“It’s been a mad month; lots of things you would never have imagined happened,” Luis Suárez said and it wasn’t over yet – at least not for the men he was leaving behind. On Thursday afternoon, the Uruguayan sat at the Camp Nou, holding back the tears as he announced his departure after six years and 198 goals. On Friday morning, two days before the start of their season, Lionel Messi turned up for training alone, the absence of his best friend hitting home and the Argentinian hitting out.
“I was already getting the idea into my head but today I walked into the dressing room and the penny dropped,” Barcelona’s captain wrote. “How hard it’s going to be to not share every day with you. It’s going to be strange to see you in a different shirt and even more so to play against you. You deserved to depart as what you are: one of the most important players in the club’s history. Not for them to kick you out like they did. But truth is, nothing surprises me any more.” It was exactly a month since Messi had sent a burofax to the Camp Nou, telling them he was leaving. Thirty-one days later, the man who wanted to go was still there and the man who wanted to stay had gone. As for the man Messi blames, the president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, he reached the end of the month still standing. All around him, though, the building is burning.
On Sunday night, Barcelona’s league season finally starts against Villarreal, Ronald Koeman taking charge of his first game. Rarely has a football club needed the football so badly. The question is whether it will really help: the game tends to find a way to eclipse all else, offering an escape from your problems but Barcelona’s are profound and there is no promise of peace, still less any sign of a lasting solution. No promise either that this will be any better on the pitch, not least because Messi’s remarks demonstrate that he is not ready to let go, to leave it all behind.
Too much has happened and too little has changed for that, all of it played out in public, the wounds open. Between 25 August and 25 September, so much went on that it was hard to keep up and harder still to see how it can be overcome.
There were the departures of Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal, Nélson Semedo and now Suárez – a deal that Barcelona had reneged on at the last minute – the decision to deny Riqui Puig a first-team place and the failure so far to bring in replacements. The first steps for a new manager and the revelation that they hadn’t officially informed the old manager of his sacking. And the 20,687 signatures that arrived at the Camp Nou forcing a vote of no confidence in the president.
Above all, there was Messi, who dominates everything at the Camp Nou. Him staying was a “victory” that feels more like a defeat with every day, an expression of how broken it had become. On the day he announced that he was staying, he said he no longer felt happy at Barcelona, tore into the president for breaking his word, and described his club as one with no plan and no direction: instead they “juggle and plug holes”.
They still are, Koeman seeking solutions with tools not entirely of his choosing. There is even a suspicion that Suárez’s departure was a club decision, not the coach’s. Managers quickly realise that at Barcelona you do what you can, not what you want. Changing that is not so simple.
Exercising change is not either. In the three pre-season games they have played, the Dutchman has revealed his preference to play a 4-2-3-1. It is clear he wants his team to be more dynamic and a little more direct, to have greater pace; it is less clear that he has the players to do that. The revolution has not arrived, and not just because it is early still. He has been unable to change everything: the clear-out is incomplete and the new full-back, centre-back and centre-forward he wants have not arrived yet and still may not.
Marc-André ter Stegen is injured. The back four remains the same. Miralem Pjanic has had Covid. And the attacking roles remain undefined, a lingering sense that the front four still do not fit together easily: pre-season games have seen Messi, Griezmann and Coutinho play behind the forward, while in the absence of Suárez or the transfer target Memphis Depay, both Griezmann and Messi have played at No 9.
Besides, the key may be less tactical, less tangible. It’s more about the context, a cultural shift, more about getting players to embrace the approach – and one man above all others.
“I only want players who want to be here,” Koeman insisted. On the day he announced that he would be there, Messi made it abundantly clear that it wasn’t because he wanted to be. His message to Suárez on Friday made it equally clear that he is not prepared to let this go. Any hopes that having had his say he would draw a line under everything that has happened have proven illusory. The war is still being waged, Barcelona a club permanently on edge now, any spark liable to set them ablaze. There has been no closure – although maybe that will come if Bartomeu is forced out.
Since Messi admitted defeat and announced he was staying against his will, the single most significant question has always been how everything that has happened affects him on the pitch where, for all his sudden outspokenness, he still does his best talking. On the eve of the season, a day after he lashed out again, it is an even more pertinent question. This, after all, is the man who conditions everyone and everything, whose every gesture is watched and analysed by the men around him, searching for clues as to what’s coming.
“On the pitch, nothing will change,” Messi insisted, but however much of a refuge the actual game is, can he really leave all that behind now? And can the rest of them? Could it even help, the anger powering him? There were no smiles in pre-season, and little sign of public displays of warmth, still less happiness, but there were goals.
On Friday afternoon, Luis Suárez sent a message back to his friend. “Don’t forget what I told you,” it said, “keep enjoying it and proving you’re the NUMBER ONE, that two, three or four [people] can’t ruin how GIGANTIC you are for the club and the world of football.”