It is easy to stay loyal to a team when they are winning but when the chips are down and the team is struggling, that is when your true loyalty gets tested. Lionel Messi proved his undying love and unquestionable loyalty to FC Barcelona under the Josep Maria Bartomeu regime.
The Beginning of the End (2017-18)
At the end of the 2016-17 season, the world was shocked when PSG triggered the €222 million release clause of Neymar Jr. This him the most expensive player on the planet by some distance as the previous most expensive transfer of all time was €105 million for Paul Pogba. This sent ripples to even the most distant parts of football but for FC Barcelona it was a tsunami. FC Barcelona has since made 3 signings worth €100 million+ each and all have been a cataclysmic failure.
This messy situation led to the bulk of attacking load to fall on the ageing shoulders of Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi. But these 2 old dogs took the challenge and with a share of the load borne by the Brazillian Paulinho, against what everyone thought, Barca had an exceptional 2017-18 winning a domestic double and losing a total of 3 games in the entire season.
The loss against Roma was a painful one but no one could have predicted that this was going to be the first of many painful nights. This campaign was a successful one and the hopes for the next season was high for the Cules and Messi was hopeful that they could bring the Champions League back to the Nou Camp.
The Cracks Widen (2018-2019)
The 2018-19 season was a mixed bag for the Catalonian giants, the beginning of the season was quite impressive with some very strong performances. Lionel Messi got an injury in October right before the Clasico but in his absence Barcelona stepped up and defeated Real Madrid 5-1. This was particularly important as Cristiano Ronaldo has recently left Real Madrid and since then they had been quite awful, raising speculations of how Barcelona will fair after the inevitable departure of Messi. This match was a statement that FC Barcelona can survive without their talisman.
In the second half of the season Barca was cruising to a second consecutive La Liga title but the wins did not show the whole picture. Several of the games were won due to clutch performances by Lionel Messi, Mac Andere Ter Stegen and Luis Suarez. The play was not swift and beautiful like the Cules were used to and the line ups and substitutions used by Ernesto were questionable. However, for some people as long as he was getting results, many fans stood behind Valverde. It will be safe to say that the only reason Ernesto Valverde was FC Barcelona was because of Messi, and many people had the same conclusion but the wrong reasoning. There were talks of player power in the dressing room and the starting line up and at the top of these claims was Lionel Messi’s name saying that he is controlling the club, these claims have been denied by all involved, obviously, but there was not much merit to them anyway.
After the dreaded night in Liverpool and a failure in the Copa Del Rey final, Barca fans were sweating their jerseys off as a report came out saying that Messi’s contract has a clause allowing him to leave at the end of any season for free. This was the first time that Messi leaving Barcelona was a possibility. Even Messi had decided that the following will be his last season in a Barcelona shirt but the Cules would come to know of this decision a year later.
The Empire Falls (2019-20)
Throughout the 2019-20 season, the Barca fans were in uproar for several reasons. The transfer window was a dramatic disaster, in an already critical financial situation, Bartomeu bought Antoinne Griezmann taking a loan for €35 million without considering the sporting implications. The Neymar saga was again dominating headlines and Ernesto Valverde was playing pathetic football.
His line ups were puzzling, his in game management was ineffective and sometimes even backfired and amid this utter chaos even Lionel Messi could not rescue the team now. Though Messi was still scoring goals but Barca’s defense kept letting them down and with all his might the little magician was not able to save his team.
There was no consistency in the league, and several shocking defeats later, Ernesto Valverde was relieved from his duties. Messi under Setien went through his worst goals per game ratio since Frank Rjikaard and Barcelona was a shambolic disaster and after the catastrophic game against Bayern Munich Messi finally decided to leave.
This hugely divided the fan base as some wanted him to stay as he was the club’s best player and because they could not get enough of his football. But the others wanted him to leave as this would mean a huge cash inflow into the club with Manchester City reportedly preparing a bid ranging from €100 million to €150 million. Apart from that a huge chunk of Barca’s astronomical wage bill would be gone. This cash inflow would also mean potential defensive reinforcements that the team desperately needed.
As we all know, Messi stayed for 1 more year running down his contract but not because Bartomeu or Ronald Koeman convinced him but because the club left him with no choice. He would either have to play unwillingly or take the club which gave him everything to court. He chose the former as he could not take legal action against the place he called home.
The Rebuild (2020-21)
The first half of the season was a forgetful one not only for FC Barcelona but for Messi himself. All 6 of his first goals for the team came from penalties and Barcelona was struggling under Ronald Koeman. Though things were better than last year, the team definitely had a long way to go. Injuries were not kind to Barcelona with Coutinho who had a good few games alongside Ansu Fati, who was unquestionably Barca’s best attacker at the time, both picked up long term injuries. Gerard Pique and Sergi Roberto also were sidelined for a good chunk of matches.
In 2021, things changed as Griezmann showed his best form in a Barcelona shirt, Barcelona went on an unbeaten streak and Messi racked up 32 goals and 11 assists. Barcelona made a comeback from the middle of the table to almost clinching the title before crumbling down again. The Copa Del Rey run was one to be remembered and though the first leg was disappointing, Barcelona put up a great fight against PSG in the round of 16 in the Champions League.
Though the season was not the best, it showed great promise for the future and that is all Messi wanted: A winning project. Building upon this, perhaps under a new manager with Joan Laporta at the helm, Messi saw that this team has the capability to compete for Europe’s most coveted title and his Copa America success only proved to him that dreams are possible.
We all know what has happened now and Messi won’t be putting that red and blue jersey again, but he fought very hard to have the chance to do so again. His loyalty and love for the club is what stings so much. Even when things were hard in 2019, he stayed, when he got bigger offers from clubs like Chelsea, he stayed. Even when he wanted to leave, he could not bring himself to do anything that could jeopardize the club and its reputation. He is a one club man in every sense of the word and his farewell press conference only cemented that. His career at Barcelona deserved a better end. It’s a shame that he won’t get to see a full Nou Camp singing his name again while he conjures up magic with a fall at his feet and a Barcelona crest on his chest.