 years and having failed to win the European Cup since 2015, and should Messi leave, it would signal the end of their most successful era.

Since breaking into the first team in 2004, the mercurial forward has helped Barca claim 10 league titles, six King's Cups, eight Spanish Super Cups, four Champions Leagues, three Uefa Super Cups and three Fifa Club World Cups.

According to Spanish daily AS, the club hierarchy are reluctant for the contract dispute to go to court, but are standing firm on a refusal to let him go for free, even though he has only one year left on his deal.

Outwardly, they remain hopeful of a change of heart, with new sporting director Ramon Planes insisting he was working "to find the best solution for Barca and for Messi".

"You have to have enormous respect for Leo because of what he is and because of his history. We are not thinking about any contractual clause," he said yesterday.

"Messi's marriage to Barca has given both parties a lot, much joy to the fans and internally, we are working to convince Messi... We are working to make a winning Barca."

But if he cannot be convinced to change his mind, the club are said to want a world-record fee of £200 million (S$360 million) - £2 million more than what PSG paid to sign Neymar in 2017.

Coupled with his wages - he is the highest-paid player in the world, earning £64 million a year before bonuses and add-ons - means that only a select handful of clubs, like Manchester City or PSG, can afford Messi.

His transfer request has since been backed by Barca players, past and present. Former captain Carles Puyol tweeted: "Respect and admiration, Leo. All my support, friend."

Suarez has posted two applause emojis, while Vidal tweeted: "When you shut a tiger in a cage, he doesn't give in, he fights back."

Most Barca supporters also do not appear angered by Messi's decision to leave, with most instead directing their fury at embattled president Josep Maria Bartomeu.

Several hundred fans gathered outside the Nou Camp on Tuesday night to protest against Bartomeu.

The Spaniard has overseen the chaos, including the resignation of several directors and an ongoing fallout from a social media firm that was hired by the club, only to end up launching online attacks on the players.

NYTIMES, REUTERS

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 27, 2020, with the headline Time to break (NOU) camp & leave. Subscribe