This summer, the unthinkable is possible: Lionel Messi could leave Barcelona. It’s the only club he’s ever known as a professional, a place where he’s won every trophy imaginable. But the relationship between Messi and Barcelona has soured over the past couple of years, and last summer, he tried (and failed) to get out. The clock is ticking: His contract expires on June 30, at which point he’ll be free to sign wherever he wants, with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain the only likely alternatives.
But will he leave? We look back at how we got here and whether or not his rich history with Barcelona is enough for him to stay.
2000-2008- THE LEGEND BEGINS
Every superhero has an origin story. For Messi, it was clear at a young age that he had the talent; scouts in Argentina spotted him and sent word to Europe that this kid was something special.
The napkin that started a legacy
“In Barcelona, on Dec. 14, 2000, in the presence of [Josep Maria] Minguella and Horacio [Gaggioli], Carles Rexach, FC Barcelona’s sporting director, hereby agrees, under his responsibility and regardless of any dissenting opinions, to sign the player Lionel Messi provided that we keep to the amounts agreed upon.”
The above words, scribbled on a napkin following a game of tennis in Barcelona, were hastily written to assure Messi’s father, Jorge, that the club was committed to signing his 13-year-old son. The game would never be the same.
The Cost of Greatness $1,400
Barca director Joan Lacueva reportedly paid €1,000 for the initial phases of hormone treatment for Messi’s growth deficiency, which he was unable to get from any clubs in Argentina. Barca picked up the cost of the treatment once he officially joined the club.
Messi’s first deal
It may not be as epic as that napkin, but Messi’s first professional contract, signed aged 16 on Feb. 4, 2004 — nine months before his official first team debut — was an important step, too. Barca were in the middle of a six-year trophy drought, but good times were around the corner.
An impressive debut
Messi played just nine minutes as a substitute in the Catalan derby vs. Espanyol on Oct. 16, 2004, but his talent was evident. Said longtime friend, Maxi Rodriguez: “I was amazed by his skill and natural ability. He stared down his opponent so naturally and that really caught our attention given his age. Messi was never afraid to face his opponent. What stood out about Messi then is what stands out now: He makes everything look easy.”
“Once they said they can only stop me with a pistol. Today you need a machine gun to stop Messi.” /HRISTO STOICHKOV, FORMER BARCELONA AND BULGARIA PLAYER
The first goal in Barca colors
At 17, Messi became the youngest player to ever score for Barcelona in the league (he’s since been overtaken) when he netted the second goal in a 2-0 win over Albacete on May 1, 2005. In the 87th minute, coach Frank Rijkaard brought Messi off the bench for his ninth appearance. A minute later, he’d scored, chipping past the goalkeeper. It was ruled out for offside (though it wasn’t) so moments later, Messi did it again, with an even better chipped finish. Barca won the league two weeks later, their first league crown since 1998-99.
The club wastes no time with their new star -$150M
Fully integrated into the first-team, Barca knew they had an all-world talent in their squad. Therefore they moved quickly, offering him a new contract in June 2005, that would keep him at the club until 2010. The deal included an eye-catching release clause, meaning anyone looking to sign the 18-year-old would need to break soccer’s world-record transfer fee in order to do it.
Who is this kid?
It’s impossible to imagine now, but Messi came close to joining cross-city rivals Espanyol — who had just finished fifth in La Liga — on loan in the summer of 2005. Those plans were shelved after his stunning performance against Juventus in the Gamper Trophy: Messi caused havoc that night, creating a goal for Andres Iniesta. Juve coach Fabio Capello was so impressed that he didn’t even wait for the final whistle to ask if the Italians could take him on loan. “In my entire life I’ve never seen a player of such quality and personality at such a young age,” Capello said later.
Another contract? Sure, why not!
Less than three months passed before Barca felt the need to hand Messi another extraordinary new contract in September 2005. This extension would run until 2014, with reports in the Spanish media suggesting he doubled his salary, too.
If you want Messi, It will cost you $467M
Joan Laporta, who was club president from 2003 to 2010 and was elected again this year, claimed in 2020 that Barca turned down a world record $467m (€250m) bid from Inter Milan in 2006. “They were prepared to pay… but I always felt reassured by my relationship with his dad, Jorge. I told him: ‘They’ll have to pay the clause because I won’t sell. He’ll be happy here, he’ll get glory. There, he’ll only win financially. Your son’s destined to be the greatest in history and here he’ll have a team to help get there. He’ll enjoy it.
“Messi does not need his right foot. He only uses the left and he’s still the best in the world. Imagine if he also used his right foot, Then we would have serious problems.” ZLATAN IBRAHIMOVIC
Another new contract-$132K
The superstar signs a new deal in March, his fourth in three years, and it’s reportedly worth $132,000 (€100,000) a week in wages. Messi wouldn’t turn 20 for another two months.
Messi’s first heroics vs. Real Madrid
If anyone still needed definitive proof that Messi was special, it arrived in the Clasico at the end of the 2006-07 season as Barca and Real Madrid tussled for the title. Madrid led three times at Camp Nou; three times Messi levelled the score. The final goal, which completed his hat trick and the first in a Clasico in 12 years, came in the final minute of a frenzied encounter.
Messi’s own ‘Hand of God’
The little genius wasn’t above shenanigans. He scored with a blatant, but artful, punch against local rivals Espanyol — a move reminiscent of another Argentina legend, Diego Maradona, who did the same thing against England at the 1986 World Cup. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Another ‘Maradona moment’
A cup tie against Getafe doesn’t exactly scream “career high,” but for many, this was Messi’s masterpiece — his true Maradona moment. It was a goal that, in terms of sheer individual brilliance, he has never quite been able to match. Barca were up 1-0 in this first leg of a Copa del Rey semifinal at Camp Nou when Messi picked up the ball inside his own half. What happened next drew understandable comparisons with El Diego: a run that started with two nutmegs and ended with a right-footed finish after rounding the goalkeeper.
2008-2015- THE BEST YEARS
In every origin story, there’s a moment when the superhero is called to action. With Barcelona in transition, getting rid of established players like Ronaldinho, Deco and Gianluca Zambrotta — and announcing some guy named Pep Guardiola as their new manager — the stage was set for Messi. And Messi answered the call.
Messi becomes 10
The No. 10 is iconic in soccer: think Maradona or Pele. Messi would claim the No. 10 shirt from 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho before the 2008-09 season as the Brazilian star joined AC Milan. Messi also signed another new contract, this time reportedly making him the club’s highest-paid player.
Messi’s head does the talking (for once)
There was something almost comical about the most important goal of Messi’s career to date — his first in a Champions League final — being a header. The 5-foot-7 forward isn’t known for his aerial prowess (less than 5% of his 700-plus career goals have been headed) but when Xavi spotted him lurking in space behind Rio Ferdinand, he rose high to nod deftly past keeper Edwin van der Sar, clinching the Treble for Barcelona.
Another bump- $365M
In September 2009, Barcelona moved to further extend Messi’s contract with a seven-year extension (his sixth new contract since 2004) to keep him at the club through 2016. The reported release clause was second-highest to Ronaldo, while the media in Spain reported his salary increased to $15.3m (€10.5m) per year. Said Guardiola, “It’s a privilege for Barca.”
Messi clinches a sextuple
The year 2009 was the best in Barcelona’s history — and arguably the best for any club, ever — as Guardiola’s team won an unprecedented six trophies. The FIFA Club World Cup, played in the United Arab Emirates that December, was the last of them, and it was a scrappy goal off Messi’s chest — he told FIFA.com it “might have come off the badge” — that won it. “We are happy at having made history,” said Messi, “but make no mistake, we’ll be out to win everything again next year.”
Catch him if you can, foul if not
Barcelona’s 5-0 rout of Real Madrid on Nov. 29, 2010, was the ultimate expression of Guardiola’s team’s superiority that season. Messi didn’t score, but he did just about everything else, including being kicked late on by a furious Sergio Ramos (himself no stranger to the “dark arts”) to spark a mass brawl. The incident was typical of a rivalry between the two sides that became, for a time, genuinely toxic.
“Messi is the god of football. When Messi has the ball, one-on-one, you’re dead.”/ JOSE MOURINHO
Messi’s first individual prizes
Messi’s coronation as a superstar was confirmed with back-to-back Ballons d’Or, the prize given to the best player in the world. He became the sixth player ever to do it back-to-back, and followed that by becoming the second men’s player to win three in a row after Michel Platini (1983-85).
Messi makes a mess of Arsenal
Messi would become a force in the Champions League, winning four of them with Barcelona, but his dominance was evident in the 2011 round of 16, second leg. With English side Arsenal winning 2-1 from the first leg, Messi took over, scoring twice — including an impudent “self-assist” flick over the goalkeeper to himself — to put his side into the final four.
A wag of the finger…
A 5-0 win over Mallorca in 2011 might not be one of Messi’s most memorable games, but you’ll recognize how he celebrated his first goal of three on the night. After scoring from the penalty spot, he turned to the cameras and gave a wink and finger wag, which has become a GIF, meme and calling card all in one.
One of the best of all time
For the second time in three years under Guardiola, Barcelona beat Manchester United in the Champions League final. Ten minutes into the second half, Messi surged into space and gave his side a lead they wouldn’t surrender. His celebration was wilder than usual, kicking a pitchside mic and the advertising hoarding as he sprinted to celebrate in front of the Barca fans. The win and team performance on May 28, 2011 lent weight to the argument that this Barca side was one of the best ever.
Third time’s a charm
Messi collected his third Ballon d’Or in three seasons in 2011, claiming nearly 50% of the overall vote. (His nemesis, Cristiano Ronaldo, was second that year with 21% and Messi’s teammate Xavi finished third.)
Five in a game
Messi holds a lot of records, but on March 7, 2012, he became the first player to score five Champions League goals in one match as Barcelona thumped German side Bayer Leverkusen 7-1. Not everyone was impressed, though: Brazil legend Pele famously quipped “when Messi’s scored 1,283 goals like me… when he’s won three World Cups, we’ll talk about it.”
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