While he may one day regret it if he leaves, the club certainly will. How did they let it come to this, is the question all Barcelona fans will be asking

 Barcelona could not even entertain the idea of Lionel Messi retiring when he mentioned it last year, let alone him playing for another club.

The end is getting nearer, Lionel Messi said the night he collected his sixth Ballon d’Or. It was hard enough for Barcelona fans to accept then; it is harder now, and not just because eight months on it is closer and more real than ever. Deep down they all knew he would go some time quite soon – “I am 32,” he said – they just didn’t need reminding, to be suddenly confronted by reality. What no one imagined was that he would go this soon or this way, that it would come to this: an end quite so bitter, quite so broken.

If it hurt Barcelona fans to imagine a time when Messi stopped playing, it is worse to contemplate a time when he only stopped playing for them. This isn’t really that Messi is going; it’s when he’s going, why he’s going, and how he’s going. Where he is going, too: Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, it doesn’t matter much. What matters is that it’s to another club. 

At least when he said the end was near, they imagined getting there together – his final game, like his first, would be in a Barcelona shirt, a fond if tearful farewell, a collective celebration which will never happen now.

The reaction to his using the word retirement that night last December was revealing, a collective panic, a “don’t say that”, as if seeking to escape a truth that didn’t bear thinking about. Afraid of being exposed by Messi, the board rushed to respond. “Leo’s got a long time left,” the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, said – not least because he had to.

Bartomeu has spoken for Messi many times, his authority to do so less with each appearance, irritation rising in the Argentinian. The president insisted there was Messi para rato – a lot of Messi left – and that phrase covered both Catalan sports dailies, something a little needy, a little desperate, in the headline. It’s said that sportsmen die twice, first when they retire. Barcelona clung to his final years, as if trying to delay the inevitable.

As it turned out, there wasn’t even a year left. After 20 seasons at Barcelona, 17 in the first team, after 34 trophies and 634 goals, it almost certainly comes to an end. It is damaging news for Barcelona and for La Liga, already confronted by a troubling reality. 

Yet even that is not really the point. Players don’t talk about retirement the way that people don’t talk about death, Jorge Valdano says, but this is a fate worse than that. Not for the rest of football of course – there will be excitement at seeing him elsewhere, the electricity of expectation – but for Barcelona fans. It will feel wrong.

It is wrong and it has been for a long time, culminating here, the collapse complete. Football player leaves football club is not so shocking really, but this is. Yes, because it’s Messi, but it is more than that. Continue reading

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