Written by Alan Feehely of Football Espana
Lionel Messi is a different animal now. He’s not the alien of his peak, we can all see that. But he’s still the greatest player in the world, and this summer’s events will have changed him fundamentally. As of this week, he’s entered into a new era. The Argentine touched down in Paris on Tuesday afternoon, accompanied by his wife Antonella and his three children. Gone were the tears of last weekend; in their place was an easy, uncomplicated smile. Antonella toasted to a new adventure, and it felt like one.
Those tears, of course, were what had been dominant in how people viewed the move. It was a wrench for Messi to leave FC Barcelona, the club that gave him everything and he gave everything to, and more. He didn’t want to go, it seemed. La Liga were forcing Barcelona and Joan Laporta’s hand, making them pay the bill after a decade of criminal mismanagement. This was all true, but Messi’s public face in Paris spoke a different truth. That this is, above all, a competitive animal ready for a new challenge.
Messi had lifted a giant weight from his shoulders this summer; he finally led Argentina to the major title they’ve been unable to lift since 1993. His lack of international success had been a stick to beat him with ever since he pulled on the blue-and-white shirt, and was always weaponized whenever comparisons were made between him and Diego Maradona, who almost single-handedly won Argentina the 1986 FIFA World Cup in Mexico.
Messi had lost three Copa America finals and, most painfully, the 2014 World Cup final to Germany in Brazil. He was inspired this summer, however, winning player of the tournament with his four goals and five assists as Argentina beat Brazil in the final at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro; the very same ground they lost to Germany in back in 2014. Messi was emotional in the aftermath, embraced by his teammates as well as Neymar Jr.; his opposite number on the night but, as of Tuesday, his club teammate once again.
Messi took off for Miami immediately after the victory with Antonella and the kids, spending a couple of weeks with his extended family there before returning to Europe and heading to Ibiza with Luis Suarez, Cesc Fabregas, and their respective families. While there, he actually bumped into Neymar again and enjoyed a night out with the Brazilian as well as three of his PSG teammates; Messi’s compatriots Angel di Maria and Leandro Paredes as well as Italy’s Euro 2020-winner Marco Veratti. It was a photo that would take on a lot more resonance given the news that broke last Thursday when the world was shocked to discover that Messi and Barcelona were going to part ways.
Commercially, Messi’s absence will cast a tall shadow at Camp Nou this term, but it’s his absence on the pitch that will sting the most. He won the Pichichi award last season after finishing the campaign as La Liga’s top scorer, contributing 30 goals and 11 assists for a sub-par Barcelona team that finished third. He also contributed five goals and three assists in the Copa del Rey – the only silverware Barcelona have claimed under Ronald Koeman – including a stunning brace in the final against Athletic Bilbao. In the UEFA Champions League, the Argentine scored five goals and provided two assists, with his last ever goal in the competition for Barcelona coming against PSG; an unstoppable arrow from the edge of the area in a tie the Catalan club ultimately lost. It’s a symbolic goal, in many ways. PSG are in a stronger position than Barcelona right now, and Lionel Messi’s still got it.