As United States international Brenden Aaronson struck a surprise winner for FC Salzburg in a friendly against Barcelona in Austria on Aug. 4, 2021, Barca president Joan Laporta's activity on his phone alerted the other members of the club's travelling delegation to an issue. Less than 24 hours later, the nature of Laporta's frenzied calls became clear as the Catalan club made the announcement that rocked football: Lionel Messi was leaving.
Messi, 34 at the time, spent 20 years at Barcelona after arriving from Argentina as a teenager. During that time, he became the club's record appearance holder and top scorer, scoring 672 times in 778 games. He won four Champions League and 11 LaLiga titles, and was named the best player in the world on six occasions (and for a seventh time since leaving.) Barca without Messi was unthinkable; Messi playing in another club's shirt was unimaginable.
Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong, who was collecting family from the airport, didn't believe the news when he heard it. Striker Sergio Aguero, who had only just signed for Barca, partly on the premise of playing with his long-time friend Messi, was with Spanish Twitch streamer Ibai Llanos when the news broke, and like De Jong, he refused to believe it too. He even thought Barca's website had been hacked. Still in denial, Aguero then believed it must be a tactic to convince LaLiga to let Barca register Messi given his importance to Spanish football.
As it turned out, it was neither of those things. Barca, in €1.35 billion of debt following years of overspending and the financial ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic, simply could not afford to give Messi a new contract and had to let him go to French side Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer.
In the year since, the move has made a big mark on his former club in Spain and his new club in France, while Messi's future after the 2022-23 season looks cloudier than ever, too. His contract with PSG expires on June 30, 2023, though there is an option to extend it for another season. But before we get there, ESPN's Sam Marsden and Julien Laurens explain how we got here.
Reporting and information from Moises Llorens and Eduardo Fernandez-Abascal was used in this story.
How it happened
"The warning signs were there in Salzburg," one club executive told ESPN. "That was when it became clear things were complicated.
"As the hours passed, everything went pear-shaped until the point that the vice-president, Rafa Yuste, and Laporta had a series of calls with Jorge, Messi's dad and agent. Those conversations were intense -- the tone of them didn't go down well with anyone. When the expedition returned to Barcelona from Salzburg, it was all over. At around 6 p.m. through a statement from the club on Aug. 5, the chapter closed on the greatest player in Barca's history."
Messi's sudden departure was all the more remarkable given he'd already agreed to terms on a new contract with a 50% pay cut to help Barca economically, given that his previous deal had actually expired on June 30. On Aug. 5, Jorge was flying into Barcelona from Argentina to finalise the deal.
"Jorge had a meeting early in the afternoon with Laporta and a notary from Barcelona to go over the two-year contract and sign the documents," a source involved in the negotiations explained to ESPN. "Talks had been long, but with the election of Laporta in March, everything seemed fine. But when Jorge landed, he received a call from Laporta: 'Jorge, don't go to the notary, the club's situation is not the best and we're not going to be able to sign the agreement, I am so sorry.' Then Jorge phoned his son to relay the news to him."
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Even a year on, there are discrepancies over exactly when Laporta knew Messi could not renew with the club. Everyone consulted by ESPN concurred that Messi and his teammates were stunned by the development, but there are different timelines from different sources relating to Laporta.
The official version is that he did everything he could up until the last minute, but that the only way out would have been to accept LaLiga's CVC deal, which would have handed over 10% of Barca's domestic television rights. Laporta was always unwilling to sign that deal. Other sources, though, suggest Laporta and those closest to him had realised much earlier that it would be difficult from a financial perspective to renew Messi's contract.
The irony of Messi's departure was that he wanted to stay, unlike in the summer of 2020 when, under ex-president Josep Maria Bartomeu, he had asked to leave via the infamous Burofax. He even held talks with Pep Guardiola about a move to Manchester City.
A year later, on Aug. 8, three days after Barca's statement, Messi cried his eyes out as he said goodbye to the club in a news conference, with De Jong and Aguero alongside other ex-teammates in the audience. On Aug. 10, he signed for PSG.
"Messi was certain he was staying," a dressing room source told ESPN. "He had spoken with people about getting back to work after signing the contract. That never happened. The president didn't live up to his word. He promised Messi would be able to sign, but it fell through. The summer before, with the Burofax [transfer request], Messi was convinced he wanted to leave. His mind was made up. He stayed when he wanted to go and he left when he wanted to stay."
-- Sam Marsden
Why Messi left Barcelona
Messi wanted to leave in 2020 because of what he branded "lies" from Bartomeu and the failure to build a team around him that was capable of winning trophies. Barca had just lost 8-2 to Bayern Munich in the Champions League in 2020, but Messi left the following year because of the debts which were run up by the same board that had refused his request to depart.
That was the situation Laporta inherited. Barca had been overspending even prior to Neymar's world-record €222 million exit to PSG in 2017. When the pandemic arrived and revenue dropped, spending -- including Messi's €550m four-year deal -- quickly became untenable. The club's financial plight, plus Messi's push to leave and a trophy-less campaign, led to a fan movement that saw Bartomeu voted out as club president at the end of 2020.
Enter Laporta, whose charisma and showmanship did not extend to a quick fix for the club's cash crisis. Barca needed a hefty loan from Goldman Sachs just to meet payroll requirements last summer, posting losses of €487m in 2020-21. As recently as June, Laporta described the club as "clinically dead," although he predicted they would make it into, and subsequently out of, the intensive care unit soon. He has since signed Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and Jules Kounde for over €150m in the current transfer window after selling a 25% stake in the club's domestic television rights and another 25% of the in-house production company, Barca Studios, for around €700m in total.
Sources said that, last summer, there was simply not enough time to carry out operations of such magnitude in order to keep Messi. Activating the "economic levers" this summer -- selling a percentage of the television rights and Barca Studios -- not only needed to be negotiated, but it also needed approval from the club's members. That consent came in June of this year.
Other sources explained that Laporta didn't expect LaLiga's financial regulations to be so strict. Messi did not leave because Barca were in debt, per se, but because those debts contributed to a reduced spending cap. Their LaLiga wage limit was cut from almost €600m to under €100m at the start of last season, which meant they were only permitted to spend 25% of what they saved. Even with a 50% wage cut, Messi's contract could not be registered with the league.
There was, however, one out. LaLiga would have given Barca salary space if they had accepted an agreement with CVC, which would have seen Barca given over €200m in exchange for 10% of their television rights for 50 years. Laporta said it would have been mortgaging the club's future. Barca, Real Madrid and Athletic Club said no, but the other 17 LaLiga sides signed the deal.
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Sources said that Messi's devastation was genuine when he left, but others have since questioned why he didn't do more to stay. He said he did all he could, accepting the club's proposed wage cut, but could he have gone further? Maybe a little bit, but LaLiga's algorithm would not have allowed him to play for free.
"The salary can be lowered, but due to the financial control rules, each player has a margin for a reduction depending on different variables, such as age, experience and titles," a league spokesman told ESPN. "So you can neither play for free, nor with a 'lower' wage than what should correspond to said player in a normal market. This is essentially to avoid fraud and ensure that the salary is paid via the correct tax routes and not with 'intangible' money."
-- Sam Marsden
The impact on Barcelona
Messi was a shy, floppy-haired teenager when he broke into the Barcelona side, but he soon grew into the leader of the dressing room. He was not always the most vocal, but players felt his presence, and there was an aura around him that only the best athletes have.
"It was a huge blow for everyone," a source on the coaching staff told ESPN of those first few days following Messi's departure. "The first session without him was like a funeral. It was like the day after it was revealed Guardiola was not going to stay on as coach [in 2012]. There was silence, no joking around. People didn't believe what was happening."
However, some sources have also spoken of how training was often set to Messi's rhythm. Without him, it was a little bit like starting afresh.
"Things improved as the days passed, and the feeling was that the atmosphere of recent years relaxed a bit," the coach continued. "You started to see players that hardly spoke when Messi was present start to step forward, and the team became a group. Training sessions with and without Messi varied. The team let go, and the coaches understood that they could do different things and tighten up in some aspects.
"Messi had been the thermometer for everything. If he was happy, everything flowed. If he was sad, few dared to say anything. Not out of fear or anything like that, but out of respect for someone considered the team's leader."
There were shades of that vibe in Gerard Pique's "we are going to have a lot of fun this year" comment after an opening day win against Real Sociedad last season. That remark did not age well, however, and after 10 games Barca sacked coach Ronald Koeman with the side ninth in the table.
Former club legend (and Messi's old teammate) Xavi soon arrived to take charge and, after a tough period of acclimatisation, he led Barca to a second-place finish in the league. However, the season ended without silverware and none of the attackers in the squad -- the likes of Ferran Torres, Memphis Depay and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang all arrived in 2021 -- came close to filling Messi's boots, let alone match his numbers. The positives came in the form of young midfielders Pedri and Gavi, but overall, Barca were a shadow of the side Messi had helmed to so much success.
In the stands, the rot was visible in the growing number of empty seats. The 2021-22 season ended with an average Camp Nou attendance of 53,982 (the stadium's official capacity is close to 100,000) in LaLiga, although there were other contributing factors, like the restricted crowds for the first few matches due to COVID-19. Even still, that was down over 20,000 from 2018-19, the last full season before the pandemic. Those that did attend games quickly moved on from Messi, channelling all their support into backing Xavi once he replaced Koeman.
"In the games immediately after his departure, Messi's name was sung in the 10th minute [his shirt number] at Camp Nou, but that soon stopped," another dressing room source said. "It was strange given that Messi's the best player in the club's history. People can't have forgotten him so quickly."
Off the pitch, Barca told ESPN it is "hard to gauge" the impact of Messi's move to PSG until the official accounts for last season are released later this year, though there are clues. Barca's new sponsorship deal with Spotify -- which includes naming rights to the stadium, men's and women's kits, and training shirts -- is worth roughly the same as the previous deal agreed with Rakuten in 2017 when Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar were all at the club. That Rakuten deal, though, was only for the men's shirt.
Vice-president Eduard Romeu disputed that Messi's departure would have a major effect on sponsorship revenue, but he did reveal some of the club's partners were left unhappy by his exit. Romeu did not name who, but sources told ESPN the grievance came from one of the club's key sponsors. Brands in ongoing partnerships with Barca had relied on being able to use Messi's image to sell their products around the world.
Romeu also conceded Barca must do a better job of marketing other players post-Messi. He said that 50% of all shirts sales previously were sold with names on the back. Of that 50%, roughly 80% carried Messi's name.
That marketing explains, in part, the club's fiscal gymnastics this summer. Sources said they are not only relying on former Bayern Munich star Robert Lewandowski (238 goals in eight Bundesliga seasons) to replace Messi's goals, they also need the Poland international striker to help sell shirts and add appeal for potential future sponsorship deals. Playmaker Raphinha and defender Kounde are more strategic signings, but Barca believe both players are also valuable in a marketing sense long-term. Immediate success on the pitch would speed up that process.
-- Sam Marsden
The impact on Paris Saint-Germain
"We know the club has moved to the next level, but we can't really quantify the impact Messi is having on the club. It will be a few more years until we will really understand how massive this is."
This is how a source at PSG summarises the Messi era in Paris so far. It's true that you only really notice the difference when these superstars leave. That said, the difference was obvious from the first day Messi arrived in the French capital. It felt like a city-wide party and, regardless of how it ends, it will remain the biggest transfer in French football history. Not only did it shake up the league, but it changed everything.
The first significant consequence is financial. As PSG president Nasser al-Khelaifi, former sporting director Leonardo and general manager Jean-Claude Blanc were finalising the signing, big brands from around the world were already calling the club's marketing department to work with the Ligue 1 side and associate their brands with Messi's new team. By January 2022 -- only five months after Messi's arrival -- PSG had more new sponsors (eight) than Messi had scored goals (six). Dior were among the new signups, revelling in having Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar as ambassadors. Nike and Coca-Cola also extended their partnerships with PSG, committing more money.
Messi alone has increased PSG's revenue by between 15%-20% during his first season, according to sources inside the club. PSG moved quickly to plan a preseason trip to Japan this summer, worth €10m to them, as their fans in Tokyo and Osaka mostly wanted to see Messi. In terms of shirt sales, not that it generates that much money for clubs in general, PSG beat all their previous records by surpassing over one million sales, with Messi responsible for around 40%. And finally, on social media, Messi's arrival proved even more remarkable, with the club amassing an extra 15 million followers across all platforms in the aftermath.
On the pitch, the difference was not so evident, though. Messi struggled to adapt to his new life, new city, new culture and all the changes that came with it. His three sons were not happy at first and his wife, Antonella, missed Barcelona. Even Hulk, the family's French mastiff dog, was sad. There was so much to absorb, from Paris' crazy traffic to finding a new school for the boys, a new house and a new routine.
Then there was the football. Messi didn't have the best preseason preparations due to his participation in the Copa America -- where Messi and Argentina beat Brazil in the final -- and because of everything that happened with Barcelona. He was not ready when he arrived, and had to play catch up with his fitness for most of the season. He also contracted COVID-19 in the winter and struggled to shake it off.
It was a new dressing room, too. There were familiar faces and friends in the form of Neymar, Leandro Paredes and Angel Di Maria, but he was not the boss anymore. Some language barriers proved to be an issue, and he stayed close to Di Maria and Paredes. On top of that, his relationship with Mauricio Pochettino was not great. They didn't always see eye to eye as both tried to make the best of their situation, with Messi notably unhappy with being substituted before the end of a game against Lyon. The look he gave his manager said it all.
Messi ended the campaign with 11 goals and 15 assists in 34 appearances in all competitions and also hit the woodwork 11 times in Ligue 1 alone, which is more than anyone else in Europe. He had some highs -- his goals against Manchester City at the Parc des Princes, his hat trick of assists at Saint-Etienne -- but he also had some anonymous games as PSG won Ligue 1, but crashed out of the Champions League in the round of 16 to Real Madrid.
However, there is excitement building ahead of Messi's second season. Club sources expect him to have a much better year now that he is settled. He looked sharper and fitter already in Sunday's Trophee des Champions against Nantes, even scoring his first goal of the season with a great finish as PSG ran out 4-0 winners without Mbappe in the lineup.
Sources also told ESPN that Messi gets on with the new coach, Christophe Galtier, who replaced Pochettino this summer, and the player feels like he fits perfectly in the new 3-4-2-1 formation. He is much more integrated in the dressing room: more focused, more relaxed and more motivated. His family is happier in Paris, and he has his eyes on a fifth Champions League trophy -- which would be PSG's first. He wants to be at his best at the 2022 World Cup with Argentina later this year, which will require him to find form and consistency in France.
Oh, and Hulk isn't sad anymore.
-- Julien Laurens
What could happen next summer? Could Messi return to Barca?
Messi has one year left on his contract in Paris (with the option of another year), and there is intrigue as to his next move. And, just when they appeared to have moved on, Barcelona have positioned themselves in the queue to sign him, even though he will be 36 when his PSG deal expires.
Despite the January signings of Torres and Aubameyang, and the summer arrivals of Lewandowski, Raphinha and more, Laporta spent Barca's recent tour of the United States championing a possible return for Messi.
"I would hope that the Messi chapter isn't over," he told ESPN in Las Vegas. "I think it's our responsibility to try to (...) find a moment to fix that chapter, which is still open and hasn't closed, so it turns out like it should have, and that it has a more beautiful ending."
Laporta has always left the door open for Messi, but his suggestion before was always in a non-playing role. This time, he's hinted it's possible while he is still playing. Xavi, who played alongside Messi for over a decade, remains in contact with his former teammate and is open to the idea. He says it will be "impossible" this summer, but has refused to rule out signing Messi on a free transfer.
It's worth noting the Messi camp was surprised by Laporta's recent remarks. The two did have a good relationship, but it soured on the back of how Messi left. Laporta's comments in the months after Messi's exit did not help, either, hinting he could have done more if he really wanted to stay. That drew the wrath of Messi's father, who reports claim phoned Laporta to tell him to stop speaking about his son. Laporta honoured that for a few months, but now he's talking about Messi again, albeit with a slightly different tone and one that may leave some supporters more conflicted than they would have expected.
The timing of Laporta's offensive is unusual in that sense. With Xavi in charge and a stellar squad constructed this summer, plus exciting youngsters emerging in Pedri, Gavi and Ansu Fati, the page finally seemed to be turning. How would a 36-year-old Messi fit back in?
Sources close to Messi will not engage with that idea for now. They insist that at this stage of his career, he is thinking purely short-term. The World Cup is a big motivator for him right now, as is winning the Champions League with PSG. The time will come to decide on what comes next, with virtually every option on the table from Paris to Barcelona, the U.S and beyond.
-- Sam Marsden.