MARTIN SAMUEL: Can Messi learn to love Paris after leaving Barcelona?

MARTIN SAMUEL: Lionel Messi has left a club he never wanted to leave for one he didn’t want to join. So, as Barcelona lose one of their adopted sons, can he learn to love Paris?

  • Lionel Messi’s dream was to continue playing for Barcelona and retire in the city
  • Like Johan Cruyff, Messi is another adopted son of the city after arriving in 2001
  • But now he must move on and represent PSG – can he learn to love his next club?
  • PSG are buying a pillar of Barcelona – this is not like any other major transfer
  • The question now is whether Messi will be fulfilled by his new challenge in Paris

Lionel Messi smiled for the camera aboard the private jet. He looked happy. Happy for a man who was leaving a club he didn’t want to leave, to play for a club he didn’t want to join, and relocating to a city where he didn’t care to reside.

He was living the dream: as envisaged by accountants, marketing men, contract lawyers, Qatari sheiks and the fans who gathered outside the airport, hoping for a glimpse.

He wasn’t living Messi’s dream, though, for we all know what that was. To continue playing for Barcelona, and winning trophies for Barcelona, and remaining, with his family, in Barcelona. Even on the day he tearfully announced he had no option but to leave, he was already talking about the day he would return.

Lionel Messi smiled for the camera with his wife Antonella aboard the private jet on Tuesday

Messi’s home is Barcelona. Not just the Nou Camp, but the city. It is where he will live when his professional career is over and, without being morbid, where he will one day die, like Johan Cruyff, another adopted son of the city.

Cruyff went to Barcelona as a player in 1973, returned as manager in 1988 and never really left after that. He died in a Barcelona clinic in 2016 and was cremated in the city the next day.

And, yes, we know behind Messi’s transfer to Paris Saint-Germain lies cold, hard economics — on both sides and, no doubt, Messi’s own — but those tears were real and the wider world felt them. Messi and Barcelona belonged together. The question remains, can they endure apart?

Barcelona’s decline is already apparent. Ultimately, at 34, even Messi’s genius could no longer save them. Their recruitment has been poor, the players lost or ushered into retirement were superior to their replacements, and no coach since Pep Guardiola has possessed the same wit or inventiveness.

Messi, like Johan Cruyff (pictured in 1978), is another adopted son of Barcelona

The Nou Camp crowd unveil a tribute to Cruyff days after he passed away in 2016

Rivals took some of Guardiola’s innovation and further refined it, even modernised it in Jurgen Klopp’s case, while Barcelona kept giving the ball to Messi and hoping for the best.

Recruitment policy reflected austere circumstances and failures of imagination. Having spent much of last season injured, it can hardly be a surprise that summer signing Sergio Aguero is injured again now, and likely to miss the first 10 games of the season. It used to be that Manchester City would swoop up Barcelona’s cast-offs. To see this policy reversed is an indication of how far the Catalans have fallen.

As for Messi, can he learn to love his next best life? Can he, at this late stage in his career, become inspired by sharing a mission in which he had no interest until his circumstances changed irrevocably?

Paris Saint-Germain are driven to win the Champions League. Does Messi share that obsession? Can he ever feel about his new home the way he did about Barcelona? It truly was more than a club to him. Can that be said of PSG?

Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Suarez, Messi’s great team-mates and rivals, have always been guns for hire, played for many clubs, in many leagues. 

Contrastingly, Messi’s connection with Newell’s Old Boys in Argentina did not stretch beyond his 13th birthday. Barcelona supported the growth hormone treatment that was essential in making him a player. He came through La Masia academy like a local. By the time he played at Under 17 level he would have been fully entitled to represent Spain.

So this is not like any other major transfer. This is not Neymar to PSG, or Kylian Mbappe. PSG are buying a pillar of Barcelona, the club and the city. They are buying a presence as identifiable as the Sagrada Familia — and as hard to forget, once witnessed. This is not about whether Messi will fit at PSG. A player of his talent will fit anywhere and any jealousies will be quickly cast aside once his team-mates see what he can bring to their game.

The greater riddle is whether Messi will be fulfilled by his new challenge. France is far from a farmer’s league — as the forward quartet of Messi, Mbappe, Neymar and Angel Di Maria proves — yet there is no Real Madrid to be annually overcome, no cussed equivalent of Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, either.

Somehow, PSG lost the league to Lille last season, but before that they had won seven of eight titles dating back to 2013, after the Qatari fortune arrived. It is close to unimaginable that they will not regain supremacy given Messi’s addition. 

Messi had a large poster of him on the side of Nou Camp torn down on Tuesday

But is the challenge sufficient for him? Is there motivation in Saturday’s game against Strasbourg, the August 20 visit to Stade Brest?

Neymar played 33, 34 and 30 La Liga games in his final three seasons with Barcelona; and 20, 17, 15 and 18 league matches in his four seasons with PSG. It is hard to reason those numbers do not reflect comparative necessity.

Leaving the Champions League as the holy grail. PSG, like Manchester City, have never won it. Undoubtedly, those behind the project feel one player would make the difference. Yet Barcelona have had Messi all these years and have conquered Europe once since 2011.

If there are flaws elsewhere in the team, the late stages of Champions League football will find them out. PSG lost 4-1 to Manchester City on aggregate in the semi-finals last season. Real Madrid’s famed Galacticos never enjoyed the domination in Europe that a more balanced XI did later under Zinedine Zidane.

Neymar, Cristiano Ronaldo (pictured), Luis Suarez have played for many clubs in many leagues

There is huge pressure on Mauricio Pochettino to finally with the Champions League with Messi, Neymar (centre) and Kylian Mbappe (right) in attack next season

In many ways, then, the greatest pressure is on Mauricio Pochettino. Having gone to a club where it seemed impossible not to win the league, and then failed to win the league, he must now steer a forward line who cannot fail to dominate Europe, and hope the campaign does not end in more reputational damage.

Yet will it be as easy as the team sheet suggests? 

Messi was smiling and wearing his newest T-shirt on Tuesday. He had swapped some moribund sportswear on leaving Barcelona for a top with the slogan ‘Ici c’est Paris’. He was still smiling and looked happy. Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet.




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