In a widely-publicized interview on RAC1 radio, for which some sports sites in Spain gave minute-by-minute updates, the usually-secretive Barcelona star Lionel Messi opened up on a number of subjects.
Asked on his future, the Argentine, who has now lived in Catalonia longer than his South American homeland, revealed that he intends to see out his playing days at the club who picked him up as a teenager. ‘I am becoming more and more clear that I want to retire here,’ Messi explained. ‘Especially for how I feel about the club. Then, as a family, [for] how happy we are here. For not changing my children’s friendships, I don’t want to break those. I had to live through that [when he left Argentina] and I don’t want them to go through the same thing. We believe that we can stay here for the rest of our lives, to continue living here once I’ve retired,’ he confirmed.
Yet in the same interview, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner shocked listeners and those that were fed excerpts later in admitting that he came close to quitting the La Liga champions after problems with the Spanish authorities.
‘In 2013-14 when I had a problem with the hacienda, it was a very difficult time for me,’ Messi explained. ‘It was hard. Fortunately, my children were small and did not know anything. I had the mind to leave. Not to leave Barça, but to leave Spain. I felt mistreated and didn’t want to stay here anymore.’
Over a period when he also suffered a string of injuries and lost the World Cup final to Germany in Brazil, Messi and his father were accused of fraud totalling more than $4.4mn from 2006 to 2009. Looking at two to six years in prison, the pair ended up with prison sentences of 21 months and 15 months respectively, but did not face actual jail time as anything less than two years for first time offenders seldom does in Spain.
Additionally, they were slapped with fines of $2.2mn and $1.6mn by the Spanish treasury, with the whole debacle now shown to have come close to changing the course of soccer history.
‘They were going after athletes,’ Messi explained of the period, which also saw compatriot Javier Mascherano, a former Barcelona legend, and fellow La Masia graduate Gerard Pique and his Colombian pop star wife Shakira hauled in court to explain their fiscal activities.
All concerned were forced to hand over multimillion dollar sums to balance the books and such was the fury of Pique, a staunch Catalan who is tipped to run for club president one day, that the centre-back accused state prosecutors of being Real Madrid fans.
‘I don’t like the values Real Madrid transmit, although there are players there I really appreciate with and am friends with,’ said Pique in 2017. ‘What I don’t like about Real Madrid is how those in the box seats pull the strings. I don’t like what they transmit, as a club, what do you want me to tell you?” he asked rhetorically.
In response, the then-head of the state’s criminal law department, told Pique, who quit the Spanish national team prematurely after feeling unwelcomed by fans, to ‘stop creating conspiracies’. ‘I’ve never been to the directors’ box at the Bernabeu.’ El Confidenial was told by Bal.
‘Marta Silva de Lapuerta was Secretary of the Board of Directors for Real Madrid and therefore sits in a box when she goes to see them, where she will obviously support the team,’ Bal went on. ‘ Until recently, she was the Attorney General of the State and as the Head of Criminal Law for the State, I would meet with her quarterly. Among the cases discussed were that of Messi and Neymar.’
Transcending the Clasico rivalry between two footballing giants as a backdrop to the Catalan separation debate, the prosecution of Neymar, who like Messi also has his affairs handled by his father, is widely-believed to have been a prominent factor in his decision to join PSG for a world-record $243mn fee.
Left-weakened by the move and staging a failed attempt to lure back the Brazilian this summer, poor performances at the beginning of the season due to his absence have also shown what a Messi-less Barcelona could have looked like. Together, the pair were instrumental in the side’s last Champions League win in 2015 before Real Madrid went to win the competition three times consecutively from 2016 to 2018.
Had Messi decided to leave half a decade ago, it goes without saying that the Blaugrana’s trophy cabinet would have been far less decorated.