Inside story: How Lionel Messi and Barcelona fell apart

The Argentine forward, Luis Suarez and the club unravelled after Anfield

La obra inacabada de Leo Messi | PERFORM

Albert Masnou

It all started in Liverpool, or at least got twisted up there. If there were already points of friction, Anfield opened a wound that nobody knew how to close. Not the captain, Leo Messi, the coach, Ernesto Valverde, or the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu. One is gone, the other is ready to go and the latter has his days numbered. Nobody had an adequate reaction and the time since has only increased the explosion which affects everyone.

After that humiliation, the dressing room defended the coach, against a president that was angry about what happened. “This was my error,” he says now. Leo spoke then about the blame being “for the players exclusively” and maybe Bartomeu didn’t know how to read the message and start a revolution that was already needed.

The chief, conciliatory, not a fan of direct confrontation, opted for the easiest thing and let Valverde stay but without much leeway. The season ended with a nod to all not being well at the club; Suarez had an operation that saw him miss the Copa del Rey final so he could play in the Copa America.

NO NEY

Messi wanted Neymar back to make the squad competitive again. But the club were in advanced negotiations with Griezmann, a player Valverde liked. They signed him despite the dressing room being against it. “They didn’t do everything they could have,” Neymar is supposed to have told Leo.

And Messi believed the Brazilian’s version rather than that of the club, whose accountants remember a secret trip to Paris from Bartomeu to meet Al Khalaifi, the PSG chief. “They did everything possible and more, but PSG have a state behind them, they aren’t a selling club,” said a source.

The incident reduced Messi’s faith in the board and especially Bartomeu. Contact between them has existed but their differences increased with the passage of time. Messi missed the era of Laporta, in which he could participate in decisions, something he didn’t have with Barotmeu. His suggestions were not heeded. Griezmann was not welcome and never felt important. He didn’t start against Bayern.

MESSI WANTED A COMPETITIVE BARCA

The Argentine always said all he needed to finish his career at Barcelona was a competitive side, but in the end saw a weak one. They let Neymar go, spent the money badly, didn’t bring him back.

The incident that changed everything for the worse was Valverde’s sacking and Quique Setien arriving. Messi did not like that change because he was not even consulted.

Quique started badly in the dressing room. While Valverde got on with everyone, nobody liked Quique, says a dressing room source. “Disrespectful”, “humiliating”, “he showed us even how to control a ball”. Even the most tranquil players - Riqui Puig, Ronald Araujo, had big rows with Setien. Quique’s assistant Eder Sarabia did not help and nor did the fact the goalkeeper coach was stripped of his duties.

Messi, Suarez and others turned their backs. Some of them did not even attend the talks that the coach gave before games. They didn’t even make excuses, they just didn’t come.

When Setien benched Suarez he was angry, even turning to have a go at him in a goal celebration for one that was later ruled out. “It was an unsustainable situation,” said a source in the group.

Suarez and Messi’s attitude was not greeted by unanimous agreement in the group, with many turning their heads to avoid a problem, avoid conflict and avoid uncomfortable situations. Marc-Andre ter Stegen, they say, was one of the few who tried to mediate the situation. It failed.

Pie de foto | AUTOR FOTO

RENEWALS

Despite everything, the club met Suarez to negotiate his contract on June 15. They knew his performance was worsening but it was a wink to Luis, and also one to Messi. The Uruguayan had a deal until 2021 with the option of another year if he played 60% of games. The club offered him a deal until 2022 but Suarez, 33, asked for one until 2023. Bartomeu said no.

Messi also was offered a two year deal but he said no because he did not like the look of the future at Barcelona. He stated to think about other things.

Things got worse day to day. Line ups were another problem in the dressing room. Quique was asked to follow what he said at his presentation and use youngsters like Riqui Puig and Ansu Fati. However Setien admitted in private getting pressure from the heavyweights to play those with more experience. “Leave the kids on the bench, let them come on at the end.”. Quique obeyed and the veterans played in the key games. Look what happened in the Osasuna and Bayern matches.

Pie de foto | AUTOR FOTO
Pie de foto | AUTOR FOTO

MESSI OUT

Defeat against Osasuna saw Barca throw away the league. Messi came out to blast the club in the media. He wanted to leave. Barca thought Messi was just going through one of those phases he has before, with Barca and the Argentina national team, him against the world. “It will pass,” thought Barca, having seen similar under Pep and Lucho, and when he had tax problems.

In the final league game Messi calmed things down ahead o the Napoli clash. It was futile, because the Bayern destruction reopened wounds that were not even closed. Rome was nothing compared to Anfield. And Anfield was nothing compared Lisbon. It was historic ridicule. It was the end.

OUTSIDE OF KOEMAN CALL

Bartomeu ignored the dressing room’s preference for Pochettino or Lopetegui, and went for Koeman, a coach who at Valencia had to go through a similarly difficult situation. They say that Leo was outside of this decision, made by Bartomeu and Eric Abidal, and didn’t have a clear preference.

With Ronald, the club worked on a black list of players to bin, including some close to Messi - Suarez, Vidal and others. It was time. Messi’s anger ended up in that burofax on Tuesday, a terrible way of ending a story so rife with success.

Messi made his debut in 2004. 16 years later, the end has arrived. It was an era in which Messi became the best player in the history of football, and Bartomeu - technically - the president with the most success. It is a bad end for everyone.

Pie de foto | AUTOR FOTO

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