Loyalty is something that’s essential in various aspects of life. Whether it is relationships, work or devotion, loyalty is an essential prerequisite.
In football, however, loyalty is a commodity as rare as salt in coffee. We have seen tons of ill-timed transfers, players mocking their former clubs, transfers to rival clubs, you know the kind. From Luis Figo to Gonzalo Higuain, football has seen its (un)fair share of traitors.
Compare this lot to players like Ryan Giggs, Paulo Maldini and Steven Gerrard. The latter group are some of the loyalists of world football. They played for only one club, and were extremely faithful to them.
No fans want to imagine their beloved players playing for another club, but players like the ones mentioned earlier never made them do it. And among them is arguably the greatest player to ever play the game – Lionel Messi.
While a player like Cristiano Ronaldo honed his craft in four different European countries, Messi did it in one. He has spent his whole career at FC Barcelona, and has won every major honour there is to win there.
Barcelona always provided him with a winning project and a great supporting cast to help him do what he does best – win games. With the ball at his feet, Messi lights up the footballing world. When Messi plays, football wins. The only losers are those who bark that the little magician can’t do it on a cold, rainy night in Stoke.
But lately, things have dried up around him. As Messi entered his prime, he only got better. Yet, Barcelona haven’t provided him with a winning project and a great supporting cast in recent years. Due to a multitude of reasons, Barcelona got more and more shambolic. In Barca speak – Juventus, Roma, Liverpool, Bayern and PSG.
Those are not just names of clubs, but the clubs Barcelona suffered embarrassing losses to on the grandest stages. In order, 3-0, 3-0, 4-0, 8-2 (!) and 4-1. They have also not won a league title since the 2018-2019 season. The obvious question that will arise in any football fan’s mind is this – how can a team with the best player in the world be this bad every single season?
There are many people who say the Barcelona captain is a bottlejob and doesn’t step up when his team needs him the most. And here’s the thing – most things in life don’t have a straightforward answer, but this one does. It is NOT Messi’s fault at all. Anyone who says otherwise needs to watch football, and do it properly.
For the past few years, from 2017 to be precise, Messi (and Suarez for a year or two) has been carrying the team. There is a phrase for this in Spanish – Messidependencia.
It’s exactly what you would think it is – an over-dependence on Lionel. For Barcelona to win, Messi has to score, assist, pass, dribble, link-up and orchestrate. In no top team does one player shoulder so much responsibility.
It’s one thing to say that the team is built around the six-time Ballon d’Or winner, because of course it is. If you don’t build a team around your best player, you are doing it wrong.
But, just because he is good at everything doesn’t mean he has to do everything. Then why is football even a team sport? It’s especially shocking when a team like Barcelona, renowned for their fluid team football, has regressed to “pass to Messi and inshallah.”
The most emphatic example is Barcelona vs Liverpool in 2019. The first leg was a tight affair, and both teams had their chances. In the second half, with his team leading 1-0, Messi decided it was time.
The first goal was a rebound that Luis Suarez crashed against the crossbar. Messi reacted before any Liverpool player did for a controlled tap-in. Then came another goal, the perfect representation of the carryjob he had been doing that entire season.
From 35 yards out, Messi smashed in an outrageous free-kick that made Jurgen Klopp smile in awe.
Van Dijk, Alisson Becker and the rest could only look on as a God of the game took matters into his own hands. It was the perfect goal, his 600th for Barcelona, and a goal that looked to have finished the tie. Unfortunately, we all know what happened in the return leg.
Therein lies the problem. In a game where ONE goal would have seen them make the final, Barcelona bottled it. Messi, meanwhile, kept threatening Liverpool. Unfortunately, football is a team sport, and there is only so much one man can do.
Out of the 10 other players in his team, if any one of them had scored a single goal, Messi would have had his fifth Champions League title.
Greener grass on the other side
It got so bad that after the 8-2 drubbing by Bayern Munich, the loyalist in Messi snapped. He sent a burofax to the club saying he wanted to leave. And for the first time in a long time, all the hardcore loyalists could do was agree with him.
How couldn’t they? This was the best player in the world. If he felt Barcelona wasn’t a team on his level, it was probably true. It was true. Barcelona had hit rock-bottom, and Messi wanted to go to a team that was at the top of European football.
You only have to look at the aforementioned Ronaldo, who won three Champions Leagues in a row at Messi’s age. He had a fantastic Real Madrid team around him. Messi, to put it bluntly, has a lot of deadwood to deal with.
However, then Barcelona President Josep Maria Bartomeu said Messi couldn’t leave, citing the most diluted technicality in the book. A series of events later, Messi ended up staying at Barcelona.
He said he didn’t want to take the club that had given him everything to court. If anyone doubted his class off the pitch, there it was in a nutshell. Karma also sided with Lionel, as Bartomeu was forced to resign after years of disastrous management and destroying Barcelona’s core.
This season, under new manager Ronald Koeman, La Pulga has experienced more sporting pain. A 5-2 defeat on aggregate to PSG ended his UCL hopes yet again. More recently, Barcelona conceded La Liga yet again, despite being strong favourites to win it.
The club did win the Copa del Rey, however, thrashing Athletic Bilbao 4-0. But really, football fans and Messi himself must be wondering – should he be carrying an uncompetitive team, or should he make the switch to a club that can challenge for all major honours?
Le Futur Proche
We have now arrived at the million-dollar question. At the end of this season, Messi will be a free agent. There will be no Bartomeu to derail him this time. There will also be no shortage of suitors for him either. Which begs the question – should he look for the first new challenge in his career? Or stay loyal to the club he has been associated with since the beginning of his career?
If Messi leaves Barcelona, it will be the end of an era. There will not be a single Barcelona fan who will liken him to Luis Figo and the like. He has been Barcelona’s greatest ever player, and has earned the right to take a new step in his career. No matter what he does, he will forever be a Barcelona legend. Loyalty and everything is but a small card his haters will inevitably play.
Maybe Messi leaving is for the benefit of all parties as well. He gets to play his prime years at a winning team, while Barcelona can properly rebuild with the money gained from his departure.
Even if Messi leaves for free, his astronomical wages can help fund an influx of world-class talent. The Erling Haalands and Harry Kanes of the world could actually arrive at the Camp Nou. It would be super hard to see Barcelona play without Messi, but that is the nature of football, and indeed sport in general. The show must go on.
Loyalty, in the end, is a construct in a sporting context. In Messi’s case, after these many years of commitment to his club, he deserves to play at the highest level. Whether that is at Barcelona or another team, we will know in the coming months.
In Messi’s case, he will receive backing no matter what choice he makes. That is something a lot of wantaway players didn’t or don’t have. And really, the only loyalty that matters is his loyalty to football. Unless of course, he does a Figo and joins Real Madrid.