Messi is gone … again … now move on

Everything about FC Barcelona since the door hit Pep Guardiola in the ass, right down to re-electing Joan Laporta as president, has been about trying to re-create instead of create.

Every time a person has tried to create — Vilanova, Martino, Luis Enrique — they have been branded a heretic, no matter the success that they had. This idea that all the team has to do to replicate past glories is do the right thing, play the right way, do the right thing with La Masia, etc, etc has become a burden for supporters, one almost too heavy to shoulder.

So it makes perfect sense that the idea of Lionel Messi returning to the club would have filled people with excitement and joy.

When the notion was first floated, people who knew better said it wasn’t viable. Ronald Koeman, on a sports show, said that not only would Messi not return, but that Busquets would leave and likely Alba as well. Better prognosticator than manager, that man.

Sports is romance, hope and joy. It’s the dream of an underdog lining up against a juggernaut, and supporters thinking today might be the day. It’s wanting, craving the best for the team you support. It’s a magical quality that helps us forget that the game we love is a bunch of millionaires running about on a manicured lawn for the purposes of entertainment.

The romance of sport always dictates that the past is better than the present. This makes sense, because we know the past and the wonders it brought at the feet of marauding sprites. “Just do that again.” But everything moves on. The game moves on because it has to. Tactics evolve, players get faster and stronger, even in a game of skill, things have to shift to meet a changing threat. That’s what makes a game change.

When Messi was at Barcelona, the signs of decline were already there. He was being caught from behind by defenders he used to leave in his dust, misplaying more passes, hesitating more, missing shots that he used to bury. Time happens to everyone. In the two years that he was at PSG, time didn’t stop. It’s easy to point to his 20+ goals and assists this past season and argue against time, unless you watch him. Not the goals or highlights, like a YouTube compilation that only shows the good of a player, but the entirety.

Messi is a 35-year-old footballer wrestling with the effects of age, like every other mortal athlete. To be excited about the return of that player meant that at lot of other things had to happen, but that’s what sport is good at, ignoring reality for fantasy.

The idea that a club that doesn’t have two nickels to rub together, that needed a pie-in-the-sky “viability plan” approved by the league in which it competes, was going to be able to re-sign (even on a free) and afford to pay the greatest player in the history of the game was an idea that should have had us laughing from the outset. But romance.

Media outlets picked it up. Joan Laporta, the man who kicked him to the curb in the first place, bigged it up. Xavi talked about it, said it was a club priority even more than a pivote to replace the departing Busquets. And people started to believe, rather than asking whether it should be happening at all. Then, finally, the player’s father, Jorge Messi, departing a meeting with Laporta, said that Messi would like to return and suddenly it was Christmas Eve.

Then the news started to break: Messi would be joining Inter Miami in MLS, and people didn’t know what to do. Some didn’t believe it. Others immediately set about disparaging a league that has grown by leaps and bounds, as if a player who is aware of his legacy would join a “joke” of a league, even with the rumored deal he is being offered.

The return was never, ever going to happen. And the thing about fantasy and romance is that it’s fun, until continuing to play the game begins to almost verge on irresponsible. It becomes easy to forget how Messi left FC Barcelona: in tears. He went to the Camp Nou to sign his contract renewal, only to be told by its newly installed president that the club couldn’t afford to renew him. A future that the player thought was sealed and delivered, suddenly became seeking a port in a storm.

Messi is culer. And culers know how they feel about PSG. How must Messi have felt about having to go there because he had no other options, about having to make a decision because people let him down? There was speculation, of course, but now quotes from the player are coming out about the decision to not return to FC Barcelona, and two are particularly telling:

“I wanted to return, I was very excited to be able to return, but after having experienced what I experienced and the exit I had, I did not want to be in the same situation again: waiting to see what was going to happen and leaving my future in the hands of another.”

“When I had to leave, La Liga agreed to register me, then it couldn’t be done. I was afraid the same would happen again.”

Yikes. He couldn’t choose the Saudi deal because of rumored family reasons. He couldn’t choose the prospect of a return to Barça because what if, again, he rucked up at the Camp Nou only to be told, “Sorry, Leo … ” again. So he chose the sure thing, which is also a very exciting project and prospect in every way, and a rare opportunity for a great player in his twilight years to continue to help grow the game in a meaningful way. It is impossible to begrudge him his decision, impossible to be anything but excited for what the MLS move represents.

Yes, there are those who say he’s retiring from football, etc, etc. Ignore them. To love the game is to love the game in every aspect, to be thrilled by possibilities and what those possibilities represent. Messi moving to MLS is massive for the league, the players, the club, the money machine linked to football, pretty much everything except for people who suddenly are trying to get tickets for when their team will be facing Inter Miami.

Messi also said that he didn’t want to be the one partly responsible for players being sold, salaries being cut. And whether someone thinks that nobility is the burnishing of an image or the genuine thoughts of a player who still loves the club that made him everything, depends on the person. But in taking that decision, for whatever reason, Messi has done FC Barcelona a solid.

His return, for two seasons, was going to stagnate the club, no matter the success he might have brought. As a playmaker, someone presently in that midfield was going to have to sit, most likely Gavi. Transition defense was going to suffer even more than it already does. A young core of a team growing in confidence was going to have to face up to what to do when the greatest player in history wants the ball at his feet.

That is all gone, hopefully along with the notion that the past can be reborn. Messi isn’t returning. Busquets is gone. Alba is gone. Pique is gone. We said farewell to Iniesta via a heartwarming friendly. Everything from that time is gone except the ghost of Sergi Roberto. It’s time. Time to move on, time to imagine new possibilities, time for the people responsible for rebuilding a team to do so, without the baggage of the past. Ask the manager what he needs to build a team that can play the kind of football that he wants to play, and give him those tools. And let’s see what happens.

The team needs so many more things than it needs a 36-year-old legend. It needs a right back, needs a pivote, needs another playmaker for when Pedri breaks. It needs goals from other places, needs to find a way to shore up defending on counters. “Playing the right way,” whatever that means, or “positioning,” does nothing to solve that. How many times does European failure have to underscore that notion? And don’t be fooled by an improbably lucky Liga campaign that saw Xavi’s team emerge as champions.

The club and the team have to move forward. Messi not returning was the last impediment to that path. It’s impossible as a culer to not be excited about the possibilities. Alemany is staying, he knows what is needed, and now the club has an approved fiscal blueprint to be able to build. Let’s see how the house will look.