As much as sports fans love to equate athletic with the divine, Lionel Messi is only human. And one with emotions like anger, frustration and bitterness.
What made him special, however, was that for large parts of his club career, these emotions generally did not spill on to the football field. And especially, not after scoring a sublime goal.
But when the FC Barcelona captain levelled scores against Osasuna with a neat free-kick, he threw his hand up in the air in seeming irritation before hi-fiving his teammates. You’d almost think he had failed to score given the reaction.
By the end of the night, Barcelona had lost the match, and relinquished their reign as Spanish champions. Real Madrid secured the La Liga title.
It was always going to be a disheartening match given how they had botched up their title chances since the restart, handing Real a free pass. But the reaction from Messi was telling. He followed it up with a harsh and brutally honest interview about how the team’s Champions League chances were no better than the domestic league ones. The message is crystal clear – Lionel Messi is not happy with things at FC Barcelona.
Messi is only human but over the past decade, he has been synonymous with FC Barcelona’s football, embodying the official slogan of ‘more than a club’.
From a child at La Masia to club captain, the Argentine’s career has been defined by his success in Spain. He’s easily one of the most prominent and prolific one-club players of our times and until recently, everyone expected him to end his playing career at Camp Nou.
But in 2020 so far, Messi has slammed Barcelona publicly more than once in the span of months.
First, it was a rebuke to sporting director Eric Abidal over the sacking of coach Ernesto Valverde. Then it was hitting out at the club’s angled messaging over pay cuts due to coronavirus, clarifying that it’s something the team decided together. Now, this biting critique of the team’s ambition and intent.
Messi’s reaction is not unexpected, but it’s certainly unsettling to long-time followers of the player and club. That there are deep, troubling issues with Barcelona is nothing new.
In a way, Messi must now even be used to having a team that is disjointed and unable to click in big matches with Argentina. He has carried the national team for years, practically dragging them to the 2018 Fifa World Cup. He has even faced external administrative inference, which led to his now infamous retirement in 2016.
And again now, at his beloved Barcelona, the problems and the player have seemed to reach a tipping point.
Messi is only human, a player who has been a one-man army in a team sport for far too long. A general criticism of the 33-year-old is that he fails to lift team at clutch moments, for all his talent.
The point is debatable, but fans have long defended his shortcomings by pointing to all the times he has succeeded. Irrespective of where you stand in the GOAT [Greatest Of All Times] debate, he is one of the most supremely gifted football players the game has seen. But there is a difference between being able to carry a team on your own and having to do it all the time.
Just this season, he reached the 700-goal landmark with Barcelona, is the top goal scorer in La Liga and has played a role in 53% of his team’s goals. But football is a team game in the end, and the escalating ineffectiveness of the team shows in the results.
It is no secret that Barca’s strike force has not been the same since Neymar left in 2018 and an adequate replacement was not found. Scratch that. Replacements, expensive and talented, were found, but never fitted in.
Ousmane Dembele and Phillipe Coutinho, two of the most expensive signings in the club’s history, seem like cautionary tales with the Frenchman either injured or inefficient while the Brazillian was loaned out to Bayern Munich.
Anotine Griezmann, a bonafide La Liga star at Atletico Madrid, was rigorously pursued and purchased only to be used as an understudy. Luis Suarez, no young turk either, is not the force he used to be but seems to be the only one connecting with the talisman.
In a cruel irony, for a player who was often accused of being a prima donna who forced the exits of other talented forwards, Messi has struggled to find strike partners. A club that once boasted of the likes of Ronaldinho, David Villa, Theirry Henry, Pedro, Alexis Sanchez, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has no succession plan. Let’s not even get into the midfield and defence. What does this say about the planning?
Messi is only human and at 33, he is not getting any younger. Just over a year on from almost winning the treble, Barcelona look set to finish without a trophy of any kind for the first time in 12 years.
La Liga and the Copa del Rey, titles that Barca have been dominating in recent years, are already lost and it seems unlikely that they’ll go on to have a successful Champions League campaign. Messi himself cited the abysmal second-leg collapses against Roma and Liverpool in the last two seasons, saying it would be hard to even beat Napoli at this stage. (The pandemic-delayed last 16 match is poised at 1-1 with the second leg to be played at home)
He has a record six Ballon d’Or titles but not a Champions League since 2015. In the last 10 editions, Barcelona has won La Liga six times but reached the final of the premier European competition just twice.
Messi alone can’t be blamed for the team’s increasing incompetence just as he can’t be credited with all success. But he needs the right support. The level of disillusionment in his latest interaction suggests that Barcelona’s biggest asset is distancing himself from the club where his contract runs only for one more year.
If Messi sees no future for Barcelona in its current state, what chance does even the optimistic fan or stakeholder have?