The best footballer of probably any era has lived for almost his entire career in the unremarkable town of Castelldefels, outside Barcelona. I’m writing a book about FC Barcelona, and when a local drove me past Lionel Messi’s home one afternoon, I realised: the essential underpinning of 15 years of routinely brilliant football is a boring life.
On a hill away from the local beaches, Messi has bought a neighbour’s house and constructed a compound complete with mini-football field. Palm trees, bougainvillea and white walls provide privacy. It looks like a fairly standard millionaire’s home in Orange County.
His wife Antonella (whom he has known since childhood in Rosario, Argentina) helps him distance himself from football once work is done. He says that raising three young sons, he feels “destroyed” by evening and goes to bed early.
On match days, the 33-year-old will shine in the Camp Nou, then commute 25 minutes home along the almost empty midnight highway, usually car-sharing with his neighbour and best friend Luis Suárez. Three days later, he does it again.
On Tuesday Messi wrote to Barça asking to be allowed to leave for free. Since the 8-2 hammering by Bayern Munich on August 14, the club have imploded. It looks like the end of an era in which FC Barcelona morphed into FC Messi.
The trend in football in the past quarter-century is for mobile, multimillionaire, near-irreplaceable footballers to amass power. They no longer accept authoritarian managers.
But no club took player power further than Barcelona. That’s because for years no club had better players. Messi and an exceptional Spanish generation won at least one trophy every season from 2009 through 2019.
Before Messi, Barça frequently existed in an eternal present where the next match was the next crisis. The Argentine became an umbrella for the organisation. He made running Barça relatively easy. The morning after the first team beat Real Madrid, every club employee arrived at work relaxed and smiling.
Messi lived by the dictum that the best player was responsible for the result. When Barcelona weren’t playing well, he felt it was on him to change the match. If he gave tactical instructions to a teammate, or addressed the team in the changing room before kick-off, his word was law even to the head coach — a post filled by low-profile Messi-compatible names since 2012.
Outsiders often mistake him for a meek and silent figure. Inside Barça, many people fear him. One former club president told me: “He doesn’t need to speak. His body language is the strongest I’ve seen in my life. I’ve seen him with a look in the locker room that everyone knows whether he agrees or not with a suggestion. And that’s it. He is much more clever than people think — or what he transmits.”
“What does he want?” I asked.
“He wants football,” replied the ex-president, meaning that Messi wanted Barça to play exactly the way he wanted them to.
Messi didn’t particularly like having power. He would have preferred that the club’s directors and coaches took care of everything — as long as they did what he wanted. He has always irritably denied having a say over transfers and coaching appointments, and it’s true that he didn’t have a veto.
However, Barça considered his wishes in every big decision. Last summer he called for the return of the Brazilian Neymar, sold to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017. Barcelona’s directors had no intention of bidding €200m for an injury-prone 27-year-old, but they spent two months more or less pretending to, so that they could eventually tell Messi, “Sorry, we tried but we couldn’t get him.”
Messi wasn’t impressed. He blames the board for fluffing the task of talent recruitment. Barça have spent over €1bn on transfers since summer 2014, more than any other club, yet have ended up with an old team almost devoid of resale value.
That’s partly because Messi’s generation overstayed their welcome. Earning among the highest average salaries in all of team sports, among brilliant peers, in the most liveable spot in Europe, why would they leave? They gradually lightened their training load, pressed less in games and still beat most opponents on talent and knowhow.
That’s how Barça came to line up against Bayern with six outfield players aged 31 and over. Messi had been warning for months that the team weren’t good enough to win trophies.
Asked about his future, he always said: “The most important thing is to have a winning project.”
Barcelona now look incapable of constructing a new one. They intend to clear out their oldies — Suárez, also 33, has been asked to leave — but they can’t afford to buy younger stars. And their once world-beating youth academy, the Masia, has produced just one great player in a decade: Thiago Alcântara, who this month demolished Barcelona and won the Champions League with Bayern.
A 20-year marriage between player and club appears to be over. It contributed a fair bit to global happiness.
Simon will appear at this year’s FT Weekend Festival, September 3-5. For more information and tickets visit ftweekendfestival.com
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Listen to our podcast, Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you listen.