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Lionel Messi’s Relationship With Barcelona Is Broken. Where Will He Go Next?

The six-time world player of the year announced he wants to leave the club he’s played for since he was 13. Rather than revel in the sadness and despair of it all, let’s imagine what might come next.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Lionel Messi wants out at Barcelona. I don’t know about you, but I refuse to feel sad about this. Sure, you could argue that the gradual disintegration of the relationship between the world’s best soccer player and the club he’s played for since childhood is an emblem of the impermanence of beauty and the all-conquering march of time. Yes, you could make the case that the ugly public breakdown of trust between a soccer player so preternaturally gifted he could make you see stars and the team that nurtured him, fostered his talent, and thereby became the defining club of soccer’s last 15 years is a sign that nothing lasts and that everything you love will eventually lose 8-2 to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. You could—if you wanted to!—see this news less as a pretext for some light transfer gossip than as a moment to mourn the end of an era while feeling the dark, chill waters slowly rising around your head.

You know the thing about life, though? You can’t look back. What’s done is done, the next thing is always coming, and the best way to get by in this world is to keep your head up and your gaze fixed on the future. There’s a lot of contractual hand-wringing ahead involving transfer clauses and the GDPs of various small countries, but Lionel Messi is going to play somewhere next season. We can either sit around grieving over the futility of all human endeavor or put our grown-up hats on and try to figure out where he ought to go next. Here, without further ado, are the top possibilities, ranked according to how likely they are, how much fun they would be, and other scientific criteria to which I’ll assign numbers to make it seem as though life has meaning!

No, I’m not crying. Don’t be ridiculous. It’s just … it’s just very bright in here, plus several … um … gnats flew into my eyes. The other thing about life is that there are a lot of gnats.

1. Manchester City

The obvious choice and seemingly overwhelming favorite. Boasts Messi’s beloved former Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola, with whom he’s reportedly been talking on the phone since the Bayern humiliation. Also boasts Champions League soccer next season after winning its Financial Fair Play case at the Court of Arbitration Sports. Also boasts owners rich enough to pay Messi’s astronomical wages, hire some very friendly English lawyers named Joan and Ken to make sure Messi pays the taxes on his astronomical wages, and shower gold and jewels onto Messi 24/7 from the platoon of helicopters they could easily afford to keep circling over Messi’s house.

All in all, then, the likeliest option. Talks between City and Barcelona are reportedly underway as we speak. If you’re into betting, this would be the safe pick to bring to your bookie while staring blankly at the ground, remembering 2011, and wondering why it is that everything good must eventually dissolve and die in this life we hold for but an hour.

Plausibility Ranking (1 is most plausible, 5 is least plausible): 1. Offers Messi everything he apparently wants and can afford him, assuming Joan and Ken can goose the Financial Fair Play numbers into something resembling compliance (they’re really good at spreadsheets).

Fun Ranking (1 is most fun, infinity is the least fun because there is no limit to how bad things can feel): 3. Leo and Pep reunited, Messi versus Premier League opposition … what’s not to like? I mean other than the reminder of the power of fate to remake all of existence with one beat of its dark angel’s wings.

Number of Gnats That Flew Into My Eyes As I Typed This: Only 2, but one of them recited all of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay” in a tiny little gnat helium-balloon voice from my eyeball.

2. Paris St.-Germain

Another stupefyingly rich club that can offer Messi a legitimate shot at adding more Champions League trophies. Has Neymar, and while many people would willingly pay Messi’s €700 million transfer-clause fee to avoid spending time with Neymar, in this case Neymar’s presence is a good thing: It was Barcelona’s allowing the Brazilian forward to leave for PSG in 2017 that reportedly started Messi on the path toward disillusion in Catalonia. Unrelatedly, Disillusion in Catalonia would be a good title for a collection of essays about how it feels when you invest your love and hope in something marvelous, only to watch it die.

Plausibility Ranking: 2. Even more than Manchester City, PSG has become the embodiment of the new breed of cash-splashing nouveau riche superclubs, and it just sort of feels like that’s where this thing ends up, no?

Fun Ranking: 2. Messi, Neymar, and Kylian Mbappé on the same forward line? I would watch that, if these clouds of insects would only let me!

Number of Gnats That Flew Into My Eyes As I Typed This: 37.

3. Juventus

Absolutely no way it will happen. More than a long shot: an actually offensive possibility to entertain, even as a thought exercise. Still, this is almost certainly the last chance we will ever have to put Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo on the same team, unless that team is in Florida and the chance comes in 2030. Let’s take 10 seconds to revel in the sheer spectacle of it—the globe-warping media circus, the tabloid headlines about their nights out, the Watch the Throne cuts loaded over highlight clips, the inevitable operatic falling-out after a 2-1 loss to Sampdoria—before the thought of Xavi and Iniesta ruffling the young Messi’s hair comes back to us and we have to kind of just not think about anything at all for a few minutes.

Plausibility Ranking: 5. Messi is not going to play for Juventus. Or maybe he will, and it will be amazing, and then that will end, too.

Fun Ranking: 1? 2,783,913? An imaginary number? A GIF of the Kool-Aid Man smashing through a wall, only there’s no floor there and he falls 78 stories into a crocodile pit?

Number of Gnats That Flew Into My Eyes As I Typed This: 0. The gnats were all thinking about how hard it would be to get a press pass to Messi’s unveiling in Turin, and they were too busy going “fuuuuuuuuuck.”

4. Newell’s Old Boys

Messi’s true, pre-Barça childhood club, though he left for Spain at 13 and never played for them. From Rosario, his hometown in Argentina. Consistently mentioned by Leo himself as the club he wants to play for before he retires. Strong LeBron-back-to-Cleveland/“I’m Going Home”/prodigal-son vibes. On the other hand, unlikely to offer Messi Champions League football unless Argentina can somehow be relocated to Europe in the next two to three weeks, something it would realistically take Manchester City money to accomplish.

Plausibility Ranking: 4. I think there’s a decent chance Messi will play for Newell’s at some point, briefly, in the future. But leaving Barcelona because you’ve lost faith in the board’s ability to deliver Champions League titles in order to move to a club on a different continent from the Champions League would be a curious tactical move. I don’t have the sense Messi is ready for the golden-sunset era of his career just yet, although that would probably be the single most depressing outcome to this story, so we can’t totally rule it out.

Fun Ranking: 4. The thought of the SEO-farmed “Which online streaming service carries Argentine Primera División games?” pages alone makes my heart fail. Every legacy sports-media site with a new private-equity owner would suddenly be full of “Do I need Sling Blue or the YoVu Diamond Deluxe package?” Help.

Number of Gnats That Flew Into My Eyes As I Typed This: 128. The gnats think I’m being too cynical, but a lot of gnats still have their parents’ YouTube TV logins, so.

5. The Golden State Warriors, I Mean Bayern Munich

Probably not happening, let’s be real. Still, of all the possibilities that could go in this spot, arguably the most intriguing is that Messi could follow in the Kevin Durant tradition and join the team that beat him en route to a title the year before. Pros: a big, established, dominant club; literally won the Champions League; the space in front of Thiago seems like a cool place to stand if you like scoring goals; Arjen Robben isn’t there anymore so you wouldn’t have to put up with him in training; Messi in an Oktoberfest costume would do numbers on Instagram. Cons: lifelong accusations of cowardice; the space in front of Thiago might well be in Liverpool next season; Robben could visit unexpectedly; Lederhosen are embarrassing and uncomfortable if you grew up outside a Lederhosen cultural context.

Plausibility Ranking: 5. Honestly, I just included Bayern because Inter doesn’t afford the same scope for a cruise-by Warriors joke.

Fun Ranking: 3? On the one hand this would probably be sneakily enjoyable to watch. On the other hand, does fun still exist?

Number of Gnats That Flew Into My Eyes As I Typed This: 65. It would have been more, but some of the gnats saw what I was writing about. Now most of them have landed on my desk. They’re just sitting there. “It doesn’t seem worth flying anymore,” they’re muttering.