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Not long ago, the mere notion of Lionel Messi leaving Barcelona would’ve been unthinkable. His bond with with the club he’d joined as a 13-year-old was so strong, but somewhere in the past 18 months, something has shifted.
Murmurings about Messi leaving Barça have come and gone before. But with reports that he feels the club hasn’t been supporting him and the possibility of him facing a trial and even jail time over his Spanish tax problems, this latest spate of rumors feels different.
Suddenly, what was previously inconceivable seems at least not entirely out of the question. Would Barca really be willing to let him go?
Losing the four-time Ballon d’Or winner would be a massive blow. But to an extent, the club has covered its bases with Neymar and Luis Suarez. Were Messi to leave, Barcelona might struggle temporarily. Ultimately, though, the club would move on – just as it did after the departures of Romario, Ronaldinho and Samuel Eto’o.
For Messi, whose form has undeniably dipped over the last year and a half, leaving Barcelona to strike out on a new challenge might not be a bad idea. Having already won three Champions League titles, six La Liga crowns and basically every other trophy available to him at Barça, you could forgive him for feeling a little jaded.
But where would he go?
Messi playing in the Premier League is a mouthwatering prospect. Would he be able to replicate his devastating La Liga form in the high intensity of the Premiership? Or would he indeed “struggle on a cold night at the Britannia Stadium,” as Premier League pundit Andy Gray once claimed.
Assuming Real Madrid is out of the picture, there are only a handful of clubs with the money and prestige to sign him.
If he were to go to England, Manchester City would be the obvious destination. The noisy neighbors have the money, have won two out of the last three Premier League titles and have a Barcelona connection in Txiki Begiristain, the former Barça football director who is now City's director of football. And Messi’s friend and Argentina teammate Sergio Aguero plays there.
Paris Saint-Germain is another possibility. The French champions crave European success and have long felt that Messi is the player who can deliver it to them. Ligue 1 may not offer the same level of competition as La Liga, but PSG can afford Messi’s wages. And as he gets older, playing in France might enable him to extend his shelf life, just as Zlatan Ibrahimovic has.
Bayern Munich is another club that would appear to have everything required to attract a player like Messi. The German powerhouse has money, prestige, a grand winning tradition and Pep Guardiola, the coach who oversaw his emergence as the best in the world. The Bundesliga, with its intensity, would offer Messi the new challenges he needs, and the Bayern system, which nurtures stars but prizes the team collective, would suit him.
Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger once tried to bring the teenage Messi to the Emirates. While Messi would be a great fit for Arsenal, the only London club capable of meeting his $300 million-plus release clause is Chelsea. Although it’s difficult to imagine him playing under Jose Mourinho, were the Portuguese to burn his final bridge with Roman Abramovich, it’s not inconceivable that Messi could join the West Londoners.
Financial Fair Play restrictions could rule out City or PSG making a move to sign Messi. But there are a few other possibilities. Manchester United and even Inter Milan could potentially be capable of funding a move for him.
Although with Barcelona facing a transfer ban, it’s more than likely Messi will remain at the Camp Nou. His Barcelona and Argentina teammate Javier Mascherano insists he’s happy there. That may be so, but it’s pretty obvious he’s not as happy as he used to be.
It would, of course, be fantastic if Messi and Barcelona were to resolve their issues, so he can play out his career there, something he maintains he wants. On the other hand, a new team, a new league and new challenges could be just what Lionel Messi needs to return to his otherworldly best.