Lionel Messi trudged off alone down the tunnel as the game against Atletico Madrid ended 2-2, the result extinguishing any realistic chance for Barcelona to win the title. His shoulders never looked heavier and, in a match where he amassed his 700th career goal, Messi might have had other things in mind which went behind results, staring into the eerie darkness focusing on what direction the Catalan Club was heading to.
It had been a long time coming, but perhaps is dawning upon him now more than ever.
Barcelona had been the league leaders before coronavirus halted proceedings; even before that they had sacked coach Ernesto Valverde, who Messi had seemingly backed to continue. Quique Setien, known for his adoration of club symbol Johan Cryuff, was brought in to replace Valverde in January. The appointment was part of a long process, the Barcelona management had said. "I got the call yesterday," Setien had said on the day of his presentation as Barcelona coach.
The faultlines had appeared much earlier though, and Messi has perhaps never felt more alone. At 33, he is at the twilight end of his career with perhaps one or two more seasons of absolute brilliance left in him. The management at Barcelona now can best be described as comical at this point; things have never been this bad even if it was bad for the last couple of years.
Lies and deceptions appeared in many forms over the years, always from the same source. There have been bits and pieces of information circulating in the media, 'leaks' that made the Argentine uncomfortable at the very least. This season he hit out more than ever. He called out sporting director Eric Abidal and demanded him to 'take responsibility for his own decision' in the sacking of Valverde.
Then came the players' wage cuts in order to help the club pay non-footballing staff. Messi said the players were convinced that was the only way to go. Information 'divulged' in the media suggested the players were unhappy and had to be convinced to take the wage cut. Information regarding his contract was out there too, that he was free to leave in June 2020.
"I've said throughout my career that this is my home. But I also don't want to have a long-term contract and only be here because of it," Messi had said. The knives have been sharpened for a long time and the club was paying social media accounts to campaign against players like Messi, Gerard Pique and former player Xavi Hernandez along with political oppositions.
Messi, now more than ever, is more alone on the pitch. That is where his problems have begun however. It is not what is happening to him, but what is happening around him.
Andres Iniesta was gone, so was Xavi Hernandez -- the two cornerstones of Barca's style. Paris, Turin, Rome and Liverpool had come too; embarrassing team defeats that Messi had to shoulder, often alone. Neymar had gone too and his best strike partner Luis Suarez, by all counts was in steep decline. The squad aging and a sporting plan non-existent as was evidenced by the club's pursuit and eventual signing of Antoine Griezmann, a player who is good but not what was needed. What does Messi do in this situation?
On Friday, news arrived that the Barcelona captain has discarded all contract negotiations with the club. Only time will tell if this is his final battle to change the course of the club, forcing early elections or whether the grass is now really looking greener elsewhere.