When it comes to one-club players in top-flight football, few names can match the impact of Lionel Messi at Barcelona. He was the teen prodigy who became a global legend, all within the confines of the Catalan club. From honing his skill at La Masia to leading the team, the Argentine’s path to greatness was laid out in Spain and he fulfilled his destiny by becoming the most successful player for the club. And for (nearly) 20 years, it was all going according to plan.
At the start of last season, it would have been almost impossible to imagine the 33-year-old ending his career in any place other than Camp Nou. As captain, he had promised to bring back trophies and joy.
But as things stand, Barcelona finished trophy-less for the first time in 12 years and the team’s talisman has officially said he wants to leave. This is just the latest in a long list of bombshells he has been ruthlessly dropping on the team and management this year.
That things have reached such an impasse comes as no surprise, in fact. In a span of three years, Barcelona and Messi went from champions to punching bags in an embarrassing spiral. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the humiliating 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarters. That might just be his final match for the club he has been synonymous with.
Having spent his entire professional career with Barcelona, he has won a club-record 33 trophies, including 10 La Ligas, four Uefa Champions Leagues, three Club World Cups and six Spanish Cups
Here’s a look at Messi’s two-decade association with Barcelona:
La Masia and early debut
Messi was a tiny but talented kid from Rosario in Argentina, suffering from growth hormone deficiency when he moved to Barcelona with his family at 13. He joined the famed academy La Masia and the club agreed to pay for his $1,000-a-month treatment. His first contract was famously signed on a napkin because Barcelona executive Carles Rexach saw his potential and knew he would be too good to let go.
Despite severe homesickness at the outset, Messi rose through the ranks and made his first-team debut aged 17 in 2004, becoming Barcelona’s youngest goal-scorer later that season in May 2005. He officially signed his first contract tying him down with Barcelona in 2005 and it has been renewed several times.
Messi made his debut for FC Barcelona under Frank Rijkaard, under whom the club was enjoying one of its finest runs. Brazilian playmaker Ronaldinho was the No 10 and Messi developed a strong partnership with him. His first senior goal for the club came off an assist from Ronaldinho, a symbolic passing of the baton.
The prolific run under Pep
After sharing the pitch with Ronaldinho for almost two years, Messi took over the jersey number 10.
He was ready to take over, dominate football. It coincided with Pep Guardiola taking over and thus began one of the most successful periods for both the team and Messi. In his four years at Camp Nou, Guardiola won three La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues, unlocking the full potential of Messi, backed by a team constantly linking up and feeding each other chances.
In 219 games under the Spaniard he scored 211 goals and made 97 assists, marking truly a golden period for him as he had the creative license to play front and centre in a team playing glittering, energetic football.
In 2009 alone Barcelona won six titles – Copa del Rey, La Liga, Champions League, Spanish Super Cup, European Super Cup and Club World Cup – and Messi was at the heart of it with 38 goals. There was another Champions League in 2011 and more attractive football but the loss of both Spanish and European crowns in 2012 saw Guardiola leave.
Ballon d’Or record
The year 2009 ended with Messi winning his first Ballon d’or, at only 22 years of age with a whopping 473 out of 480 possible votes. He would win for the next three years straight, the first to win four on the trot.
It should be noted that 2010 was a World Cup year and Argentina ended their campaign early, but it was Messi’s trophy all the way for the feats he achieved with Barcelona, a trend throughout his career.
A dip followed as Ronaldo won the award thrice but he won again after a superb treble in 2015 – the last time he won the Champions League as of 2020.
Messi was tied with Ronaldo at five awards each year but broke the tie in 2019 after a troubled season for club and country but plenty of individual brilliance.
MSN and the last few good men
There was a period of transition after Guardiola left but Messi’s individual brilliance always shone through. Then, he finally found a unit to belong to, the formidable MSN and a new level was unlocked.
Neymar joined in 2013 and Suarez in 2014, both signings paid rich dividends. They simultaneously helped ease the goal-scoring load on Messi while piling on the goals together. The trio scored a terrific 365 goals in just three seasons together. There were good link-ups with Samuel Eto’o, Thierry Henry, Zlatan Ibrahimovic to name a few but for the first time, it looked the Argentine had formed a sustained, deadly partnership with fellow strikers. After the successful link-up with midfielders Xavi and Andreas Iniesta for the best part of his time there, the ‘MSN’ combination was truly irresistible.
In Luis Enrique’s first campaign in charge Barcelona enjoyed a treble again, but, in hindsight, 2014-’15 truly seems like the last glory days of the team.
Cruelly, the unravelling began when this trio was broken in 2017 when Neymar opted to leave for Paris German for a record $222 million transfer. The Brazilian was seen as the natural successor to Messi but he chose to spend his prime in a team where he would be the No 10.
Despite getting a ton of money for the Neymar deal and spending a lot more, Barca spectacularly failed to both replace him and re-sign him after it looked like he was willing to switch. Ousmane Dembele and later Phillipe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann were vigorously pursued and signed for over $100 million but failed to fit in or make a lasting impact. And the load was back on Messi.
Ironically, right before Neymar’s world-record transfer was announced, people in Barca management claimed he was going to stay at Camp Nou. History might be repeating itself there.
A goal-scorer like no other
Messi was just 24 when he broke Cesar Rodriguez’s 57-year-old club record of 232 goals, smashing a hat-trick past Granada in March 2012.
He enjoyed a sensational 2011-’12, setting a La Liga record of 50 goals in a season and scoring 73 in all competitions, breaking Gerd Muller’s European record of 67. Among the highlights, Messi became the first player to plunder five goals in one Champions League game, in the 7-1 hammering of Bayer Leverkusen.
However, the season ended badly for Barca as the title-holders lost in the Champions League semi-finals to Chelsea, and were beaten to the La Liga title by Real Madrid.
Another milestone fell by the wayside when Messi scored his 700th goal for club and country in June. He has gone on to amass 634 for his club, including a record 444 in La Liga, and an unsurpassed 36 hat-tricks in the Spanish top flight.
However, highlights have been in short supply this season for Messi and Barcelona, even though he won a record sixth Ballon d’Or last December before going on to top the scoring charts in the extraordinary league campaign.
No more rescue acts
In 2019, Messi’s footballing genius was increasingly unable to single-handedly to rescue his imploding club, as he had done so often in the past.
Despite lifting the La Liga title, Barcelona had collapsed at the end of the 2018-’19 Champions League season, losing a 3-0 semi-final lead, including two Messi goals, to Liverpool. They then dropped the Copa del Rey final 2-1 to Valencia, where the Argentine was again on the scoresheet, this time though just a late consolation.
In 2020, this slide reflected in his diminishing numbers as well. Though he managed 31 goals in all games during the virus-interrupted campaign just ended, it was his lowest return since 2007-’08, when he was just 20.
Throughout this season, Messi has not hesitated to slam Barcelona’s management publicly.
First, it was a rebuke to sporting director Eric Abidal over the sacking of coach Ernesto Valverde while the team led La Liga and had no worthy successor. Abidal insinuated that the players wanted the coach gone and Messi fired back asking him to name the players instead of generically blaming everyone. 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. After the hiatus, he hit out at the team’s ambition and intent as they squandered the top position in the league to Real Madrid.
It all added up to this moment as he has sent an official notice, not just to leave but to go on a clause that allows a free transfer. A two-decade stay at the club might just end with an acrimonious legal tussle.