Lionel Messi asks to leave Barcelona. Where will he go next?

Henry Bushnell
·7 min read

Lionel Messi reportedly wants out. And can you blame him? Barcelona is a mess. Years of shambolic mismanagement came to a head this month, in the form of eight Bayern Munich goals. Two days later, Marcelo Bechler, the journalist who first reported Neymar’s move to Paris Saint-Germain, said that Messi wanted to leave Barca.

Now, Messi has formally asked Barca to allow him to depart. Barcelona confirmed it received a fax – yes, a fax! – from Messi on Tuesday. Its president called an emergency board meeting. Messi reportedly won’t train until the situation is resolved. There will likely be a messy, pandemic-inflicted dispute about a clause in Messi’s contract that allowed him to leave at the end of the 2019-20 season, but that expired in June. Lawyers will get involved. It’s clear, though, that Messi wants to play elsewhere.

And with that, one of the biggest transfer stories in the history of soccer will begin unfolding before our eyes. Messi, the greatest player ever, who’s spent his entire professional career at one of the biggest clubs ever, is available in the weirdest summer ever.

And while every team in the world would love to have him, there isn’t one obvious destination.

In other words, an unprecedented player is in an unprecedented situation in an unprecedented world.

There is still a decent chance that Messi begins the 2020-21 season at Barcelona, where he’s been for almost two decades. But if he doesn’t ... where might he end up?

Here are the top candidates, in order of likelihood, from most realistic landing spot to most outlandish.

1. Manchester City

If there is an obvious destination, it’s Manchester City. The reasons: Pep Guardiola; a strong chance to win the most competitive domestic league in the world; a chance to win the Champions League; a club that desperately wants to win the Champions League; a diverse, multilingual squad with Latin influence; state-of-the-art structure behind the scenes; and money.

City doesn’t necessarily need Messi. And its squad, over the years, has been built in a calculated, sustainable way. Messi doesn’t quite fit the purchase profile. The last time City paid more than $20 million for a player older than 27 was 2013, and the last time it paid more than $20 million for a player older than 28 was ... never. Messi is 33.

But you don’t buy Lionel Messi because you need him, or because he fits your purchase profile. You buy him because he’s f’ing Lionel Messi. And because you and he have both been choking in the Champions League, and your and his best chance to reverse that trend is together.

Perhaps Messi wouldn’t want to live in Manchester, or play in the Premier League, or play for the Abu Dhabi royal family. Perhaps Manchester City can’t fit the money he’d command within Financial Fair Play restraints. The club’s flouting of FFP, after all, very nearly got it banned from the Champions League this summer.

But whenever less veritable Messi rumors have popped up over the years, City has often been the club linked. It is once again the bookmakers’ favorite.

2. PSG

PSG also has human-rights-abusing-government money and Champions League ambitions. It has a progressive manager, and offers Messi the opportunity to form a front three — Neymar-Mbappe-Messi — that could rival Barcelona’s Neymar-Suarez-Messi trio as the best ever.

But life at PSG, outside of the Champions League spotlight, is quite boring — at least from a soccer perspective. Winning Ligue 1 wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment. Perhaps PSG’s weekend strolls would suit Messi’s aging legs. But if he still wants to achieve as much as possible at the highest level before those legs begin to fail him, France would be a curious choice.

3. Inter Milan

The case for Inter is rational: Pretty big club, with money and soccer infrastructure, with a vision; and in a pretty big league that also features Cristiano Ronaldo, Messi’s arch rival. It’s a narrative-lover’s dream: Messi goes to Italy and challenges for the Serie A title that Ronaldo’s club has won nine years in a row. What better way to cement GOAT status?

But would Messi really go to a club that hasn’t won anything significant in a decade?

Would he really go play for a manager, Antonio Conte, whose style doesn’t exactly seem compatible with his own?

Would he really go to Serie A, the least attractive league of the big four?

Probably not.

4. Manchester United

United is arguably the biggest sports brand in the world. It wants a versatile attacker. If it can’t pry Jadon Sancho away from Borussia Dortmund, why wouldn’t it empty bank accounts for Messi?

Of course, Messi might not want to come. United’s years of front office fumbling make Barcelona’s look tame. Even with the Argentine, England’s most famous club would be third-favorites to win the Premier League. There aren’t too many reasons to opt for United over City right now.

But the United squad is youthful and fun. It needs elite talent to take a next step. Unlike City, the club has been willing to splash cash on older, established stars. Perhaps United doesn’t make sense for Messi, but a strong push for Messi would make a ton of sense for United.

5. Juventus

On one hand, a pairing of the two best footballers to ever walk the earth seems like an opportunity Messi wouldn’t pass up.

On the other hand, jumping ship to join forces with his greatest rival seems antithetical to everything Messi is.

Unless you have direct access to Messi’s brain, there’s no way to know how he’d feel about a late-career partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo. If he’d be open to it, Juve is a prime option.

6. Inter Miami

No, the best player in the world probably isn’t coming to a non-top-10 league. This is probably fantastical. But Inter Miami, an MLS expansion side, is in search of a global superstar. It is owned by David Beckham. When Beckham was granted the franchise two years ago, Messi sent him a congratulatory video, and ended it with: “Who knows, in a few years, maybe you’ll give me a call.”

But nah. “A few years” is probably still a few years away.

7. Newell’s Old Boys

Messi’s boyhood club in Argentina. Some think he’ll end his career there. But the end isn’t that near. So Newell’s probably isn’t on the radar yet.

8. Bayern Munich

If all Messi wants to do is win — domestically and in the Champions League — Bayern would be the choice, right?

But for several reasons, it seems unlikely. Bayern wins anyway, with or without Messi.

9. Leeds

Kidding, but also trying to speak a Messi-Marcelo Bielsa partnership into existence.

10. Real Madrid

You probably think this is a joke to needle Barca fans. But hear me out.

If not for the obvious reason for Messi to not go to Madrid, the rivalry ... would this not be the perfect landing spot? Richest club in the world looking for its next Galáctico, with a brilliant manager, in the second-biggest league in the world, a league Messi knows well, in a country where he’s comfortable, a country that speaks his language. Is that not precisely what we assume he’s looking for?

And if Messi really is fed up with Barcelona ... would this not be the ultimate revenge?

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