Lionel Messi’s future with Barcelona remains uncertain, but it came into significantly clearer focus on Sunday, when Spanish television network La Sexta aired the Argentine legend’s pre-Christmas interview with journalist Jordi Evole.
The conversation was long and wide-ranging. Here are the big takeaways.
Messi will stay with Barcelona at least through the end of 2020-21
The 33-year-old tried to leave the only professional club he’s ever known last summer, but decided to stay for the final season of his contract rather than engage in a drawn-out and very public legal battle over a disputed escape clause.
“It was a manner of making a point and expressing my feelings. It was me telling the club that I wanted to leave,” Messi told Evole. “I felt I'd completed a cycle and it was time to leave the club that had given me so much. I wanted to win titles and battle for the Champions League and felt it was time for change.”
With just over six months remaining on his current pact, Messi is free to negotiate and sign a pre-contract with any club outside Spain beginning Jan. 1. Speculation about his plans has been running rampant across the globe, and Messi apparently wanted to set the record straight by revealing his plans.
“I’m going to wait for the season to finish,” he said. “The important thing is to think about the team and to try and win titles, not to get distracted with other issues.
“I don't know what will happen,” Messi insisted. “I’m focused on what we have in front of us over the next six months. It wouldn’t be right to tell you what I’m going to do after that, because even I don't know ... let's wait and see what happens and I'll make my mind up in the summer.”
Messi said he’s happier now, and the departure of then-club president Josep Bartomeu — the man who refused to let Messi walk in August — appears to have eased some of the bitterness the game’s greatest player felt last summer. Messi said Bartomeu lied to him “about many things,” but declined to go into specifics. “It will come out in the future,” Messi said.
... But Messi dislikes direction Barca is heading
Messi might be desperate to win while he still can. But Barca is in a rebuilding phase, with veterans such as Luis Suarez (Messi’s close friend) and Ivan Rakitić sent packing before the season began.
“It's going to be difficult to return to where we were,” Messi said. “It won't be easy for the new president to turn things around. I hope whoever wins does things well to get this great club back to where it deserves to be.” (Victor Font and ex-Barca prez Joan Laporta are the favorites to succeed Bartomeu in next month’s election.)
Messi was particularly critical of the decision to let Suarez move within La Liga, to rival Atletico Madrid. “I felt it was crazy the way his exit was handled,” Messi said. “Barcelona let him go to a direct rival.”
But his tone seemed to soften when he was asked about first-year manager Ronald Koeman. There has been lots of speculation that the two don’t see eye-to-eye, but Messi defended his coach’s up-and-down results so far.
“It's difficult for him as we're in transition,” Messi said of Koeman. “There are new players and young talent coming through, so it's difficult.”
Barca currently sits fifth in the table, eight points behind Atleti, which has a match in hand.
Messi remains an admirer of Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola
English Premier League titan Manchester City and French champion Paris Saint-Germain were and are the frontrunners to land Messi if he leaves Barca. The star is still very much a fan of Guardiola, who as the Blaugrana’s boss won two Champions League titles with Messi earlier in his career.
“His way of preparing for games was exceptional,” Messi said of Guardiola.
As for PSG, Barcelona will meet last year’s Champions League runner-up in February the round of 16 of this year’s competition. Messi said he spoke to Neymar, Paris’ headliner and Messi’s former teammate at the Camp Nou, after the Dec. 16 draw that pitted the two clubs against each other. The Brazilian said recently that he hopes the pair can play on the same side again. But while there’s been rumblings that Neymar wants to return to Barca, which he helped win its most recent European title in 2015, Messi doesn’t see it happening.
“The club is going through a tough period financially so it will be complicated to bring Neymar in,” he said. He didn’t mention the possibility that the reunion could happen in the French capital instead.
‘It's always been a dream to play in the United States’
Perhaps the biggest single piece of news to come out of the interview, beyond Messi confirming that he won’t look for a new club in January, was the revelation that he’s eyeing a turn in MLS.
“I would like to play in the United States someday and experience life and the league there ... it’s always been one of my dreams,” he said. “[But] I'm not thinking too far ahead; in the short term I just want to see how the season finishes.”
MLS is filled with billionaire owners who could afford his otherworldly wages [Messi reportedly earns nine figures with Barca] and the prospect of an ownership stake in a club could be as enticing as it was to David Beckham, who left Real Madrid for the LA Galaxy back in 2007. Beckham is now part of Inter Miami’s ownership group, and Messi has previously joked about eventually teaming up with the former England captain in South Florida.
Any MLS move would would be at least two years away, though. Indeed, the contract Man City was reportedly set to offer Messi last summer was believed to include language that would see Messi finish his career with sister club New York City FC after two seasons in the Prem. It makes one wonder if Messi mentioning the possibility was more than a coincidence.
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