Lionel Messi will end his 20-year career with Barcelona after the Argentine superstar failed to reach an agreement on a new deal with the club, a decision certain to spark a high-stakes scramble for the signature of a player widely regarded as one of the greatest of all time.
“Although an agreement has been reached between FC Barcelona and Leo Messi it cannot be formalised due to economic and structural obstacles,” said a statement from the club.
“Faced with this situation, Lionel Messi will not remain linked to Barcelona. Both sides deeply regret that the wishes of both the player and the club cannot come true.”
Six-time Ballon d’Or winner Messi, 34, last month finally landed a major international trophy with Argentina when they beat rivals Brazil to win the Copa America.
But there had been doubts over his continuation at Barcelona ever since he tried to leave last August as a free agent, citing a clause in his contract and saying the club had had “no project or anything for a long time”.
Messi, Barca’s all-time top scorer and appearance maker, ultimately agreed to see out the final year as the club threatened to go to court.
The player, who signed his first contract with Barcelona in 2000 on a napkin when he was just 13, has been a free agent since June 30 when his old agreement expired after Messi had played 788 games for the club.
Last season was a comparative disappointment as the club could only land the Spanish Cup and exited in the last 16 of the Champions League, which they last won back in 2015.
There had been speculation that Messi would sign on for two years and then potentially head to Major League Soccer, although a friend and former Barca teammate Neymar has said he would love to team up with him again at Paris Saint Germain.
– Huge debts –
Barcelona is labouring under debts of several hundred million euros and has been under pressure to reduce their wage bill.
The club recently sold left-back Junior Firpo to Leeds United and US international Konrad de la Fuente to Marseille.
La Liga in 2013 introduced so-called financial “fair play” regulations setting a maximum amount of money each club can spend on its playing squad and coaching staff each season, conditioned by their income.
At the same time, Barcelona has recruited new players which were expected to please Messi, such as Sergio Aguero who joined the Catalan side from Manchester City as a free agent on a two-year deal.
Spanish media made much earlier this year of the reported 555 million euros paid Messi over four seasons from November 2017 to the end of last month.
National daily El Mundo splashed in January on what it termed “Messi’s pharaonic contract which is ruining Barca” — that sum including image rights and a series of performance-related bonuses with the player reportedly earning a net 297 million euros.
Messi had been tight-lipped about his plans.
He granted just two interviews over the past year — one in December and the other at the end of the season — and both times he said: “nothing has been decided”.
But Joan Laporta had made keeping Messi on the team a priority ever since he was re-elected as Barcelona president in March.
“Leo loves Barca and knows that we are a big family. Hopefully, that can help us encourage him to stay,” he said at the time.
The last president Josep Maria Bartomeu was forced to resign in October after the club’s members succeeded in achieving a vote of no confidence against him following Messi’s attempt to leave.