When Sir Alex Ferguson retired from managing soccer club Manchester United in 2013, 13-year-old me could not believe it. He had just led the team to another Premier League title, showing there was more that this group of players could achieve under his leadership. I pictured an enduring image of Ferguson lifting the Champions League trophy after his final game and thought Ferguson was leaving prematurely with more to give in his managerial tank.
Looking back, I now realize how astute Ferguson was. Perfect goodbyes are incredibly rare in sports. Sometimes, the lack of results wears out the supporters’ patience. Arsenal fans’ relationship with Arsène Wenger toxically deteriorated his last couple years. The memories of their improbable title in 1998 or the Invincibles team lost their luster, reminding the fans of how much Arsenal has fallen since then. Other times, it is just really difficult to win that one final trophy to punctuate your career, as Zinedine Zidane, who physically dented his hopes of retiring as a two-time World Cup winner in 2006, would attest.
Perhaps Ferguson wanted to leave on a higher note, revenging their losses in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League finals. But he took a step back, realized that was a good time to retire, and left. After seeing how quickly Manchester United sank to mediocrity after his departure, I am grateful Ferguson left when he did with his legendary status untarnished.
When famed player Lionel Messi announced his desire to leave FC Barcelona, it might have seemed as if he was leaving at the lowest possible point, with him dejectedly walking off the pitch after the club’s 8-2 defeat against FC Bayern Munich being the last image of Messi in a Barça shirt. But with the news that Messi will stay, fans will hope for a year that rewrites the narrative around that loss to Bayern as the spark behind a redemptive season. However, given the stagnancy miring the squad around Messi, this might have been as good of a time as they will likely find for both parties to amicably say goodbye.
For a club where a La Liga or a Champions League title is the baseline expectation, a trophyless 2019-2020 season — the team’s first season without silverware since the 2007-2008 season — was an incredibly disappointing one. That is, for the team as a whole. For Messi, this was yet another statistically impossible season that made genius look routine. He scored team-leading 25 goals. The next closest goal-scorer scored 16. He led the team in assists with 21. The second-leading assist maker on the team had eight. Logically, for a possession-dominant team like Barcelona, defenders and midfielders should register the most touches in the middle third of the pitch. Messi ranked fourth on the team in touches in the middle third and still somehow led the team in touches in the attacking third. For a player five or six years beyond his physical peak, Messi was seemingly everywhere on the pitch, working everything out for Barcelona.
So, when the news that Messi was seeking to play elsewhere broke, even a Barcelona fan like Stern senior Richard Rambarran was not surprised.
“The thing he wants is the Champions League,” Rambarran said. “Seeing how we performed in the past three years in the Champions League — and that’s like the most coveted trophy at the club level — I wasn’t surprised that he wanted to leave.”
If the Barcelona board had shown any track record of transfer success in recent seasons, perhaps Messi would have exercised more patience, giving the team he has been tied to since he was 13 more time to build around him. Since the 2015-2016 season, Barcelona’s transfer record has been almost impossibly woeful given the club’s stature and transfer budget. From 2015-2016 to the latest season, Barcelona has spent approximately $1.06 billion on transfers for 29 players. There is not a single player among the 29 acquired that has produced at the level of his predecessor, with notable disappointments like Philippe Coutinho, who was bought for $159.5 million then loaned out to Bayern after a season-and-a-half of disappointing performances.
From a squad of disappointing transfers and aging remnants of the great Barcelona teams of the past, it is hard to see how Barcelona can construct a Champions league-winning side during the last years of Messi’s prime. Nélson Semedo, who Barcelona bought for $39.2 million in 2017, is not as good as Dani Alves was. A 33-year-old Gerard Piqué and a 32-year-old Sergio Busquets are not 28-year old Piqué and Busquets. Antoine Griezmann has not fit in with Messi and Luis Suárez as notable player Neymar seamlessly did.
“Barcelona right now is basically a team centered around Messi,” CAS junior Nikki Lee, whose passion for Barcelona has worn off since the days of Andrés Iniesta, Xavi and Carles Puyol, said. “When a lot of people look at Barça now, they look at a team that’s just kind of like petering towards nothing.”
In expressing his desire to leave, Messi showed an understanding of people’s pessimistic outlook on Barcelona. Although he has since withdrawn his request, he openly lambasted the club’s lack of vision in an exclusive interview where he also revealed that he is staying because the board will not honor his wish to play elsewhere.
“I believed that the club needed more young players, new players and I thought my time in Barcelona was over,” Messi told Goal. “The truth is that there has been no project or anything for a long time, they juggle and cover holes as things go by.”
So, with a disillusioned leader and a languishing supporting cast, how can Barcelona improve? Perhaps there will not be a single loss as bad as the 8-2 thrashing by Bayern, but there is no sign that Barcelona can reach the standard of excellence they have previously set for themselves. Messi ending his career at Barcelona with a Champions League trophy would provide a fairytale ending, but it seems more likely that Messi will be just good enough to bring Barcelona in eyesight of major silverware before another dispiriting loss ends their trophy chase.
However, in spite of everything, Barcelona still has Messi. If there is one player who could dribble his team to winning the Champions League, it would be him. In a knockout tournament like the Champions League, a couple brilliant moments could swing the fixture, and no player is capable of generating those moments like Messi. Even when they are the underdogs, predictions of Barça’s loss will always come with the caveat that they have the best player on the pitch. As Rambarran points out, that alone offers Barcelona fans optimism.
“Messi said he wanted to explore new challenges, and this is a challenge Barcelona has never seen before,” Rambarran said. “When people underrate Messi, he always finds a way to remind people why he’s the greatest player of his generation.”
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Sept. 7 e-print edition. Email Kevin Ryu at [email protected]