Spain remains in a “state of alarm”, activated by the prime minister Pedro Sanchez a fortnight ago.
This is a country that is struggling to cope with a mounting coronavirus crisis as its death toll exceeded China’s this week with 769 lives lost on Friday – Spain’s largest single-day surge – bringing the total number of fatalities to 4,858 from 64,000 cases.
With the pandemic at the forefront of people’s minds, the country’s second-richest football club is not immune from feeling the effects. Barcelona have announced plans to reduce player and staff wages in a bid to “minimise the economic impact” caused by the outbreak.
Barcelona divided over wage cut proposal
During the crisis, it is understood that Barcelona want to reduce salaries by 70 per cent while the players have offered to cut their wages by 30 per cent for the rest of the season. As it stands, no agreement has been reached.
The club are adamant there will be wage cuts, beginning retrospectively from March 19, so where does this leave Lionel Messi?
The Argentine, whose contract expires next summer, earns a reported £500,000-a-week. His salary amounts to over £31m, before bonuses.
Barcelona sit two points clear at the top of La Liga, but the fractious relationship between the club and its players has brought scrutiny to a clause in Messi’s deal which would allow him to leave on a free transfer this summer.
The changing room is divided, and with the reduction in wages set to be felt across the board – even for the women’s team – Messi’s view on the situation could prove decisive.
The Catalan club’s wage costs exceed any other team in sport, while matchday income of around £5.5m per game has also stopped helping offset expenditures. Despite last season’s revenue being recorded at £726m, megastores and the club museum have also been closed.
Barcelona hope to push through the wage cut under “ERTE”, the temporary employment regulation that has been set up, but the true cost of potentially alienating its players may only be felt further down the line.
A presidential election, friction and a waiting game
With La Liga suspended indefinitely, so too the battle to be elected Barcelona’s figurehead has ground to a halt, with the next presidential election set for June 2021.
Messi had hoped for an outcome before committing to a new deal, but amid reports that he has vowed to quit if Josep Maria Bartomeu is allowed to stay on for another term, the club’s attempted strategy to enforce a hefty wage cut casts further doubt over his future.
Messi is the captain and Bartomeu knows this move will likely lead to his departure in 15 months’ time, but his final objective is to tie the club’s talisman down to a ‘contract for life’.
Earlier this season, sporting director Eric Abidal became embroiled in a public dispute with the Argentine when he called out several unnamed players for not having the right attitude under former manager Ernesto Valverde.
Messi replied on social media: “Those responsible for the area of sports management must assume their responsibilities and above all take charge of the decisions they make.
“Finally, I think that when talking about players, we should give names because otherwise, we are getting everyone dirty and feeding things that are said and are not true,” he added.
Xavi and Barca’s next ‘footballing project’
It was reported in Spain that Messi wanted Xavi to replace Valverde as manager, but with the 2010 World Cup winner committed for now to his first managerial role with Al Sadd in Qatar, Quique Setien was named his surprise successor.
Given the delay to the 2019/20 season being completed, and potential subsequent late start to the next campaign, the picture of precisely who will mount a challenge to Bartomeu remains unclear.
Renewing Messi’s contract remains the job of the current president, but Victor Font – who has been tipped to replace Bartomeu – spoke of his intentions were he to be elected via democratic vote.
What weighs heavily in his favour is Messi’s desire to stay at Barcelona, prolonging his love affair with the club that started as a 13-year-old when he arrived at La Masia from Rosario. His family life is settled at his compound in Bellamar, a prestigious and expensive suburb of Castelldefels on the outskirts of Barcelona.
In an interview with Marca in January, Font not only spoke of his desire for Xavi to lead his “footballing project”, but acknowledged the need to look towards the future, with Messi turning 33 by the time he could be elected in June 2021.
He said: “I’m in tune with Xavi, in relation to the project, and personally I love talking to him about football and I hope he can lead our footballing project. We have a lot of challenges for the next five or 10 years. A key one, and one of the first, is the management of the end of [Lionel] Messi [as he gets towards retiring].”
Messi is understood to be keen on Xavi returning as head coach, which will only likely prolong his stay despite Font’s admission that plans for life after the 32-year-old must be set in motion.
The reason for the player insisting on a release clause being inserted in his contract is not down to money or the state of his relationship with the president and the club but solely based on his own physical condition at his advancing age.
Alternative options closed off
Messi appears set to end his career having not played in England, and one potential route into the Premier League was a reunion with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, who will themselves be faced with a squad overhaul this summer in their bid to catch up with champions-elect Liverpool.
But the club’s ongoing fight to appeal UEFA’s decision to ban them from European competition for two years means that Messi is more unlikely than ever to be heading to the Etihad any time soon. Similarly, United and Inter Milan do not hold the same appeal to Messi as they did when they were at the peak of their powers around a decade ago.
Paris Saint-Germain would in theory be another option in terms of being able to afford his wages but Neymar has experienced “la jaula de oro” [the Spanish expression for a golden cage] as Donato Di Campli, the former agent of Marco Verratti described life at the Parc des Princes.
Di Campli had tried to secure Verratti a move to Barcelona last summer before he was replaced by Mino Raiola, and while the notion alone of cantering to domestic titles year on year in the French league is unlikely to appeal to Messi, he will be well aware of Neymar’s own struggle to leave the club last summer.
In Paris, Messi would be earning good money, but competition is what he has always craved. With PSG desperate to end their wait to win the Champions League under owner Nasser Al-Khelaifi, it would be an arrangement that suits the club more than the player.
Planning for the post-Messi era is a scenario Barcelona have been reluctant to even contemplate, with Bartomeu saying last November that the Argentine could extend his contract “indefinitely”.
He said: “Surely it will be the wish of all parties, if he (Messi) feels strong and ambitious, to extend this contract indefinitely. Ultimately it is he who must decide. He has earned the right to decide when he will stop playing football.
“But he wants to finish his playing career at Barcelona. Over the next two or three seasons our leader will continue to be Leo Messi. There’s no doubt that he is still young, still strong. He is still ambitious.”
Neymar and Messi’s future intertwined?
Messi is determined to prolong his 19-year stay, but he wants to be part of a side that can dominate domestically and compete in Europe once more, having last won the Champions League in 2015.
Bartomeu has vowed to assemble a squad that can fulfil the player’s wishes for a more competitive team, and certainly bringing Neymar back to the Nou Camp would smooth over the cracks.
The Brazilian was once again linked with a return in the Spanish papers this week, where the word was that the Catalans were ready to activate Article 17 to liberate the Brazilian from this so-called gilded cage in the French capital.
This article is a rather archaic rule that many clubs aren’t even aware of and seldom use, when a player has two years left on his current deal.
In Neymar’s five-year contract, he is entitled to ask FIFA to set the price for his transfer. The issue for Barcelona is that the world governing body are unlikely to set a valuation for the forward which is less than £150m, more or less the same fee that PSG have asked for Neymar in any case.
Beyond the appeal of being reunited with Messi and Luis Suarez when he returns from injury, Neymar would be returning to a club that is very different to the one he left. There is uncertainty over what the squad will look like next season.
According to Mundo Deportivo, they have reactivated their interest in out-of-favour Tottenham midfielder Tanguy Ndombele. Lautaro Martinez has been tracked for over three years, but Inter Milan are demanding over £90m for the Argentine forward.
Furthermore, Barcelona are preparing to part ways with eight players during the summer transfer window, according to Diario Sport. Brazilian goalkeeper Norberto Neto, Samuel Umtiti, Carles Alena, midfielders Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal, Philippe Coutinho, and forwards Antoine Griezmann and Martin Braithwaite will all reportedly be placed on the transfer lit.
Indeed, there is uncertainty over how long Setien will be in charge, and while many have called for football to use to enforced break as a chance to reset, Messi would claim that Barcelona have been in need of a reboot for some time.