Messi had arrived back at Barcelona from his Ibizan getaway ready to ink a new deal only to be sent back home and informed that a deal would not be happening. Then came confirmation: “Latest news: Leo Messi will not continue with FC Barcelona”, the club said, in a shocking 10-word statement.
It couldn’t be true, surely?
What if there was a way to salvage the situation? A potential sale, or three? What if this was ultimately a political ploy, a way of pressuring LaLiga to relax its salary cap restrictions to accommodate for the game’s greatest?
All those unlikely scenarios, those ludicrous conspiracies – born out of idealised, “false hopes”, as club president Joan Laporta put it – were torn to shreds when the Argentine arrived at the Camp Nou for one final time on Sunday.
Rather than being greeted by a packed house by jubilant fans, Messi was greeted by club figures and journalists in scenes that resembled a funeral. Instead of stepping foot on the pitch, being hoisted on the shoulders of teammates and friends one last time, the 34-year-old stood on the podium, his face mask doing little to hid his emotions.
“These recent days I have been thinking about what I can say; the truth is that I can’t think of anything,” he would say at the press conference he had called with the club’s blessing. Nor could anyone else, for that matter – his final appearance in the press room was difficult to stomach and painful to watch.
“This is very hard for me,” he continued. “I’m not prepared for this”. Little does that matter though – after 21 years in Catalonia, 17 years in the first team, six Ballon d’Ors, and 35 titles later, Messi will depart, and it’s almost certain he will pair up with good friend Neymar at Paris Saint Germain, whose departure some four years ago, it could be argued, ultimately led to all of this mess.
As many before me, that La Pulga will line up in the blue and red strip of a different club is a catastrophe: it’s tragedy for fans, who will see their hero play for an outfit they all love to hate; it’s a tragedy for the club, who will lose their greatest ever player; it’s undoubtedly a tragedy for La Liga, who lose their most commercially viable player; it’s also a tragedy for football, a sombre confirmation of the death of the phenomenon of the ‘one-club player’.
But ultimately, Messi’s departure will prove to be most devastating for Messi himself. After a rollercoaster 12 months in which he was forced to stay against his wishes, he now finds himself having to uproot his livelihood and that of his young family. Last year, it was his son Thiago who cried and pleaded for them to stay in Barcelona, now they find themselves seeking asylum abroad against their wishes, away from the place they have come to call “home”.
It’s devastating from a footballing perspective. Even at 34, off the back of a Copa America triumph, it had become obvious – indeed he made it explicit during his teary farewell – that, although he had done everything humanly possible – won every title, brought so much joy to fans and pundits alike and left us all with countless memorable moments – there was more he could do, more he could give in reparation to a club that had given him everything to begin with. And signing onto an ambitious project with the cash and star players to boot will be of little consolation to a legend who played out of love, not out of necessity.
Therein lies the ultimate tragedy: Messi won’t be leaving Barcelona, by his own admission, on his own terms. He will, instead, depart following a script he himself did not author, constrained to the conditions dictated by the businessmen who have turned football into a business enterprise, who have made footballers their toys easily disposable at their discretion and who, ultimately, harbour nothing but disdain for the game generations of ordinary folk have fallen in love.
Follow Cronan on Twitter: @Cronan_Yu