Messi concedes defeat in Barcelona battle but future still in doubt
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Lionel Messi's grudging acceptance that he will have to stay put at Barcelona after losing his stand-off with club president Josep Maria Bartomeu has left the Argentine superstar's future still in doubt.
The 33-year-old, who was absent from Barcelona training on Saturday the day after announcing he would reluctantly stay at the club, launched a stinging attack on Bartomeu claiming he had broken his word to let him leave.
The absence of any new contract means that even if he is not allowed to leave this summer, Messi could enter negotiations with other teams from January 1 and leave for free when his current deal expires in July.
The feeling that Messi's reluctant decision was by no means the end of the affair was clear in Spanish daily Marca's headline: "Messi stays, the crisis too". Bartomeu could yet respond with his resignation, having previously indicated he would step down if Messi publicly said he was the problem and agreed to stay.
"It has been a long time since there has been a project or anything at all," Messi said in what another sports daily Mundo Deportivo described as his "devastating" interview with Goal on Friday. "They are always juggling and plugging gaps."
Messi believed he had a clause in his contract that meant he could leave for free at the end of last season but Barca said that option expired on June 10. "The president always said that at the end of the season I could decide if I wanted to go or if I wanted to stay and in the end he didn't end up keeping his word," Messi said. "And this is the reason why I am going to continue in the club... because the president told me that the only way to leave was to pay the 700-million-euro release clause."
He described that as "impossible", adding that he could never take "the club that I love" to court. Messi failed to appear at Barca's Joan Gamper training complex for Saturday's training session attended by players including Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba and Philippe Coutinho.
According to local media, he must first pass the Covid-19 test he deliberately missed last Sunday with a return to the squad possibly on Monday. He could then figure in new coach Ronald Koeman's first fixture, a friendly against third division Nastic on September 12.
Barcelona responded to Messi's pledge by posting a picture of the striker on Instagram in the club's new kit, with the caption: "I'm going to give my best. My love for Barça will never change".
Messi had requested to leave the club he joined as a boy following Barcelona's humiliating 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, with Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City the favourites to sign him.
His lawyers sent Barca a burofax on August 25 stating his intention to depart but Messi insisted he had he made his feelings clear to Bartomeu long before. "I told the club, especially the president, that I wanted to go," said Messi. "I've been telling him all year. I believed it was time to step aside.
"I believed that the club needed more young people, new people and I thought my time in Barcelona was over, feeling very sorry because I always said that I wanted to finish my career here. It was a very difficult year, I suffered a lot in training, in games and in the dressing room. Everything became very difficult for me and there came a time when I considered looking for new goals, new horizons.
"It wasn't because of the Champions League result against Bayern, I had been thinking about it for a long time. I told the president and the president always said that at the end of the season I could decide if I wanted to go or if I wanted to stay and in the end he did not end up keeping his word."
Barcelona ended the season without a trophy for the first time since 2008, which also extended Messi's unsuccessful run in the Champions League to five years.
He has scored 634 goals and won 34 titles with the club that he joined as a 13-year-old and where he came through the ranks at La Masia. Despite his unhappiness at having to stay, the Argentinian insists he will give his all for the team next season under Koeman, who is trying to overhaul the squad.
"I am going to continue at Barca and my attitude is not going to change, no matter how much I have wanted to go," Messi said. "There is a new coach and a new idea. That's good, but then we have to see how the team responds and if it means we can compete or not. What I can say is that I'm staying and I'm going to give my best."