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Lionel Messi: Where it went wrong for the super star and how his exit was over a YEAR in the making

Published on: 05 August 2021

A 21-year chapter has finally closed for Lionel Messi at Barcelona, with the Argentine now looking for his next adventure after the Spanish giants confirmed he would not be signing a new deal.

A tumultous couple of years has ended in heartbreak for Barca, who had done everything possible to keep their talisman at the Nou Camp, only to be undone by financial constraints as they battled to offload players and jump through hoops to cling on to the superstar.

The club blamed LaLiga over 'economic obstacles' that prevented them from handing him a lucrative new deal, with the player reportedly U-turning on his decision to re-sign amid anger over his pay-cut, as well as at the state of the squad.

Messi came close to leaving Barca last summer - with Manchester City strongly linked - and now Pep Guardiola's men and PSG are set to be the leading favourites to snap him up next.

But where did it all go for wrong for Messi at a club that worshipped him, and where he once vowed to stay for life? Barca have struggled in recent years after losing their grip on LaLiga and the Champions League - while internal drama has been rife amid anger at previous chief Josep Bartomeu and new election process.

Here, Sportsmail wades through a dramatic couple of years for Lionel Messi that ultimately sealed his exit from Barcelona.


Luis Enrique left Barcelona in May 2017 as their most successful manager since Pep Guardiola - winning two LaLiga titles and the Champions League - so it was always going to be a tough act to follow for Ernesto Valverde.

Valverde still managed to deliver two league crowns, but he was sacked midway through the 2019-20 campaign with Barca struggling to keep rivals Real Madrid at bay in the title race - but club director Eric Abidal raised eyebrows by dumping the blame on the players.

He claimed they 'weren't working hard' for the boss, which ultimately led to the board's decision to get rid.

'Many players weren't satisfied or working hard and there was also an internal communication problem,' he said. 'The relationship between the coach and the dressing room has always been good but there are things as an ex-player that I could smell. I told the club what I thought and we reached a decision (on Valverde).'

Messi was far from happy and issued a retort on social media - circling an image of Abidal's quote and insisting Barca directors had to be 'responsible for their decisions'.

He was also furious at Abidal loosely discussing the entire squad rather than individuals in blaming them for his sacking.

'Sincerely, I don't like to do these things but I think that people have to be responsible for their jobs and own their decisions,' he wrote on Instagram.

'The players (are responsible) for what happens on the pitch and we are the first to admit when we haven't been good. The heads of the sports department have to take their responsibilities too and above all own the decisions they make.

'Finally I think that when you talk about players, you have to give names because if not, it makes everyone dirty and gives air to things that are said which are not true.'


An incredible report in Spain had claimed that Barcelona hired a social media company called I3 Ventures to damage the reputations of key players such as Messi and Gerard Pique while protecting the reputation of former president Bartomeu and the board.

Radio station SER Catalunya alleged that the objective was to 'erode the image of people and entities that have relations with the club to a different degree' - with the firm said to have been behind dozens of 'unofficial' Facebook and Twitter accounts attacking the images of Messi and Pique.

Barcelona said it 'roundly' denied any relationship with I3 Ventures or links to any company that had been broadcasting disparaging messages about its current players or former managers.

Bartomeu chimed in to bat away the claims as 'flatly false', with the club threatening legal action against any media organisation that 'implicated the club in this practice'.

'Barca has never hired a service to discredit anyone,' he said. 'Not a player, not a former player, nor any politician, manager, president or former president.'

Bartomeu added: 'That is flatly false. We will defend ourselves where necessary on this issue, by all means.'

Barcelona had already threatened legal action against any media organisations that 'continue to implicate the club in this type of practice'.

'Let one thing be clear,' he continued. 'To the question: Have we commissioned the monitoring of social networks? The answer is yes.

'To the question: Have we commissioned to discredit people or institutions through social networks? The answer is no and we will take action against all those who accuse us of that.'

Messi broke his silence on the matter to call the developments 'strange'.

'The truth is that I find it strange that something like this happens,' Messi said in an interview to be published on Thursday by Catalan newspaper Mundo Deportivo.

'But they also said that there would be evidence. We will have to wait to see if it is true or not. We cannot say much and wait to see what happens with all this. It seems a strange issue,' added the Barca captain.

'The president told us the same thing he said publicly, the same thing he said at the press conference. What was the situation, what had happened. I can't say much more,' Messi said.


It is no secret that Messi did not see eye-to-eye with Bartomeu, and the mystery over the social media claims hardly did anything to repair that relationship.

After finally agreeing to stay at Barcelona last summer, he opened the curtain on his relationship with the former president, claiming he had 'cheated' him in 'many ways'.

'In many things,' he said. 'True, in many ways. I don't want to bring everything out in public, because I don't like to talk about private moments that happened at the club.

'I won't say what was said and promised, but I can assure you that Bartomeu cheated a lot and for several years.'

When Messi first made his desire to leave known, angry Barca fans flocked to the gates of the Nou Camp and demanded that Bartomeu resign.

His eventual resignation opened the door for Messi to pen fresh terms at Barcelona having grown frustrated with the lack of harmony under Bartomeu's tenure and his general management of the club.

That ill feeling had continued when the former club chief appointed Quique Setien as Valverde's successor, with the Spaniard admitting Messi was 'difficult to manage' in the first hints of tension between the pair.

'Leo is difficult to manage,' he said in November after his sacking last summer. Who am I to change him! If they have accepted him as he is for years and have not changed him.

'There's another facet beyond just the player and it's more difficult to manage. Much more difficult. It's something inherent in many athletes that can be seen in the Michael Jordan documentary ('The Last Dance'). You see things you don't expect.

'He's very reserved but he makes you see the things that he wants. He doesn't talk much.'

Setien had presided over one of the darkest days in Barcelona's recent history when they were hammered 8-2 by Bayern in the Champions League towards the end of the 2019-20 campaign - a result which cost Setien his job.

Messi had reportedly questioned Setien's tactics throughout the season - including during a 2-2 draw with Celta Vigo - with a heated exchange ensuing between the pair. The Argentine was said to have told Setien to respect the club's most successful players, including himself.

Setien is then believed to have told Messi: 'If you don't like what I said, you know where the door is.'


On the heels of that humiliating European exit and with the club in the midst of a financial meltdown, Messi informed Barcelona that he wanted to leave on a free transfer last August, in an extraordinary twist that seemingly put him within reach of Manchester City.

He had pointed to a €700million (£620m) clause in his contract which he believed would allow him to exit for nothing - and argued it was still valid because the season ended in August, not May, due to the pandemic-enforced hiatus.

Barcelona retorted by insisting that the deadline to leave expired in June, and the stand-off between both parties soured the relationship for the first time in his career.

Messi's father and agent, Jorge, was pictured jetting into Barcelona to hold showdown talks with Bartomeu and largely remain tight-lipped. He did, though, admit it was 'difficult' to see his son staying.

In the end, it was an incredible climb-down that saw Messi agree to stay for another campaign, although the forward hinted that avoiding a court case was his main reason for not pushing further.

'I am going to continue at this club because the president has told me the only way I can leave is if I pay the €700m and that is impossible,' he said.

'The only other way was to go to court and I would never take Barcelona to court because I love the club.

'The president always said that at the end of the season I could decide if I wanted to go or if I wanted to stay and in the end he did not keep his word.'


A month later, Luis Suarez was shipped off to one of Barcelona's direct rivals Atletico Madrid for just £5.5m - a deal that the club would prove to regret as the Uruguayan star ended up being crucial in helping the team pip them to the LaLiga title.

Messi was left incredulous at their decision to sell Suarez to Atletico, calling it 'crazy' to do business with a team fighting with them for LaLiga, saying his departure was handled poorly too.

'I thought it was crazy what the management did to Luis Suarez,' he said.

'They gave it away for free to a team that is fighting for the same goals as us. The whole point is not the fact of his departure, which is already hard, but also the way Luis left.'

Messi had also written an emotional tribute to his team-mate on Instagram, telling him he deserved a much more 'fitting farewell' and should not have been 'pushed out'.

'You deserved a fitting farewell for the person that you are: one of the best players in the club's history, having achieved incredible things both individually and collectively.

'You didn't deserve to be pushed out the way they did, but the truth is nothing surprises me any more.'


Was this the last straw? With Messi half way through another season with Barcelona and seemingly open to agreeing a new deal with a presidential election incoming, Spanish press was sent into a frenzy after details of his £492m contract were leaked by El Mundo.

It revealed that the combination of fixed salary, image rights, variables and tax Barcelona will have to pay on the contract amounts to €555,237,619 over its duration.

The newspaper ran the story under a headline that said Messi, 33, will 'ruin Barcelona' with the Argentine star planning to pursue legal action against El Mundo and anyone at the club found to have passed on the confidential information.

President Bartomeu denied he was at fault for the leak - calling claims to the contrary 'completely false' despite allegations someone inside the club could have been responsible, insisting Messi deserved every penny he earned.

'It's completely false [I was involved in the leak],' he told TV3 in Spain. 'This is a very serious issue because it's completely illegal to leak any professional contract to the media.

'It's easy to make accusations but this is not a joke and it's going to end up in court.

'Messi deserves everything he earns, be that for professional or commercial reasons. Without the pandemic, Barcelona would be more than capable of paying those numbers.'

The story came at a time when Barcelona were in financial turmoil, with their gross debt rising to over £1billion as a result of the pandemic and huge question marks over whether they could afford to keep Messi.

The report also revealed some of the bonuses Messi had raked in since the 2017-18 campaign, including an extra £616,172 (€695,748) for winning FIFA's Best Player award during the 2018-19 campaign.

Other variables included Messi banking another £1.75m (€1.9m) if he played 60 per cent of games, with extra payments for each knockout stage of the Champions League he reached, as well as winning LaLiga and the Copa del Rey.

Messi's camp were left infuriated and vowed to take legal action against El Mundo and anyone at the club found to be responsible.

Even boss Ronald Koeman came down hard on the suggestion there could have been an inside man, calling for any culprits to be sacked.

'What has come out is intended to damage him. Messi deserves respect,' he said.

'He has done so much for Spanish football. There are people out to hurt Barcelona and Messi. If it turns out to be someone on the inside then that is very bad and they should have no future at the club.'


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