The fans had been gathering in a side street off the busy Avenida Fontes Pereira de Melo since lunchtime on Friday. Two coaches were parked outside the Sheraton Hotel, one for the executives and one for the players.
‘Barca, Barca, Barca,’ was written in big letters on the side. Above, there was another phrase in Catalan: ‘Tenim un nom, el sap tothom’. It is part of the Barcelona club song. ‘We have a name that everyone knows.’
They stood there for hours in Lisbon’s dry heat, leaning against the barriers that had been erected. Now and again, they would chant the name of Lionel Messi because it was him they had come to see. Occasionally, there were squeals and roars of anticipation because someone thought they had seen him. But they had not. There was no sign of the players. Messi was hidden away in the sanctuary of a room on the executive floor.
Occasionally, there were squeals and roars of anticipation because someone thought they had seen him. But they had not. There was no sign of the players. Messi was hidden away in the sanctuary of a room on the executive floor.
When he finally emerged into the daylight just after 6pm, the police fanned out to contain the crowd.
Messi came out through an inconspicuous side door, his head bowed as usual and climbed straight on to the coach. The crowd chanted his name in that rhythmic way they have chanted it a million times at the Nou Camp, as if his name will live on and on. ‘Messi, Messi, Messi, Messi, Messi.’ And then the buses were gone, heading for the Estadio da Luz and the grisly fate that awaited.
They returned a few minutes after 11pm and this time the crowd was thinner. This time, the mood was different. This time, they had come to jeer and to spread their disillusion after their team’s 8-2 demolition by Bayern Munich. As the players got off the bus, there were catcalls and low boos. Messi was one of the last to emerge. There were more catcalls. He put his head down again and went back into the hotel through the same side door.
A lot had happened in those five hours. Barcelona’s defeat carried the same magnitude as Brazil’s 7-1 loss to Germany in Belo Horizonte at the 2014 World Cup.
It was more than a defeat. It was a waking from a dream. It was the defrocking of an ideal. For so long, the Barcelona of Messi have stood for something beautiful and magical but that time is at an end.
The Barcelona of Messi have been the darlings of football romantics everywhere. They have symbolised something ethereal and untouchable. They have made the achievements of others seem vulgar in comparison. But that, too, is at an end. Many will tell you that this has been coming for some time but there was a brutal finality to what happened in the Estadio da Luz from which there can be no escape.
Barcelona have spent nearly £900million on new players in the five years since they last won the Champions League in 2015 but their recruitment has been spectacularly poor. The club has been undermined by a failure of leadership from its president Josep Maria Bartomeu, by a culture of complacency that can overtake successful teams, which allow themselves to think their dominance is never going to end, and by ceding too much power to senior players in the dressing room, including Messi.
The question of what Messi does now will be football’s new obsession. For most of the 21st Century, the identity of Barcelona has been inextricably linked to their Argentine superstar. He is the best player in the world, perhaps the best there has ever been, and for the club, the idea of losing him to a rival is unthinkable. After Friday night’s debacle, though, it is closer to happening than it ever has been.
The truth is that Barcelona does not deserve Messi any more. Messi is a once-in-a-lifetime talent. People take their children to watch him just so their children will be able to tell their children and their grandchildren that they saw him play. A player like that deserves a stage, not to be engulfed by mediocrity.
Messi still produces miracles — his goal against Napoli last weekend was the latest — with a regularity we have no right to expect but even he cannot rescue this Barcelona.
Messi is 33 and even a genius runs out of time in his career sooner or later. It is obvious to everyone now that Barcelona needs to be rebuilt but the club is beset by financial problems and its reconstruction will not be quick or easy.
Messi used to have a stellar supporting cast at the Nou Camp but, more and more, Barcelona look like a one-man team. It is all down to Messi. It is he who carries the burden.
‘Does he want to spend his time left in that shirt, given the performances and the way the squad is looking at the moment in comparison to other teams around Europe?’ former England defender Rio Ferdinand asked after the game.
‘Has he got the time to sit there and wait? Football is a game that comes and goes very quickly in your life so these next two years where he’s still going to have the power to influence games the way he does, is he going to want to be doing that but not competing for the big titles?’
And when it goes wrong, Messi gets the blame. On Friday night, social media was ablaze with criticism. Messi had stopped trying, some said. Messi was too selfish, some said. Messi was the worst player on the pitch, some said. Messi is the problem, some said. And, inevitably, the Ronaldo fans were out in force. Barcelona’s humiliation was more evidence their hero was the GOAT, they said. Messi was overrated, they said.
If Barcelona appoint a coach of the calibre of Mauricio Pochettino, maybe things will change. There is talk, too, of an old boys’ reunion with Xavi taking over as coach and Carles Puyol as part of his management team. Sooner or later, Bartomeu will be unseated. But if Barcelona cannot put things right, if their decline and their decay continues, I hope Messi leaves.
And I hope he comes to the Premier League. The natural destination for him here would be Manchester City and a reunion with Pep Guardiola, who masterminded the early triumphs of Messi’s career. City would give him the stage he deserves and what a privilege that would be for English fans to see one of the greatest players this game has ever produced playing at our grounds, giving a new generation of kids the chance to say they saw him play.
The Barcelona team left the Sheraton in Lisbon for the airport at 10am on Saturday. They still have a name that everyone knows but the name no longer has quite the same ring to it. This time, there were more camera crews than fans. As Messi walked to the bus, a fan threw a Barcelona scarf in his direction and it flew in a high arc through the air. Messi saw it as it landed at his feet and paused for a moment. Then he walked on.
nIt was interesting how much criticism Ed Woodward and Manchester United received for baulking at stumping up more than £100million to buy Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund. A few months ago, we were hoping football would learn lessons from the effects of the pandemic and curb its levels of spending. What happened to that?
Rory McIlroy was teasing when he responded to a question about why he had not won one of golf’s Majors for six years by saying: ‘I don’t know. Maybe I’m just not as good as I used to be.’
McIlroy is as good as he used to be. The world rankings tell you that. Knowing that he is still the most naturally talented golfer on the tour tells you that, too.
He needs his best form and one of the big four tournaments to align and he will end the drought. He has won four Majors already. My bet is he makes it five at the US Masters in November.
It was interesting how much criticism Ed Woodward and Manchester United received for baulking at stumping up more than £100million to buy Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund.
A few months ago, we were hoping football would learn lessons from the effects of the pandemic and curb its levels of spending. What happened to that?
Sooner or later, someone will be right and Jimmy Anderson or Stuart Broad will reach the end of his career.
In the meantime, predictions of their imminent demise are becoming almost as amusing as they are tiresome. Broad was told by many that his international career was over when he was dropped for the opening Test against the West Indies.
He responded with 16 wickets in the next two matches.
Anderson had one bad game against Pakistan and was told, yet again, he had reached the end of the line. What happened? Anderson kept his place for the second Test and recorded the best figures of any of England’s bowlers on the first day.
Maybe we should just enjoy them both while we can rather than trying to hurry them off into the sunset.