Lionel Messi will end his 20-year career with Barcelona, after the Rosario-born superstar and the Spanish giants were unable to overcome "economic and structural obstacles" to a new deal, a bombshell certain to spark a high-stakes scramble for a player widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time.
"Despite FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi having reached an agreement and the clear intention of both parties to sign a new contract today, this cannot happen because of financial and structural obstacles (Spanish Liga regulations)," said a statement from the club.
"Faced with this situation, Lionel Messi will not be staying at Barcelona. Both sides deeply regret that the wishes of both the player and the club cannot come true.
“FC Barcelona wholeheartedly expresses its gratitude to the player for his contribution to the aggrandisement of the club and wishes him all the very best for the future in his personal and professional life."
Six-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi, 34, last month finally landed a major international trophy with Argentina when they beat rivals Brazil to win the Copa América.
The Albiceleste captain’s next destination, for now, remains unknown. Reports in Spain on Thursday night said Messi was "shocked and sad" following the news. They also said he was "very close" to signing for French side Paris Saint Germain.
There had been doubts over Messi’s continuation at Barcelona ever since he tried to leave last August as a free agent, citing a clause in his contract and saying the club had had "no project or anything for a long time."
The Argentine – Barça's all-time top scorer and appearance maker who has amassed 35 trophies during his time at the club – ultimately agreed to see out the final year as the club threatened to go to court.
Messi, who signed his first contract with Barcelona in 2000 on a napkin when he was just 13, has been a free agent since June 30 when his old agreement expired. He has played 788 games for the club.
Last season was a comparative disappointment as the Catalan side could only land the Spanish Cup and exited in the last 16 of the Champions League, which they last won back in 2015.
There had been speculation that Messi would sign on for two years and then potentially head to Major League Soccer (MLS), although friend and former teammate Neymar has said he would love to team up with him again at Paris Saint Germain.
The Brazilian star posted an image of him and four other PSG teammates just a few days ago on Instagram. One other figure was in the image: Messi.
Barcelona are labouring under debts of more than one billion euros and have been under pressure to reduce their wage bill. The club recently sold youth prospects, left back Junior Firpo to Leeds United and US international winger Konrad de la Fuente to Marseille, but they’ve struggled to shift the squad’s top earners, many of whom have lengthy contracts.
The Spanish top flight, La Liga, in 2013 introduced so-called financial "fair play" regulations setting a maximum amount of money each club can spend on its playing squad and coaching staff each season, conditioned by their income. In the 2019-20 season, Barcelona’s salary limit was 671 million euros, while in 2020-2021 it was 347 million euros. It is expected to be slashed even more by the league’s authorities.
At the same time Barcelona has recruited new players which were expected to please Messi, such as his international teammate Sergio Agüero, who joined the Catalan side from Manchester City as a free agent on a two-year deal.
Spanish media made much earlier this year of the reported 555 million euros paid Messi over four seasons from November 2017 to the end of last month. National daily El Mundo splashed in January on what it termed "Messi's pharaonic contract which is ruining Barça" – that sum including image rights and a series of performance-related bonuses with the player reportedly earning a net 297 million euros.
According to reports, Messi’s team had agreed to take a large cut on his contract of 50 percent with payment spread out over five years, tying him to the club until he turned 39.
On Thursday night, some pundits began asking if Barcelona’s statement was all part of a big bluff, designed to force La Liga’s authorities into action to grant exemptions and save the league’s most bankable star.
Underlining the Spanish top flight’s financial problems, La Liga announced Wednesday it has agreed in principle to sell 10 percent of its business to private equity firm CVC Capital Partners for 2.7 billion euros (US$3.2 billion).
It comes as Spanish clubs, like many across Europe, grapple with a huge drop in revenues as the pandemic forces matches to be played in empty stadiums.
Messi has been tight lipped about his plans. He granted just two interviews over the past year – one in December and the other at the end of the season – and both times he said "nothing has been decided."
Joan Laporta had made keeping Messi on the team a priority ever since he was re-elected as Barcelona president in March.
"Leo loves Barça and knows that we are a big family. Hopefully that can help us encourage him to stay," he said at the time.
Barcelona’s last president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, was forced to resign in October after the club's members succeeded in achieving a vote of no confidence against him following Messi's attempt to leave.
On Friday morning, bookmakers were leaning towards PSG at Messi's next destination.
"Punters think the Argentinian wizard's next destination is likely to be 1,000km north in Paris, with PSG the 5/6 favourites to secure his signature," said Darren Hughes of bookmakers.co.uk.
"For those that think the latest twist in this sorry tale may prove to be yet another double-bluff, Messi is 10/3 to start next season in Camp Nou. Other options include Manchester City at 7/2, or any MLS club at 11/1, while even a return to his homeland with Newell's Old Boys is a staggering 20/1."
Guess that last one’s too good to be true, right?