Why did Lionel Messi leave Barcelona? Explaining what happened between Messi and La Liga club

Just when it seemed as if it was only a matter of days or even hours before there would be a long-awaited announcement of free agent Lionel Messi rejoining Barcelona on a new deal, the club announced just eight days before the start of a new league season that Messi would not be returning.

A short time after, the club distributed a Messi tribute video, cementing the once-unthinkable reality that Barcelona and Messi are going their separate ways.

There was something of a warning when Barcelona-based Spanish daily Marca reported that there was a distinct scenario that signing Messi would not be doable. The club announcement came a couple hours later, and it pointed the finger straight at the Spanish league, La Liga.

MORE: Lionel Messi to PSG? Latest on rumored transfer

Barcelona blames La Liga

Barcelona’s statement says, in no uncertain terms, that the club and player wanted to do a deal — reports in recent weeks stated that Messi was prepared to take a 50 percent reduction in salary to make it happen — but league regulations made it an impossibility.

“Despite FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi having reached an agreement and the clear intention of both parties to sign a new contract today, this cannot happen because of Spanish LaLiga regulations on player registration,” Barcelona’s statement read.

“As a result of this situation, Messi shall not be staying on at FC Barcelona. Both parties deeply regret that the wishes of the player and the club will ultimately not be fulfilled.”

Under La Liga rules that were introduced in 2013, there is a floating salary cap for all teams which limits player wages and acquisition costs to 70 percent of club revenues.

In order to meet that requirement after a drastic reduction in revenues due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, FC Barcelona entered this summer offseason needing to shed well over $200 million in salaries just to sign Messi. But the limited transfer activity across Europe meant that the Blaugrana were nowhere close to that figure, and on Aug. 5, the club and player came to the realization that the signing could not happen under the circumstances.

So technically it’s not La Liga’s fault, but the FC Barcelona’s failure to comply with La Liga regulations.

The announcement of a massive private equity investment into La Liga and its clubs only the day before was interpreted by many as helping Barcelona make the financial headway it needed to virtually guarantee the Messi deal. Projections based on La Liga’s revenue-sharing formulas had Barcelona benefiting from a cash infusion of over $300 million of the private equity money, of which 15 percent would be used for player signings.

But interestingly, both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of the most heavily indebted La Liga clubs and both founding members of the failed breakaway European Super League, expressed their opposition to the private equity deal with CVC Capital Partners which is still slated to be voted on by La Liga’s 42 clubs.

Observers say that accepting the deal would have amounted to the two giants financially attaching themselves to La Liga over the decades to come and thus forgoing their Super League ambitions. It’s the only way to explain why Barcelona, which is reportedly more than $1 billion in debt, would refuse that kind of investment, which would have been on par with the projected cash advance of the proposed Super League.

Was the Barcelona-Messi talk all for show?

There’s one line of thinking that Barcelona knew all along it was never going to be in a position to sign Messi and fit his salary within its player budget limits for the upcoming season. Given the way the transfer season was shaping up, and with no takers for its high-salaried players, there was no way that Barcelona could make room for Messi according to league rules.

Because Barca waited until a week before the season to announce it, putting the fault squarely on La Liga and its onerous rules, some media are speculating that the false hope created over recent weeks was a PR ploy to help club management navigate the fan backlash that will undoubtedly come with the forced departure of Barcelona’s greatest player. In the court of public perception, club officials showed that at least they gave it an honest try.

Some have gone so far as to suspect that Messi was also well aware that he was never going to actually sign with Barcelona and that perhaps he wanted to move on from the club ahead of the rebuilding that’s sure to come. The “La Liga regulations” are a convenient excuse to depart the club, making it appear like he really wanted to be there and thus keeping his reputation with the fan base intact.

Meanwhile, since he’s out of contract and not obligated to be in camp, he’s out of sight of the media. And given his status as a free agent, Messi can take all the time he wants to sign with a new club. The Aug. 31 transfer deadline only applies to signings involving players under contract with one club and moving to another. However, if he wants to play in the UEFA Champions League, he does need to be signed before the Sept. 2 roster registration deadline for that tournament.

Could it be a bluff? Could Messi return?

Another group of cynics believe the Barcelona statement — which, interestingly, has yet to be followed up by a statement or a goodbye message from Messi’s camp — could be an attempt to somehow force La Liga to change the rules or carve out an exception for the club.

The thinking goes that La Liga as an enterprise cannot afford to lose Messi, especially when it just signed a TV rights deal with U.S. broadcaster ESPN worth $175 million per year deal over eight years ($1.4 billion). What value would La Liga have without Messi?

But La Liga president Javier Tebas has been steadfast in recent months that there would be no bending of the rules and no special treatment given to Messi or Barcelona. If Barcelona, with its back to the wall, is calling his bluff, then it’s likely to be disappointed, especially since Tebas’s position is buoyed by the private investment deal. And rule changes a week before the season are highly unlikely. 

Laporta ruled out any potential return at his press conference a day later: “I don’t want to generate false hope,” he said. “The negotiations with Messi have ended and it’s brought us here without an agreement because of the [La Liga] salary limit. Leo wanted to stay, so he’s not happy. We all wanted him to stay, but now, like us, he is facing the reality of what’s happened. A reality that can’t be changed.”

How is this different from last summer’s Messi drama?

Last year, the scenario involved other factors. In the summer of 2020, with one year left on his four-year, $675-million Barcelona contract, Messi went public about his desire to leave, citing a falling out with club management. He said he had a verbal agreement with then-president Josep Bartomeu that he would be released from his contract with the club.

But when it became clear that Bartomeu was not about to let the Barcelona legend walk, Messi refused to take the club to court as a matter of principle and opted to stick around an extra season against his wishes.

Many believed that with Bartomeu leaving office and Joan Laporta taking his place earlier this year, there was a good chance that Laporta would find a way to keep Messi at Barcelona given his close relationship with him during his previous tenure as club president, when the club had the most successful run in its history.

But maybe Laporta, too, knew of the likely outcome all along despite campaigning for the presidency based on his ability to give the club its best chance to keep Messi. The financial situation that Laporta (below) inherited is tenuous, and he knew it. We learned all about that reality when he spoke to the media on Aug. 6 and outlined a financial situation that he says was much worse than what he was led to believe with losses of $572 million incurred in the 2020-2021 season.

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It was a somber meeting with the media during which he didn’t leave any room for a potential return. In fact, he spoke about how Messi is already receiving interest from other clubs, though he stopped short of sharing details. Laporta also mentioned that the club will be arranging for a way to honor the player and give him a proper send-off with fans. 

The blame game shifted significantly in that press conference: Laporta said he respected the La Liga ‘financial fair play’ roster rules, and while they were ultimately the reason Messi couldn’t sign, he said it was the previous two club administrations that put the club into financial disarray. Laporta sent the message that if it were not for their mismanagement, Messi’s signing wouldn’t have been an issue. He pointed out how he held up his end of the bargain by reaching an agreement with Messi. It just wasn’t possible to execute it. 

The private equity money being poured into La Liga would have helped, but Laporta and Barcelona isn’t interested in taking it. He insisted that the club did not agree with the financial arrangement and specifically, giving up 10 percent of La Liga’s revenues to the company, CVC Capital Partners, as part of the deal.

“It would not be in Barca’s best interests,” Laporta said. “We were going to receive some money, but we think that accepting it — and affecting our [revenue from] television rights for the next 50 years — is not something we can do [to keep Messi]. It’s too risky. The club is above players, coaches and presidents.”

What happens now?

Messi will take to the microphone at a press conference that will be held on Sunday in Barcelona.

Several of Messi’s now former Barcelona teammates have shared their reactions to his departure. Ansu Fati was the first to express his thanks to Messi via Instagram and Barcelona legend and former Messi teammate, Xavi Hernandez, has also chimed in.

We’ll also be keep an eye on the rumor mill, which already has French giant Paris Saint-German as the team most likely to make a move for the now-free agent Messi: 

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