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Psst, Lionel Messi Is Only Four Months Away From Becoming a Free Agent

Barcelona have survived countless managerial mishaps over the past few years, and they can even survive losing Neymar. But why haven’t they re-signed the best player in the world?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

With Messi, everything is fine.

It doesn’t matter that his best Barcelona teammate now plays for PSG. It doesn’t matter that Barcelona haven’t been able to reinvest any of that Neymar money. And it doesn’t matter that their roster has six starters who’ve already passed their primes. As long as Lionel Messi is playing, Barcelona can beat anyone.

These are all of Messi’s relevant attacking stats for the past five La Liga seasons, with the rankings in parentheses. No one else has come close to this kind of cross-category dominance in a single season—let alone half of a decade. Messi fills every hole by himself.

Lionel Messi, 2012-17

Season Minutes Shots Key Passes Dribbles Goals Assists
Season Minutes Shots Key Passes Dribbles Goals Assists
2016-17 2,832 179 (1st) 79 (5th) 126 (2nd) 37 (1st) 9 (6th)
2015-16 2,730 158 (2nd) 77 (4th) 117 (2nd) 26 (3rd) 16 (1st)
2014-15 3,375 187 (2nd) 95 (2nd) 174 (1st) 43 (2nd) 18 (1st)
2013-14 2,508 155 (2nd) 73 (6th) 142 (2nd) 27 (2nd) 11 (7th)
2012-13 2,644 163 (2nd) 46 (31st) 122 (1st) 46 (1st) 12 (3rd)

Without Messi, everything falls apart. In 2016-17, Barcelona went 25-5-2 with him, and 3-2-1 while he was gone.

Since Messi first broke into the Barcelona starting 11 back in 2006, he’s been the forest, and any supposed problem was just a tree. But man, deforestation is a real problem, and Messi is just four months away from signing a contract with whatever team he wants.

To call Barcelona’s summer embarrassing is like calling the Gobi Desert a sandbox.

In the past few months, the club has been linked with Héctor Bellerín, Marco Verratti, Theo Hernández, and Dani Ceballos. Two of them then signed for Real Madrid, and the other two remain with their clubs. Verratti’s employer, PSG, then shocked the world and scooped up Neymar for a fee Barcelona never thought would be matched. Barcelona then tried to spend that money on Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho—only to be consistently rebuffed and mocked by the club. They also tried to spend the money on Borussia Dortmund’s Ousmane Dembélé—only for Dortmund to both suspend their star player and refuse to sell him. Without any reinforcements, the team got pummeled by a Cristiano Ronaldo–less Real Madrid, 5-1, across the two legs of the Spanish Super Cup. One of the stars of that game, 21-year-old Marco Asensio, was reportedly ready to move to Barcelona from his hometown club Mallorca for a meager €4.5 million fee back in 2014, but Barca refused to pay all of the money upfront and Real Madrid swooped in.

So far, the only post-Neymar transfer the club has made is a €40 million deal for 29-year-old Paulinho from Guangzhou Evergrande in China. Both Brazilian and Asian pundits have spoken highly of the midfielder’s performances since he washed out at Tottenham, but when compared to something like the €20 million fee Juventus paid to PSG for stalwart midfielder and French international Blaise Matuidi, the cost of the move makes little sense.

However, the signing of Paulinho led to the most important news of the summer. At the Brazilian’s unveiling, vice president Jordi Mestre revealed that Messi still hadn’t signed a new contract with the club—despite the club announcing on its website back in July that Messi would be signing a new deal “in the coming weeks.” Messi’s contract expires at the end of the season.

Earlier this week, Barcelona were on the precipice of adding Nice midfielder Jean Michael Seri, whose age (26) and talent (he’s a do-everything creator) fits the team’s needs, but now reports are suggesting that Barcelona either missed the window on Seri’s €40 million release clause or the club’s coaches decided that they actually didn’t want Seri after all—even though Barcelona, hinting that it was a done deal, supposedly gave Seri permission to say goodbye to the Nice fans after their Champions League game against Napoli on Tuesday. Barcelona also moved for PSG’s Ángel Di María, who is still very good but also very 29 years old, and were then mocked by a group of hackers who broke into the club’s Twitter account on Tuesday night and announced that the club had signed Di María.

To put it a bow on all of it, Barcelona announced on Tuesday that they intended to sue Neymar for the return of the €8.5 million signing bonus he received when he inked his final deal with the club in 2016. This came after Neymar trashed Barcelona’s directors to the press over the weekend: “I spent four beautiful years there and parted happy. But with them [the board], no. For me, they are not the people who should be there, for the direction of Barca. Barca deserve much better."

Oh, and on Tuesday night, Messi, Luis Suárez, Gerard Piqué, and Ivan Rakitic all attended Neymar’s son’s birthday party.

The biggest rival for Barcelona’s players at the moment doesn’t seem to be PSG, and it isn’t even Real Madrid. No, it’s the Barcelona board.

Messi has spoken out about the club’s management in the past, but he’s consistently said that he expects to end his career with the club. Former club president Joan Laporta and former club presidential candidate Agustí Benedito have both suggested that Messi might not sign an extension, but they both have ulterior motives. Benedito is expected to launch a vote of no confidence against current president Josep Maria Bartomeu. With enough support from club members, there would then be a vote to remove Bartomeu, whose current term runs through 2021.

If Messi still hasn’t signed a new deal come January 1, he’ll be free to negotiate a precontract with any club in the world. It would be untraditional—as star players still never hit the open market in soccer—but from a financial standpoint, there’s really no reason for Messi to sign a new deal before then. If he can negotiate with any team in the world—and if those teams don’t have to pay his buyout clause, which is rumored to be €300 million—they can easily offer him a contract that would shatter Neymar’s record deal with PSG. Even if Messi plans to stay at Barcelona, bringing in other bidders would give him even more negotiating leverage beyond “I am the best player in the world and you better do whatever you can to keep me.” Messi leaving the Camp Nou would’ve been unthinkable just a year ago—but after Neymar’s incomparable move to PSG, every possibility feels like it’s in play. Plus, Messi’s issues with the Spanish tax system certainly don’t help Barcelona’s cause.

Under Bartomeu’s guidance, the club has failed to adequately turn over and replenish the squad, but thanks to Messi and a handful of other big names, the team still won the Champions League and two La Liga titles during his tenure as president. When asked about Barcelona’s lack of youth development or impactful acquisitions, he’s often opted to blame the players rather than himself. Yet, Messi has always been his fail-safe.

He can’t get these contract negotiations wrong. But after the past couple of years, why would anyone trust him to get it right?