Lionel Messi's career at Barcelona as he contemplates leaving – ESPN

This summer, the unthinkable is happening: Lionel Messi is leaving Barcelona. It’s the only club he’s ever known as a professional, a place where he’s won every trophy imaginable. But the relationship between Messi and Barcelona soured and last summer, he tried (and failed) to get out. This year, his contract expired on June 30 and despite every indication he would sign a new deal, financial constraints have forced Barcelona to abandon ship. Now that his move to Paris Saint-Germain has been confirmed, as we look back at his brilliant career for the Blaugrana.
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Every superhero has an origin story. For Messi, it was clear at a young age that he had the talent; scouts in Argentina spotted him and sent word to Europe that this kid was something special.
“In Barcelona, on Dec. 14, 2000, in the presence of [Josep Maria] Minguella and Horacio [Gaggioli], Carles Rexach, FC Barcelona’s sporting director, hereby agrees, under his responsibility and regardless of any dissenting opinions, to sign the player Lionel Messi provided that we keep to the amounts agreed upon.”
The above words, scribbled on a napkin following a game of tennis in Barcelona, were hastily written to assure Messi’s father, Jorge, that the club was committed to signing his 13-year-old son. The game would never be the same.
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Barca director Joan Lacueva reportedly paid €1,000 for the initial phases of hormone treatment for Messi’s growth deficiency, which he was unable to get from any clubs in Argentina. Barca picked up the cost of the treatment once he officially joined the club.
It may not be as epic as that napkin, but Messi’s first professional contract, signed aged 16 on Feb. 4, 2004 — nine months before his official first team debut — was an important step, too. Barca were in the middle of a six-year trophy drought, but good times were around the corner.
Messi played just nine minutes as a substitute in the Catalan derby vs. Espanyol on Oct. 16, 2004, but his talent was evident. Said longtime friend, Maxi Rodriguez: “I was amazed by his skill and natural ability. He stared down his opponent so naturally and that really caught our attention given his age. Messi was never afraid to face his opponent. What stood out about Messi then is what stands out now: He makes everything look easy.”
“Once they said they can only stop me with a pistol. Today you need a machine gun to stop Messi.”
At 17, Messi became the youngest player to ever score for Barcelona in the league (he’s since been overtaken) when he netted the second goal in a 2-0 win over Albacete on May 1, 2005. In the 87th minute, coach Frank Rijkaard brought Messi off the bench for his ninth appearance. A minute later, he’d scored, chipping past the goalkeeper. It was ruled out for offside (though it wasn’t) so moments later, Messi did it again, with an even better chipped finish. Barca won the league two weeks later, their first league crown since 1998-99.
Fully integrated into the first-team, Barca knew they had an all-world talent in their squad. Therefore they moved quickly, offering him a new contract in June 2005, that would keep him at the club until 2010. The deal included an eye-catching release clause, meaning anyone looking to sign the 18-year-old would need to break soccer’s world-record transfer fee in order to do it.
It’s impossible to imagine now, but Messi came close to joining cross-city rivals Espanyol — who had just finished fifth in La Liga — on loan in the summer of 2005. Those plans were shelved after his stunning performance against Juventus in the Gamper Trophy: Messi caused havoc that night, creating a goal for Andres Iniesta. Juve coach Fabio Capello was so impressed that he didn’t even wait for the final whistle to ask if the Italians could take him on loan. “In my entire life I’ve never seen a player of such quality and personality at such a young age,” Capello said later.
Less than three months passed before Barca felt the need to hand Messi another extraordinary new contract in September 2005. This extension would run until 2014, with reports in the Spanish media suggesting he doubled his salary, too.
“I have seen the player who will inherit my place in Argentine football and his name is Messi. Messi is a genius.”
Diego Maradona
Joan Laporta, who was club president from 2003 to 2010 and was elected again this year, claimed in 2020 that Barca turned down a world record $467m (€250m) bid from Inter Milan in 2006. “They were prepared to pay… but I always felt reassured by my relationship with his dad, Jorge. I told him: ‘They’ll have to pay the clause because I won’t sell. He’ll be happy here, he’ll get glory. There, he’ll only win financially. Your son’s destined to be the greatest in history and here he’ll have a team to help get there. He’ll enjoy it.'”
“Messi does not need his right foot. He only uses the left and he’s still the best in the world. Imagine if he also used his right foot, Then we would have serious problems.”
The superstar signs a new deal in March, his fourth in three years, and it’s reportedly worth $132,000 (€100,000) a week in wages. Messi wouldn’t turn 20 for another two months.
If anyone still needed definitive proof that Messi was special, it arrived in the Clasico at the end of the 2006-07 season as Barca and Real Madrid tussled for the title. Madrid led three times at Camp Nou; three times Messi levelled the score. The final goal, which completed his hat trick and the first in a Clasico in 12 years, came in the final minute of a frenzied encounter.
The little genius wasn’t above shenanigans. He scored with a blatant, but artful, punch against local rivals Espanyol — a move reminiscent of another Argentina legend, Diego Maradona, who did the same thing against England at the 1986 World Cup. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
A cup tie against Getafe doesn’t exactly scream “career high,” but for many, this was Messi’s masterpiece — his true Maradona moment. It was a goal that, in terms of sheer individual brilliance, he has never quite been able to match. Barca were up 1-0 in this first leg of a Copa del Rey semifinal at Camp Nou when Messi picked up the ball inside his own half. What happened next drew understandable comparisons with El Diego: a run that started with two nutmegs and ended with a right-footed finish after rounding the goalkeeper.
In every origin story, there’s a moment when the superhero is called to action. With Barcelona in transition, getting rid of established players like Ronaldinho, Deco and Gianluca Zambrotta — and announcing some guy named Pep Guardiola as their new manager — the stage was set for Messi. And Messi answered the call.
The No. 10 is iconic in soccer: think Maradona or Pele. Messi would claim the No. 10 shirt from 2005 Ballon d’Or winner Ronaldinho before the 2008-09 season as the Brazilian star joined AC Milan. Messi also signed another new contract, this time reportedly making him the club’s highest-paid player.
There was something almost comical about the most important goal of Messi’s career to date — his first in a Champions League final — being a header. The 5-foot-7 forward isn’t known for his aerial prowess (less than 5% of his 700-plus career goals have been headed) but when Xavi spotted him lurking in space behind Rio Ferdinand, he rose high to nod deftly past keeper Edwin van der Sar, clinching the Treble for Barcelona.
In September 2009, Barcelona moved to further extend Messi’s contract with a seven-year extension (his sixth new contract since 2004) to keep him at the club through 2016. The reported release clause was second-highest to Ronaldo, while the media in Spain reported his salary increased to $15.3m (€10.5m) per year. Said Guardiola, “It’s a privilege for Barca.”
“Don’t write about him, don’t try to describe him, just watch him.”
Pep Guardiola
The year 2009 was the best in Barcelona’s history — and arguably the best for any club, ever — as Guardiola’s team won an unprecedented six trophies. The FIFA Club World Cup, played in the United Arab Emirates that December, was the last of them, and it was a scrappy goal off Messi’s chest — he told FIFA.com it “might have come off the badge” — that won it. “We are happy at having made history,” said Messi, “but make no mistake, we’ll be out to win everything again next year.”
Barcelona’s 5-0 rout of Real Madrid on Nov. 29, 2010, was the ultimate expression of Guardiola’s team’s superiority that season. Messi didn’t score, but he did just about everything else, including being kicked late on by a furious Sergio Ramos (himself no stranger to the “dark arts”) to spark a mass brawl. The incident was typical of a rivalry between the two sides that became, for a time, genuinely toxic.
“Messi is the god of football. When Messi has the ball, one-on-one, you’re dead.”
Messi’s coronation as a superstar was confirmed with back-to-back Ballons d’Or, the prize given to the best player in the world. He became the sixth player ever to do it back-to-back, and followed that by becoming the second men’s player to win three in a row after Michel Platini (1983-85).
Messi would become a force in the Champions League, winning four of them with Barcelona, but his dominance was evident in the 2011 round of 16, second leg. With English side Arsenal winning 2-1 from the first leg, Messi took over, scoring twice — including an impudent “self-assist” flick over the goalkeeper to himself — to put his side into the final four.
A 5-0 win over Mallorca in 2011 might not be one of Messi’s most memorable games, but you’ll recognize how he celebrated his first goal of three on the night. After scoring from the penalty spot, he turned to the cameras and gave a wink and finger wag, which has become a GIF, meme and calling card all in one.
For the second time in three years under Guardiola, Barcelona beat Manchester United in the Champions League final. Ten minutes into the second half, Messi surged into space and gave his side a lead they wouldn’t surrender. His celebration was wilder than usual, kicking a pitchside mic and the advertising hoarding as he sprinted to celebrate in front of the Barca fans. The win and team performance on May 28, 2011 lent weight to the argument that this Barca side was one of the best ever.
Messi collected his third Ballon d’Or in three seasons in 2011, claiming nearly 50% of the overall vote. (His nemesis, Cristiano Ronaldo, was second that year with 21% and Messi’s teammate Xavi finished third.)
Messi holds a lot of records, but on March 7, 2012, he became the first player to score five Champions League goals in one match as Barcelona thumped German side Bayer Leverkusen 7-1. Not everyone was impressed, though: Brazil legend Pele famously quipped “when Messi’s scored 1,283 goals like me… when he’s won three World Cups, we’ll talk about it.”
Messi’s scoring accelerated at such a rate that he overtook Cesar Rodriguez — whose 232-goal record had stood since the 1950s — as Barcelona’s top scorer on March 21, 2012. Not bad for a 24-year-old. Messi’s strike rate peaked that year, too: He tallied an unprecedented 50 league goals (38 games) that season. (Only 12 players have ever scored more than 50 goals in a single season, though Messi did it that year in the league only, scoring 73 in all competitions.) Said Guardiola, “We are witnessing the best player in every sense. I’m sorry for those that want to sit on his throne, but this lad is the best.”
Messi ends the calendar year nine goals short of a century, notching 79 for Barca — 59 in La Liga, 13 in the Champions League, five in the Copa del Rey and two in the Spanish Supercopa — and 12 with Argentina. There is some dispute as to whether or not this is a record (there’s no official record in this category), but it’s impressive all the same.
Messi wins his fourth Ballon d’Or in 2012 — and fourth in a row! — with 41% of the overall vote, beating his nemesis Ronaldo into second place again.
“For the world of football, Messi is a treasure because he is a role model for children around the world… Messi will be the player to win the most Ballons d’Or in history. He will win five, six, seven. He is incomparable. He’s in a different league.”
The early 2010s saw Spain’s tax authorities go after several La Liga stars, alleging fraud over unpaid taxes on their image rights. In June 2013, Messi and father Jorge were accused of defrauding the state of over $6.4m (€4m) by using tax havens in Belize and Uruguay (along with, reportedly, Switzerland and Great Britain) to conceal those earnings from 2006 to 2009. Months later, Messi made a voluntary payment of $8m (€5m, or the money owed plus interest), but would face trial nonetheless.
In December 2013, Messi appeared in a Turkish Airlines ad with Kobe Bryant titled “Kobe vs. Messi: The Selfie Shootout.” According to YouTube, it generated 25m views in its first three days. In 2015, it is named “Ad of the Decade” after a vote held by YouTube and The Webby Awards.
In May 2014, PSG, Chelsea, Man City and even Real Madrid were all credited with an interest in Messi after a difficult season. Messi was also reportedly annoyed at how the campaign had gone under Tata Martino. Barca won nothing except the Spanish Super Cup — losing the league on the final day of the season at home to Atletico Madrid, who also knocked them out of the Champions League — and he felt the supporters were blaming him for the team’s shortcomings. Despite that, he did eventually sign a “revised” deal, with reports in Spain claiming his salary increased from $17.75m (€13m) net to around $27m (€20m) net.
Messi (among others) is named as a substitute by manager Luis Enrique — though it was always framed as a “rest” after Christmas — as Barca lose 1-0 to Real Sociedad in La Liga on Jan. 4, 2015, sparking a fresh round of questions about Messi’s future.
Just over six months since the last fuss over Messi’s future, questions arose again. After that “benching,” he missed an open training session. When he began to follow Chelsea players on Instagram, rumors of a move to the London club went into overdrive. It was suggested his relationship with Luis Enrique was at a breaking point. However, with the help of Xavi, the coach and Messi reconciled. Messi appeared on Barca TV to deny rumours of a Chelsea move, branding the links as “lies” and telling the media to “stop throwing s—.”
In the season after losing the World Cup final to Germany, Messi got a small measure of revenge vs. Bayern Munich, humiliating two of Germany’s players from that tournament en route to his third Champions League title. First he turned Jerome Boateng (one of the world’s top centre-backs at the time) into a meme by making the defender fall over his own feet, before arcing a chipped finish over the helpless Manuel Neuer in goal.
Another cup final, another hall of fame goal — this time against Athletic Bilbao in 2015’s Copa del Rey. Barcelona had won La Liga and were on their way to completing yet another Treble when they dismantled Athletic, coached by future Barca manager Ernesto Valverde, 3-1. Messi’s 20th-minute opener was the highlight: He picked up the ball just inside the Athletic half on the right and toyed with three defenders before cutting inside and finishing at the near post.
After two years of finishing runner-up in the Ballon d’Or voting to Ronaldo, Messi claimed his fifth crown in 2015. The coach with whom he’d been feuding, Luis Enrique, won Manager of the Year.
Setbacks can happen. The magic fades, the hero wanes, the supporting cast stumbles, or falters. For Messi and Barcelona, some notable humiliations started to show their (and his) vulnerabilities as other superteams (Manchester City, PSG) emerged as rivals.
Having won the Treble the previous season, Messi firmly states he wants to finish his career at Camp Nou. “I’ve always said that I can’t leave Barcelona. It’s always my response. I want to finish my career at home and my home is Barcelona. Football changes so much. A year ago, we were all getting criticised and we ended up winning nearly everything. My intention is to terminate my career where it started, in Barcelona.”
The Daily Mail claims Manchester United made several attempts to sign Messi.
In 2016, Messi and his father are found guilty of tax evasion. They were sentenced to 21 months in jail — although sentences under two years in these types of crimes are suspended in Spain. A court also ordered Messi to pay a fine of around $2.2m (€2m), while his father was dealt a $1.65m (€1.5m) fine. A year later, in June 2017, prosecutors said they were happy for Messi’s punishment to be replaced with a fine of around $450 (€400) per day — roughly $285,000 (€255,500) in total — for the duration of the sentence.
Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu tells ESPN in September 2016 that Messi has a “contract for life” as the club begins to prepare an extension to his deal expiring in 2018.
Guardiola, now at Man City, and City CEO Ferran Soriano dismiss stories in Mundo Deportivo that City tried to sign Messi in the summer, saying they would never contact him. However, both are also keen to point out that if he ever decided to leave Barca, they’d be waiting at the front of the queue.
“It is clear that Messi is on a level above all others. Those who do not see that are blind.”
Xavi
Messi’s 500th Barcelona goal couldn’t have been timed any better, a 92nd-minute winner to deliver a 3-2 Clasico win over Real Madrid. The stage was perfect, too, a packed Bernabeu bearing witness to Messi’s brilliance once again as well as to what followed. It was perhaps *the* iconic Messi celebration, and a rare display of in-your-face bravado from a guy not known for expressing himself in that way: Messi took off his shirt and held it up to the Real Madrid fans, name and number facing them, as if to say: “I’m still here.” Yet Madrid went on to win the league…
Barca complete an amazing ‘Remontada’ (‘comeback’) over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League. Neymar was the star on the night, scoring twice in the final three minutes and providing the crucial cross for the winning goal, but Messi was just as instrumental as the Spanish giants rallied from a 4-0 first-leg defeat in Paris to win 6-1 on aggregate and advance to the quarterfinals.
With 12 months left on his contract, Barca announced in July that Messi had agreed another new deal — his ninth extension in 12 years — with a release clause of $345m (€300m). However, he did not officially sign it until November, four months later.
Messi and Antonela marry in June at a big ceremony in Rosario, Argentina, shortly after Messi turns 30. Barca teammates past and present like Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Luis Suarez, Neymar and Gerard Pique (and his wife, pop star Shakira) were at the event, as well as some of his Argentina teammates including Ezequiel Lavezzi.
In October 2017, plans were revealed for a Messi theme park in China, which was due to open in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic. The park, in Nanjing, is a “homage to Messi and to football” and plans to use robotic attractions and virtual reality to help take fans even closer to the Barca star.
The biggest sign of Barcelona’s powers fading would come in the Champions League; one season after their own comeback vs. PSG, they were on the receiving end as Italian side AS Roma completed a ‘Roman-tada’ of their own. Messi & Co. threw away a 4-1 first-leg lead in the quarterfinals to lose 3-0 in the return fixture and exit the competition on away goals. Messi’s last European crown was in 2014-15; he hasn’t come close since.
The notoriously shy Messi was forced into a more vocal leadership role when he took the Barcelona captaincy from the departing Andres Iniesta. As is customary, the captain addressed the Camp Nou crowd before their Gamper Trophy match with Boca Juniors on Aug. 15, 2018. “Last season was really good… but we all felt bad about how it went in the Champions League,” he said. “We promise that this season we’ll do all we can to bring that beautiful trophy back to Camp Nou.”
Messi had found the net twice at the Benito Villamarin — with Barca 3-1 up against Real Betis in March, 2019 — when he scored the goal that would see him secure his seventh nomination for FIFA’s Puskas Award for goal of the year, receiving the ball from Ivan Rakitic just inside the Betis box and casually lifting it, with his first touch, over goalkeeper Pau Lopez. The fact that Messi has never won the prize is a bizarre quirk of his incredible career.
Messi revealed in 2019 that he considered leaving Barcelona and moving overseas when he was being investigated by the Spanish tax authorities back in 2013. “It was difficult for me and for my family,” said Messi. “During that time, I considered leaving Barca. Not because I wanted to leave Barca, but because I wanted to leave Spain. I felt I was being mistreated and I didn’t want to spend much time there.”
Cirque du Soleil’s new production based on Messi’s career, “Messi10,” begins two-month run in October.
In 2019, Messi won a record sixth Ballon d’Or. Of course, he can’t relax, as Cristiano Ronaldo is right behind him on five. No other men’s player has ever won more than three.
For the second season running, Barca threw away a three-goal, first-leg lead in Europe’s top competition. This time, they were beaten 4-0 by Liverpool at Anfield in the semifinal just days after winning La Liga. The defeat still hurts Barca to this day, the pain magnified a few weeks later when they suffered a surprise defeat to Valencia in the Copa del Rey. A Treble had been snatched from Ernesto Valverde’s side to the point that not even the league title — Messi’s 10th at Barcelona — felt like a consolation.
The ghosts of Rome and Liverpool appeared in Lisbon as Barca were destroyed 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the 2020 Champions League quarterfinal. The result led to the sacking of coach Quique Setien and was the final game for some of Messi’s closest friends in the squad, like Luis Suarez and Arturo Vidal, as the club decided profound changes were needed following years of stagnation.
On Aug. 25, nine days after that shocking 8-2 loss, Messi tells Barca he wants to leave. Messi notified them of his decision via burofax, a form of certified mail used in Spain for official documents. The club responded to Messi via the same service saying they want him to finish his career at the club. The following week, on Sept. 4, Messi makes a dramatic U-turn by announcing he will stay after Barca claimed that he or his next club would have to pay his $833m (€700m) release clause or face legal action if he left. “I always said I wanted to end my career here and I do,” Messi said.
The soccer world celebrated the life and mourned the death of Argentina icon Diego Maradona on Nov. 25, 2020. Messi’s first goal after Maradona’s death came on Dec. 2 in La Liga against Osasuna. The goal itself was insignificant — Barca won 4-0 — but he paid homage by lifting his shirt in the celebration to reveal the kit of Newell’s Old Boys, the Argentine club where both he and Maradona played. La Liga fined him $732 (€600) and the club $220 (€180) for the infraction.
Pedri pass, Messi flick, goal: the flourish against Real Valladolid on Dec. 22, 2020, set the Barcelona legend above the inimitable Pele for the most goals ever for a single club, with 644.
In January 2021, Spanish newspaper El Mundo published a copy of Messi‘s Barcelona contract, claiming the figures confirm the star player’s deal is the biggest in sports history. Including signing on fees, performance bonuses and base salary, Messi stood to earn a maximum of $655m (€555m) over the course of the four-year deal. El Mundo suggested the contract had “ruined” Barca financially, but Barca president Joan Laporta has said Messi’s wages were justified because he generates around a third of the club’s revenue.
His contract expired at the end of June, and Messi faced a seismic decision: renew and remain at Barcelona, or follow through on what he tried to do last summer and leave. Fresh off winning the Copa America with Argentina — his first trophy at the senior international level — it looked as though he was going to sign a new deal… then fate intervened.
After some time off following victory in the Copa America and news earlier in the summer that they’d loosely agreed to a new contract, everyone expected Thursday, Aug. 5 to be a formality. Except… it wasn’t. LaLiga clubs must comply with a spending limit, which includes money spent on salaries and signings. To register Messi’s new contract, Barcelona needed to reduce their wage bill or bring in a significant amount of money in transfers. Neither happened.
“Despite having reached an agreement with Messi and with both parties clearly wanting to sign a new contract, it cannot be finalised due to financial and structural problems [rules relating to the Spanish league]. Given this situation, Messi will not continue his relationship with Barcelona. Both parties lament deeply that the desires of the player and the club cannot be met. Barca would like to wholeheartedly thank the player for his contribution to the growth of the institution and wish him the best in his personal and professional life.”
Since his Barcelona debut in 2004, Messi & Co. have won the following trophies: 10 league titles, seven Copas del Rey, eight Supercopas de Espana, four Champions League crowns, three UEFA Super Cups and three FIFA Club World Cups. Also, his tally of six Ballons d’Or, the prize given to the best player each year, is a record.
Having arrived in the French capital early on Tuesday, Aug. 10, the Ligue 1 club finally announced that Messi was a PSG player late in the afternoon.
“Everything about the club matches my football ambitions. I know how talented the squad and the coaching staff hare here. I am determined to help build something special for the club and the fans.”
Written by Sam Marsden, Alex Kirkland, Graham Hunter, Sid Lowe and James Tyler
Additional research and writing by Tony Mabert and Dan Hajducky
Photography from Getty Images, AP Photo, Offside, Barcelona FC
Illustrations by Alexander Wells

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