Lionel Messi has told Barcelona he wants to leave the club after nearly two decades with the Spanish giants.
The club confirmed to The Associated Press on Tuesday that the Argentina great sent a document expressing his desire to leave. Other outlets also reported that the player had asked to "unilaterally" end his contract.
Lawyers for the star sent Barca a fax in which they announced Messi's desire to rescind his contract by triggering a release clause. However, the club maintains the clause expired in June and he remains under contract until the end of the 2021 season.
The announcement comes 11 days after Barcelona’s humiliating 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League quarter-finals, one of the worst defeats in the player’s career and in the club’s history.
The defeat capped a difficult season for Barcelona — the first without a title since 2007-08 — and ignited one of its worst crises ever.
Messi has won a record six Ballon d'Or awards during his time at Barcelona as the top player in the world, and has helped the club win 10 Spanish league titles and four Champions League crowns.
Messi's attempt to exit the club could now lead to a legal battle between the two sides over the clause in his contract.
Barcelona said the document sent by Messi referenced a clause allowing him to leave for free at the end of the season. However, the club said the deadline for triggering that clause expired in June and that it would seek legal advice. Messi’s contract also includes a 700 million euro (US$826 million) buyout clause.
The Spanish season would normally have ended in May but was pushed back because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"In principial, this clause expired on June 10, but the unusual nature of this season disrupted by the coronavirus opened the way for Messi to ask to be released from his contract now," wrote Spanish sports daily Marca.
"It's the first step towards opening negotiations over his departure, on the basis of which his release clause amounts to 700 million euros."
If Messi can leave for free, he will have no shortage of suitors. However, only a handful of clubs could realistically afford to pay his wages even without a transfer fee — with mega-rich Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City widely seen as perhaps the most likely destinations.
Messi had been outspoken about his dissatisfaction with some of Barcelona's decisions this season. He had been silent since the loss to Bayern, though, raising doubts about his future.
Club president Josep Bartomeu had said he was confident that Messi would finish his career with Barcelona, and that he was a crucial part of incoming coach Ronald Koeman's plans for the team.
Koeman met with Messi last week and the player reportedly told the Dutchman that he saw himself more out than in at the club at that moment.
The coach reportedly had already told other key pieces of the squad that they were not in his plans, including Messi's close friend Luis Suárez, Arturo Vidal, Samuel Umtiti and Ivan Rakitic.
After the loss to Bayern, Barcelona announced it would make “profound” changes to the first team and a “wide-ranging” restructuring of the club. The changes began with the firing of coach Quique Setién a few days after the Champions League defeat in Portugal, and new presidential elections were called for March.
Messi arrived at Barcelona as a teenager in 2001, joining the club’s famed La Masia youth academy. He first-team debut happened in 2003 as a 16-year-old, and since then he led Barcelona to 34 titles. He holds most individual records at the club, scoring 634 goals and making 276 assists in 731 appearances with the club.
Former Barcelona defender Carles Puyol, who was the club captain during much of Messi's career, tweeted his support to the Argentine.
“Respect and admiration, Leo,” Puyol wrote. “You have all my support, friend.”
The message was almost instantly liked by Suárez.