In many ways, it’s fitting that it happened in 2020. In a year that’s already seen Kobe’s death, the Olympics postponed and a historic NBA player strike in the playoffs, our grasp of reality was further tested last Tuesday.
It was one of those moments that you’ll remember exactly where and when you first got the news. I was in my room that evening, when my phone buzzed with a text from a friend — ‘Messi leaving Barca, I’m heartbroken right now’. In the last couple of years, there’s been at least one story about Messi’s departure in every transfer window, so my initial reaction was one of wary skepticism. After corroborating the news ( from the ever reliable news source that is Twitter), the skepticism made way for quiet disbelief as it slowly started to sink in. When you think of Messi, the image that’s conjured is of him with his arms spread out and a mischievous grin on his face…. in a Barcelona jersey. Just the thought of him playing for another club felt blasphemous.
The most pressing question, in the aftermath of the 8–2 demolition at the hands of Bayern Munich, was Messi’s future. Should he stay or should he go? It’s a highly contentious topic, and it’s provided a unique glimpse into the different types of Messi fans that exist.
The stay brigade is dominated by those who’ve watched Messi on only the biggest of stages — the Champions League, the World Cups and the Clasicos. The ones who’ve experienced the magic largely through Youtube compilations set to horrific techno beats. I’ll have to admit I fall into this category and wanted him to stay and save the sinking ship á la Del Piero at Juventus.
But, what surprised me was how many Barca fans weren’t just okay with him leaving, but actually wanted him to move on. The ones who see his feints, dribbles and passes on a weekly basis in the La Liga, and have seen the extent to which Messi has carried team. . In the last three years, Messi has scored 35% of Barcelona’s goals, that’s 44 goals more than Luis Suarez, the second highest scorer in that time. We are undeserving, their sentiments scream. The ignominious Champions League exits weren’t one-off events, they were just the tip of the iceberg. Messi’s been covering the cracks in the rudder for a while now — the three La Liga titles and three Copa Del Ray titles in the past five years are a testament to that.
There’s a special duality that come with being a Barca fan — for the ten players on the field there is a passion, but for the 11th there is a devotion. And currently, a divorce seems the best option for both. It gives players like De Jong and Griezmann the chance to step out of the shadows, and also allows Messi to shine his light on a team that will reflect it back.
When I take the emotion out of it, it’s a decision I understand and have even come to support. It’s not easy to accept, especially because logic is the exact antithesis to Messi. There’s a romance Messi elicits when you watch him play. It’s in that tingling you feel when you see him steely eyed in the tunnel. It’s in the searching eyes that look for him on the pitch. It’s in the way you lean forward when he receives the ball on his left. It’s in the low whistle when he sets off towards the goal. It’s in the way you puff your cheeks out when he skips past a defender. It’s in that shake of disbelief when he caresses a shot past the keeper.
Lionel Messi made you feel something each time he played.
If there’s one man in the world who recognizes this beauty and knows how to make it something tangible, it’s Pep Guardiola. As an Arsenal fan, I’d hate to see him in the Premier League, but as an appreciator of beauty and all the good things in life, I’d love to see Messi re-united with Pep.
After 20 years, a billion goals and a million assists the show will come to end in Barcelona. There’s something poetic about the fact that his last goal for the club came in an empty stadium. It was just the Camp Nou, the ball and that majestic left foot of his that summer night. There’s always been an inherent simplicity to him.
Barca’s club motto is ‘More than a club’. Lionel Messi was more than a player. It was the perfect marriage. It’s a bond that will last forever, because after all they never got a chance to say goodbye to each other.