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Lionel Messi leaves with Barcelona in financial abyss … and it is not over yet | Lionel Messi

“I don’t want to create false hopes,” Joan Laporta said, but that was all they had left. Barcelona’s president had been explaining the reasons why they could no longer keep Lionel Messi, offering a portrait of bankruptcy partly created by the pursuit of hopes that were not real, the consequences of calamitous management at the club, when he was asked the question some inevitably clung to. More than once, in fact. What if?

What if there was still a way to fix this? What if there was a shot at salvation, some way back? A sale, a loophole in the laws, a new deal. Couldn’t you just push a player out? Someone, anyone, just not him. There was still time, wasn’t there? What if the league realised what they, too, were about to lose and let go a little; made an exception? If Messi produced some grand gesture? Maybe even played for free? Laporta had said Messi was sad, that he wanted to stay. So stay.

A little desperation was natural. Maybe Laporta had not entirely let go either, even as he knew it was gone. He said he had planned to be there with Messi, announcing a new deal – “That was everyone’s dream” – but instead he had come to tell them how it came to this, to the departure of the one player Barcelona were desperate not to lose. And yet he didn’t exactly say it was definitive and there was something not quite right about how it had been announced the night before: a short, blunt statement projecting outwards, as if seeking a reaction.

Messi had flown back from Ibiza to sign, everything seemingly in place, or so they said, and now he was leaving. If something had changed suddenly, overnight, couldn’t it be changed back? Might there be another twist? Messi was said to be in shock, devastated. He was also silent, the slightest hint of a way back. Wishful thinking, maybe, or the first stage of grief: denial before acceptance.

When he was asked if there was some way to fix this, if Messi could somehow stop this, if he could play for a small “symbolic” amount, Laporta didn’t say no, full stop. Instead, he avoided false hopes – his and theirs – said those were hypothetical scenarios and said Barcelona had to live in the real world that he now laid before them.

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If Laporta didn’t say it was over, he showed that it was and despite hints the league had let them down, there was no hiding that the blame lay with Barcelona – the administration from which he had inherited this mess. Time, he said, was already up – even if the transfer window remains open for another three weeks. All those somethings he must be able to do, he had tried to do. If there is one thing guaranteed to make it difficult to sell players it is other clubs knowing you have to sell players. It is not easy to force footballers out when they are still under contract, he said.

Barcelona president Joan Laporta explains the reasons behind Lionel Messi’s departure.
Barcelona president Joan Laporta explains the reasons behind Lionel Messi’s departure. Photograph: Alejandro García/EPA

“It has been two months,” Laporta said. The final unfolding had happened fast, it had been coming a long time and he suggested there was no point “prolonging the agony”. They had known that for Messi to continue others could not, that there was much to do. They had tried but now admitted defeat. They had agreed two contracts for Messi, hopeful both would fit within the league’s salary limits, hopeful, too, of some flexibility, but it did not happen. These are real financial controls, a formula applied in advance, not an empty punishment imposed later: you can’t pay, he doesn’t play.

There were not enough sales. The salary reductions agreed by some players were not enough. And few expensive assets were prepared to move on – the position those remaining players are in now the consequences are known is complex. As for a late shot at salvation, that had suddenly – suspiciously? – appeared in the shape of La Liga’s proposed €2.7bn deal with investment fund CVC, but Laporta had rejected that lifeline, which he said would mortgage their TV rights for 50 years.

And so to that other scenario. Laporta said Messi had already done everything he could; there could be “no reproach”. He had accepted effectively a 50% pay cut to stay. Many, perhaps most fans, grateful for what Messi has given and certain he is not the bad guy, would agree with the president. Why should he play for free? Especially when others won’t.

Besides, here’s the thing: even if he did, Barcelona would be in trouble. Philippe Coutinho cost €160m, Ousmane Dembélé €150m, Antoine Griezmann €120m and those are just the headline figures: they have spent more than €1bn since 2014. The pandemic pushed them into the abyss, but they spent years teetering on the edge. Last season they lost €487m, Laporta said. Their total debt is €1.173bn. Laporta talked of not risking the club, their very existence at stake.

Between 2017 and 2020, expenditure on salaries increased almost 50%. As a percentage of income, salaries were 74% in 2019-20. With Messi, Barcelona’s salary accounted for 110% of their income.

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“We have no room,” Laporta said. “And without Messi?” he was asked. At first, the president didn’t know, but he said: “Without Messi we still have no room.”

He then said the figure was about 95%, still far too high, still above the limit. “Unsustainable,” he called it.

Now they have lost a player Laporta once said was responsible for a third of their income and that is only the start: others must still leave. It is not just that Sergio Agüero turned up to at last play with his friend and can’t; it is that he may not be able to play at all, another footballer prevented from being registered. This time Messi couldn’t save Barcelona: not by playing for free, not even by leaving. It is over, but it is not over yet.

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