Ronald Koeman threw his arms around Lionel Messi and in that moment all seemed well again, Barcelona toasting the resignation of Josep Maria Bartomeu as president on Tuesday by beating Juventus 24 hours later.
“This was our best performance of the season,” said Koeman shortly after, having just seen Messi score a penalty to cap a 2-0 win in Turin, which sent his side top of their Champions League group after two games played. By the end, Bartomeu’s divisive regime had soured everything at Barca, his relationship with key players shot. It was possible even to detect a sense of liberation in their performance, a team suddenly given a point to prove.
Yet while few will lament his departure, the initial uplift will be more difficult to sustain, as deep-rooted problems take longer to fix. Among the fans, the biggest hope will be change at the top brings a change of heart for Messi. When asked why he wanted to leave in August, Messi said: “The truth is there has been no project or anything for a long time”. He said there were “many things” behind his unhappiness. The first he referred to was “wanting a winning project”. But that winning project that Messi wants, namely in the Champions League, may not come for a while, even without Bartomeu.
And at least with him, Messi had a reason to leave that even Barca fans could understand. In fact, a large section of supporters seemed to be on Messi’s side, even if it meant their captain ending up in the shirt of Manchester City.
Instead, a new president will promise innovation and bring hope. They will pledge to do everything to persuade Messi to remain. Some candidates might hang their campaigns on it. Against this new backdrop, Messi could find his exit harder to justify, the momentum of change pulling him in.
If the old Barcelona made it impossible for him to stay, how does he reject a new Barcelona, that makes it possible for him not to leave? In an interview last week, Gerard Pique said the only thing he told Messi in the summer was: “Leo, it’s a year. Then new people will come.”
They will come within three months now and that offers more time than expected. There is the bulk of a season to get a sense of what the new leadership feels like, including a transfer window in January.
As the season goes on, there will be more speculation about the possibility of a new coach. Asked on Wednesday night if Bartomeu’s resignation had changed his situation, Koeman said: “I don’t think so. If something changes they have to tell me.”
But Koeman’s credit as the coach hired in the depths of a crisis, by an unpopular president, when other, more desirable candidates were either not available or not willing, remains low. Koeman has said he will not be replaced if this season is a success but who defines what that success looks like? The bar for him is likely to be high. Uncertainty over Koeman’s future raises questions about the players’ commitment to him over the next few months and the commitment of the new board to backing him with the signings he wants, like Memphis Depay, in January.
Although if there is no money to spend, there will be little choice. Bartomeu left a club that just posted losses of 97mn euros ($113.5mn) for last season. He said he had agreed for Barcelona to join a European Super League “to guarantee the club’s future”. It means the spending spree that usually heralds a new era is impossible, even if selling expensive players should be easier to sanction for a board that had no stake in buying them.
Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Philippe Coutinho, signed for around 350mn euros combined, could all be sold for lower fees, with less embarrassment. But without a new contract signed, Messi can still leave for free. The one thing that stays the same at a club now fully in flux.
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