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Life after Lionel the linchpin?

Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona scores at Camp Nou (Photo by Eric Alonso/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

Our new football correspondent ROB HUGHES on the symbiotic relationship between Barcelona and Lionel Messi, its mainstay, that must one day come to an end.

No player has better displayed the joy of football more sustainably than Lionel Messi. I first saw him at La Masia, Barcelona’s academy, when he was 13, and still feel that tingle of excitement whenever he is in full flight.

Barça’s motto is Més que un club. Leo Messi is definitely more than a player. Yet in their 20th year together, he is performing beyond all expectation.

Why, if he is so gifted, does one suggest beyond expectation? Because after seeing his mates leave one by one and having lost faith in the club’s hierarchy, Messi did not want to be in Barcelona this season.

He remains only because the president and the board – now deposed – threatened to take him to court to prevent him moving on either to Manchester City or Paris St Germain, or indeed to the semi-retirement yard of the United States.

City and Paris, both owned by Arab sheikhs, are the only clubs who could contemplate his salary. It is no coincidence that City and PSG were accused of breaching UEFA pay limitations, though the Court of Arbitration ruled in favour of the clubs. And the only way that Major Soccer League might tempt him would be through the almighty corporate dollar that lured Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer in their dotage in the 1970s.

FC Barcelona faces crippling debts to keep Messi and to fulfil the obligation to rebuild the Camp Nou stadium. At the end of January the Catalan daily Mundo Deportivo published in exact detail the contract penned between Messi and the club four years ago. With salary, image rights and other variables, it adds up to the eye watering sum of 555,237,619 euros (more than £484 million) due to Messi over four years to this June.

I kid myself that Messi would play for nothing, such is the impression that he is a child at play — a man-child who can take five or six opponents out of the game in a single, sinuous run during which his body moves fluently this way and that, the ball obeying his every touch.

Many have tried to break Messi the way that the Basque, Andoni Goikoetxea, stamped on and broke the ankle of Diego Maradona in the Camp Nou in 1983.  

Yet now, approaching his 34th birthday this June, there is the sense that Messi, even with a new team building around him, is more injury prone, more susceptible to being hammered, than he once was. He has played exactly the number of La Liga games, 505, that Xavi Hernández played for El Barça and is within seven of the career 767 games that Xavi appeared in for the club.

Xavi, the play-maker, and Andrés Iniesta, the pass-master, Messi going where instinct took him, formed the holy trinity of their era; delightful on the eye, bounteous in the trophy department.

Yet Messi’s talent (yes, his joy) surpassed them. In his 505 league games he has  scored 459 times. In all his 760 appearances for the club where, thus far, he has played his whole career, he has netted 653 goals and contributed 282 assets. And after Xavi went, Leo Messi at times sublimated himself to the team, dropping back to to create rhythm.

You might be guessing, perhaps fearing, that I could wax on more and more on the genius. Well, don’t tempt me.

However, it is necessary to observe that Messi owes his career to Barcelona. The club took him when he was described in Argentina as a “dwarf”, a frail if even then hypnotically skilled boy whose family could not afford the thousand dollars a month growth hormone treatment that was prescribed for him in Rosario, in central Argentina.

Barça picked up that bill, and took care of the football and scholastic education, intrinsic to the Johan Cruyff vision of playing that carried on through Cruyff’s protege Pep Guardiola. Més que un club, indeed.

Barcelona versus Real Madrid is steeped in Catalan craving for independence after the dictatorship of General Franco and, in football terms, Barcelona’s belief that politics was behind them losing the first Argentine genius, Alfredo Di Stéfano, after Barça signed him first in 1954.

Last Sunday, Catalan separatists won an increased controlling share in the Catalan regional parliament elections, four years after Madrid cracked down on an alleged illegal Catalan attempt to break away by from Spanish rule. Some leaders of that attempt remain in jail, others in exile in Belgium.

But another ballot takes place in Barcelona on March 10. It is the casting of votes among the 144,000 socios – the supporters who pay to be members of the club and get to choose the president.

Three men are on the ballot. They are Joan Laporta who presided over the club from 2003-2010, Victor Font and Toni Freixa. Laporta’s previous tenure started with the star signing of the Brazilian magician Ronaldinho and peaked with Guardiola as coach and the La Masia nucleus of Messi, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta on the field.

Today, despite the debt mountain, Laporta talks of signing Erling Haaland, the Borussia Dortmund goal machine that everyone from Chelsea to Real Madrid to Man City are presumed suitors.

Victor Font has another idea He speaks of taking Xavi back to where he ended his playing career and making him general manager, possibly eventually coach. Font says he speaks to Xavi “more than to my wife” and believes Xavi would create the sports project and ethos that would persuade Messi to stay. He also planned to make Jordi Cruyff, son of Johan, the new sporting director.

The one man who is not saying anything about the succession, or about his own future, is, characteristically, Lionel Messi. While he speaks through performance, his presence is still the eye of attraction at the club, even if his payment is apparently sucking the financial essence out of it. 

Loving the way that Messi plays is ok by me and millions around the world. But the day is coming when that is sustainable no longer, and when someone must somehow build a future in Catalonia without Messi.

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