Lionel Messi was late. He was late to formally tell Barcelona he was leaving, which is why in the end he couldn't -- held to the June 10 deadline he'd missed. And now he was late to tell everybody he was staying. Ten days after he had sent a burofax to announce he was walking out, he announced that he was walking back in again. The statement was coming at five o'clock, they said, but at five past there was no sign, however many times you hit refresh. At 10-past, there was still nothing. Twenty past, half past, 20- to, 10-to. Come on, will you?
It wasn't until six that, at last, it was confirmed, an explanatory interview, recorded earlier in the day with Ruben Uria of Goal, was finally released and the silence broken: Messi was not leaving the Camp Nou. He'd decided to stay. Only he hadn't
For the team to respond, Messi must. You have to convince him and integrate him, make it work with him and for him. And if you can't, or won't, you have to manage that. You need to seek complicity or authority, some way to motivate him. Do you build this into a "Last Dance," similar to the unprecedented title run of the NBA's Chicago Bulls? A one-year farewell, finishing at the top?
Will Messi buy into that? And does it work when the coach has changed and Luis Suarez is on the verge of an exit? Can Messi channel Michael Jordan with no versions of Scottie Pippen or Phil Jackson at his side?
Plenty of footballers are forced into positions and clubs they don't want to be. Player power is quite often a myth; destiny is not always at their feet. On this occasion, even the most powerful player of all, the one they accused of controlling the club, had to swallow. That's not so unusual; what is, is saying so. Instead, players raise a scarf, hold up a shirt, shake a hand and smile as if they mean it. Forced to make the best of it, most footballers won't admit that it's not what they wanted. But Messi is not most players, not now.
When something like this happens, everyone pretends everything is OK; they draw a line under it and move on. Messi didn't. This wasn't Homer Simpson crawling back and begging for his old job having walked out. It wasn't George Costanza pretending he never quit, either. Let's never talk about this again. Actually, no,
As if it wasn't hard enough to fix this, to find a way back, it is harder now. Just staying certainly doesn't do it. There is a long way to go still, healing to be done, if that's even possible. Barcelona did not win him over, they did not convince him: they obliged him.
This is no victory, not yet. Not when Messi is so direct, so blunt, as to repeatedly insist that he is only here to avoid ending up in court against the club. Not when he admits that he wanted --
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He has been burnt too often, his faith gone. This process has only made it worse, leaving bitterness and resentment. How do you go back after that? How do your return to the pitch and become the player you were? All the more so if, deep down, you might not feel like you're the player you were any more: and Messi is older now, and aware of that. He talked about seeing out his final years happily. And that didn't mean at Barcelona.
But here he is, so what do you do now? How do you handle this? What do you say when Messi turns up at San Joan Despí? What does Messi say? How does he act? No one was really ready for him to go. But nor, having reached this point, were they really ready for him to stay.
It wasn't that Messi has said that he was going, it was that he had gone. Or acted as if he had. There was a coherence to his refusal to train: Why would he if he was out already? ESPN's Fernando Palomo put it nicely: He hasn't so much stayed as gone and come back. Again, not because he wanted to but because he was dragged back, against his will.
"I'm going to continue at Barça and my attitude won't change even if I wanted to go. I always want to win, I'm competitive and I don't like losing anything. I always want the best for the club, the dressing room and myself. I will give everything," Messi insisted, and he is so competitive, so driven, and so talented that he probably will.
Maybe the football will be his refuge, a place to find himself. Nowhere better than the pitch, perhaps. Maybe together the coaching staff and squad can build a team that isolates him from the club and its context, the crisis around him, the people at whom he can hardly bear to look. Perhaps they can forge unity against the front office somehow.
It's possible that anger can drive him, the determination to make a point, to not let the bastards win. "It hurts," he said, "that people doubted my love for this club." Perhaps that can project him, driving him on.
Maybe, but something has shifted over the past 10 days -- and beyond. He had broken away, only to find those chains still holding him back. Now, he has to play another season, at least, in Spain -- one he wasn't anticipating, still less one he embraced. He talked about how the moment had come, about how going was a means of rediscovering "enthusiasm," seeking "happiness." He "needed" it, he said. He has been denied it.
Ronald Koeman, the new Barcelona manager, said that he only wanted players who want to be there. He now knows, and so does everyone else, that doesn't include Messi.
Nor did Messi exactly deliver a ringing endorsement of the new regime, any evidence that he believed things can be different now. He has seen things decline too fast, too far over the past five years, and come to believe that the way back is long. "Honestly, I don't know what will happen now," he said. "There's a new coach and a new idea. That's good, but then you have to see how the team responds and if that's enough to compete or not."
This is not the same Messi as it was, and something had already broken inside him. Emotionally, he can't be the same. Still less now that those emotions have been publicly exposed, after everything that has happened.
His authority is different now, too, the way others look at him. Can he lead and will they follow as they once did? Some teammates had accepted his departure was coming; none of them said anything about it, opting for silence instead. Some welcomed a shift in culture, a new structure, different hierarchies. They have watched this whole sorry saga play out and the damage it has done. Here's a question, for example: Can he still be captain now?
Another, even more basic question asks: Where does he play? Or, maybe even more simply: Does he play? Well, of course, he does, how can he not now after the fight they put up to keep him? But is it truly what they wanted? Is it what Koeman was working toward? Might he not have preferred a clean start, a resetting and reduction of expectations, the opportunity to go entirely his own way.
Messi said that his departure would be good for everyone; it's not impossible that Koeman agreed with that. He knows that his room for manoeuvre might be narrower now, and yet it is he now who will have to reintegrate Messi.
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The manager will have different ideas about Messi's role and responsibility than those who came before him, and not just in purely footballing terms. If only because he has different players around him now -- Luis Suarez, Messi's best friend and strike partner over five years, is likely to depart for Juventus -- because the context is different. Because the ideas the new manager was developing, while embryonic, didn't necessarily include him. Take Antoine Griezmann, one obvious example: a few days ago, his former agent insisted the French striker had been ready to depart but Koeman told him he would have a lead role now. Ten days on, is that still the case?
On the day Messi said he was staying, he gave the most convincing case yet for why he should have gone. Already had, in fact. He had emotionally checked out; checking back in may not be so easy. He returns unwillingly, angry, feeling like he was let down and lied to, which is rarely a good way of getting a footballer to perform best. Feeling like this was already behind him. which is why this isn't the end; it is an uneasy start.
"The club need new people, younger players. My era was over," Messi said. Only, as it turns out, it isn't yet; not through choice, nor by design, but by obligation. Barcelona made Lionel Messi stay, now they must find a way to make it work. But so much has happened, so much damage has been done, so much has been broken along the way that the fear now must be that they too are late.