Messi made no attempt to hide his displeasure with Barcelona, when the club refused to let him leave at the end of last season. The 33-year-old striker called out the club management, calling them a “disaster”, and said he would stay with the club because he’s not one to cause a scene.
But if Messi’s latest red card — his first and only red card with Barcelona in 753 games — is anything to go by, then maybe Messi is causing a scene in his own way.
It’s certainly one way to strike off another ‘first’ in his career, but it’s also a sad indication of how his long tenure at this great club is going to come to a tainted end.
Prior to this, Messi only picked up two red cards for Argentina. The level-headed footballer has kept a fairly squeaky reputation on and off the pitch (he’s no Sergio Ramos, who clocks in at 26 red cards, 3rd on the list of the most red carded players of all time). But Messi is only human.
So, what journey led him to this moment on the pitch — and how many times did Messi keep his zen-like cool when he could have easily lost sight of the bigger prize?
Chapter one: Messi joins his first club at four years old
Born in 1987 in Rosario, Argentina, as one of four children, Messi was nicknamed Leo. Rapidly picking up an interest in sports, he would practice with two older brothers and his cousins Maximiliano and Emanuel Bianucchi — both of whom went on to become professional footballers.
He was only four when he joined Grandoli under the coaching and guidance of his father. You might notice that when Messi scores a goal today, he always looks up and points to the sky. This celebration is rooted in something that happened a long, long time ago; his maternal grandmother, Celia, one of his biggest influences and supporters, died shortly before he turned 11. He has used every goal since then as an opportunity to celebrate her.
Chapter two: Overcoming illness at a young age
At the age of 10, Messi received a medical diagnosis that could have ended his career — a growth hormone disorder (GHD). He had been playing for Newell’s Old Boys, his boyhood club, for about four years at the time (he scored nearly 500 goals for them and would entertain the crowd with ball tricks at half-time). But they ditched him after the diagnosis, unable to pay for $1,000 a month injections.
Chapter three: A contract on tissue paper
Towards the end of 2000, Messi’s family put pressure on a reluctant Barcelona (not used to snagging up young foreigners) to make their decision about signing him. It was the team doctor, Charly Rexach, who signed up Messi on a napkin, for lack of actual paper. Football agent Horacio Gaggioli — Messi’s first agent — is the proud owner of this serviette, which he has framed.
“The Messi family wanted Lionel to try out with a European team. They preferred in whichever city I was living in so that he’d have a contact there. At the time, I was about to go and work for a company in Madrid, and I asked them to hold on so I could sort out my future,” said Gaggioli.
“If I ended up going to the capital [Madrid], we’d have [had[ a try-out with Real Madrid or Atletico. But in the end the Madrid job didn’t happen for me, and I ended up in Barcelona. For that reason, today Messi is at Barcelona.”
Chapter four: “It was hell” at first
Because of a transfer conflict with Newell’s, Messi could only be called up for friendlies in his first year in Spain.
“At first, it was hell for Leo. He really suffered because all he could do was train and play [the] odd friendly. It was really tough,” said Gaggioli. “Leo has the perfect mental approach to football, though, and he knew how to deal with it all.”
Messi had a hard time making friends on the squad. He wasn’t playing enough football to bond with them, and he was quiet by nature, to the point that some of his new teammates thought he was mute.
Chapter five: The could-be move to Arsenal
Arsenal was the first foreign club to ever put in an offer for Messi.
After he completed his growth hormone treatment at the age of 14, he was a key member of the Barcelona Baby Dream Team, their strongest youth side to date. He was their top scorer in his first full season there (2002-03).
Arsenal expressed their interest in a teenaged Messi, and had Messi returned their curiousity, football history would be very different today.
“I think in the end, he was not so keen to move, because it was at a period where Fabregas came, and Fabregas and Messi played together in the same team. We wanted to take Fabregas, Messi and Pique. It worked only for Fabregas,” said former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger in a 2014 biography. “It was down to the fact that, in the end, Messi was comfortable at Barcelona.”
Chapter six: World domination — or at least, Barca domination
Today, because of that napkin and because of Messi’s determination to stay at Barcelona, he has been a hugely loyal player. His entire senior career has been spent at Barcelona. He’s their top scorer, won a club-record 33 trophies with them, and holds a record six Ballon d’Or awards. Messi is also the top scorer in the whole of the La Liga, with 455 goals.
Chapter seven: The struggle to win for Argentina
Messi has had a more tumultuous relationship playing for Argentina.
Though he’s his country’s all time top scorer, he also has never won a World Cup with his country. He helped get Argentina to the final of World Cup 2014, but they lost 1-0 in extra time against Germany.
“Right now, nothing can console me – not the award [Golden Ball] or anything else. Our only goal was to take home the World Cup and enjoy our victory with everyone in Argentina. We deserved a bit more after the game we played, and it was very painful to lose that way,” he said.
Messi has been sent off twice in his international career — once during his national debut in 2005, and again during the 2019 Copa America.
Chapter eight: A tainted end for “disaster” Barcelona
Now after 16 years, Messi is approaching the end of his time with Barcelona, but he’s not leaving on good terms. The red card could be yet another sign of Messi’s frustration over being placed on a pedestal.
“I am tired of always being the problem with everything that goes on at this club,” he revelaed in November, when he was accused of exercising too much control at Barcelona.
This was a couple of months after he called the club’s management and president Josep Maria Bartomeu a “disaster”. He maintained that he would not take legal action despite being unhappy.
“The president told me that the only way to leave was to pay the $823 million release clause, and that this is impossible,” said Messi, who was ready to part ways with the club.
Chapter nine: A glimmer for Argentina in Qatar 2022
Though Messi has yet to cinch a World Cup title for Argentina, and could be edging on too old to play in 2022 in Qatar, his fellow players believe that Messi will indeed be up to the task next year. If that’s the case, Messi could very well still manage a World Cup title before he retires from international football.
“I see Leo playing until he wants to. On a physical level, he is fast, strong, he is a competitive beast, physically an animal,” said former teammate Xavi to Marca. “I have no doubt that he will play in Qatar 2022.”
Chapter ten: A career billionaire in the making
Despite the fact that Messi is frustrated with being kept at Barcelona against his wishes, there’s a massive silver lining for the costly striker.
According to Forbes’ estimations, he could become the forth athlete to earn more than $1 billion in career earnings after his final season with Barcelona.