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Is Messi Leaving Barcelona?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

He is unquestionably among the greatest players of all time. He plays the most popular sport in the world, and he wants to leave the only professional team he has ever known. Reports yesterday emerged that Lionel Messi has requested to leave FC Barcelona. He joined the Spanish club's youth academy nearly 20 years ago. And over 600 goals and four Champions League titles later, that tenure may be coming to an end. Pablo Maurer follows soccer for The Athletic. He's here to break it down for us.

Welcome.

PABLO MAURER: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: All right. So I do not follow international soccer all that much, so I need you to tell me - why is this such a big deal?

MAURER: Well, first and foremost, Lionel Messi obviously is widely considered to be arguably the greatest player in the history of the game. Certainly, anything that he does is sort of seismic kind of news. He's a player that is so closely associated with Barcelona - almost sort of the identity of the club. You know, up until a couple years ago, the thought that he would really play anywhere else in his entire career was borderline unthinkable.

CHANG: So why is Messi even thinking about leaving Barcelona? What got us to this point?

MAURER: Well, it's a few things, but it's been brewing for a while. Obviously, he's been sort of engaged in a bit of a public row with the club's president. I think Messi has felt for years now maybe not supported properly by the club. They don't surround him with players of his caliber, for example. He's openly disagreed with the club's sporting director.

Now, you know, just the past few days after Barcelona got absolutely thrashed in the Champions League, which is the sort of club championship of European soccer, you're seeing sort of a massive amount of turnover at Barcelona. Several of Messi's kind of confidants and teammates are being shown the door. So yeah, this has all sort of come to a head for Messi, who also is 33 - probably only has one World Cup left in his body, would like to make that a run at a Champions League title. So time is the - of the essence for him, you know? I think obviously...

CHANG: Right.

MAURER: ...It's become a priority to maybe find a more competitive side.

CHANG: So is Barcelona willing to let him walk? I mean, can the team even stop him from leaving?

MAURER: Yeah. So that's sort of the rub of this whole thing. Typically, you know, if a player wanted to leave and they had a contract, you know, whichever team wanted to acquire them would have to pay a transfer fee. Now, Messi, who's very aware of his value, when he renegotiated his deal with Barcelona in 2017 put in there a clause that said he could just walk after any given season for free.

Now, part of that deal was that he'd have to let Barcelona know by May 31 whether he was leaving or not. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic and everything associated with it, the season's dragged on a little bit longer. So he's just now letting them know. So this - there's a chance this could become as a very protracted kind of legal battle, and it could get pretty ugly for both Messi and Barcelona.

CHANG: OK. So if Barcelona ultimately cannot force Messi to stay, where would he even go? Like, what are his options? I assume that there aren't a lot of clubs that can afford his salary, right?

MAURER: Yeah. I mean, you know, it was revealed last year that Messi makes over a hundred million dollars a year.

CHANG: Wow.

MAURER: So really, you know, globally, there's only, you know, five to 10 teams that could even afford to sign Messi. Right now, the - sort of the safe money is on Manchester City of the English Premier League. You know, they're coached by Pep Guardiola, who is formerly Messi's coach at Barcelona. The two are very close. You hear rumblings in the United States about Messi maybe coming to Major League Soccer, which is the most outside of outside shots, but I guess could happen down the line at some point. But right now, Man City kind of seems like the safe bet if he does end up walking.

CHANG: Pablo Maurer covers soccer for The Athletic. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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