We need to talk about Lionel Messi. The rest of the world already is, at least. The Barcelona and Argentina wizard has been on everybody's lips since the revelation this week that he has demanded to leave the Spanish side after 20 years of loyal service, even pushing 'coronavirus' off its throne as Google's most-searched term. And while this most recent pandemic may not be quite as detrimental to health, the sheer volume of reports, speculation and misinformation surrounding the saga has been just as overwhelming as the battle for truth over Covid-19.
Messi has been with Barcelona for the entirety of his professional career and indeed his adult life, having first moved from Rosario at the age of 13 when boyhood club Newell's Old Boys could no longer fund the youngster's vital growth hormone treatments. That has led certain observers close to Camp Nou to speak of a 'betrayal,’ as if the club's actions were performed out of benevolence to a young Argentine facing a medical emergency during the nation's financial crisis of the early 21st century. Barcelona's board, in turn, has sought to corner their No. 10 by promising the resignation of maligned Club President Josep Bartomeu should he publicly recant and state his commitment to the club, at a stroke painting him as a dressing room dictator content not just to control signings and coaching appointments but to overthrow the elected chief – not the first time such an image has been painted.
The truth, though, is that should Messi follow through on his pledge and vacate his home of two decades, he would do so owing nothing to his former employers. Any investment made at the start of his tenure has been paid back handsomely thanks to the Argentine's unique talents on the pitch, yielding a personal tally of more than 600 goals while helping Barcelona to 10 La Liga titles and four Champions Leagues – a crown the Catalans had lifted just once in their entire history prior to his emergence. Off the field too Leo has had an immense impact in increasing the club's global standing, ensuring that wherever one is in the world they are likely to see at least one ‘Messi 10’ shirt.
The club, of course, is entitled to seek a fair price for their prize asset, making the interpretation of the contract clause which he contends allows him to rescind key in the coming days, but they do not have the right morally or otherwise to deny him the chance to seek his future elsewhere after such a long, glittering spell in Spain.
Just where that next destination may lay, of course, is cause for further fevered speculation, much of it bordering on the absurd. La Nación attracted attention after falling for an imitator who assured Messi was heading for Manchester City, while TyC Sports, the channel that broke the original news, dedicated a significant chunk of screen time to harassing City star and Leo's Argentina team-mate Sergio Agüero while the striker played video games via streaming platform Twitch. A handful of Newell's fans in turn found the time to 'march' on Rosario's Flag Monument in a car convoy, calling on their prodigal son to come back and play where it all began.
The prosaic truth of the matter is that any move, especially if Barcelona's contract interpretation prevails, is likely to be hugely costly and fraught with difficulties in a football world still recovering from the financial cataclysm that was the Covid-19 pandemic.
Manchester City, bankrolled by the Abu Dhabi state and boasting not only Agüero but Messi's mentor Pep Guardiola, appear to be favourites for his signature for both economic and footballing reasons, but in the absence of concrete news the media's imagination has been allowed to run wild.
And Messi himself? The superstar has kept his silence, preferring to let others do the talking for him – the star of this circus even if he is yet to even raise his head.