I would like to preface this writing by stating that I do not believe that Lionel Messi will end up at Manchester United. As I write this I am of the belief that Messi is using his influence as certainly the greatest ever Barcelona player, and at the very least one of the two greatest footballers of all time, to leverage Josep Bartomeu and the rest of the FC Barcelona board into resigning. His demands to leave the club seem as much like a last ditch effort force change in an organization that has desperately needed it, and whose borrowed time has been bought by Messi himself.
It’s May 28, 2011, and I am sitting on the floor of my living room watching as Messi tears Manchester United to pieces. Or perhaps a more fitting description is that Messi magically became an untouchable and unreadable master of the game against a defense that despite its aging talent had been largely rock solid in a 19th Premier League title-winning campaign. Yes he had Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, and Sergio Busquets among others to help run the show, but this was Messi’s stage and Messi’s game.
It wasn’t the final loss in 2011 that really hurt, nor the arguably more painful 2009 loss, it was what it came to represent. Manchester United, as a superpower, were nearly finished. They would win a 20th league title before Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, but struggled mightily post-SAF to once again find the identity and security that the greatest manager the game has ever known provided for 26 1⁄2 years.
It was the end of football as I knew it, and my anger towards the new world order was directed at Messi and one Cristiano Ronaldo. I hated how good they were while my team failed to find such heights again. I hated the newest challengers even more, oligarch and oil state funded upstart teams, old rivals, and monopoly clubs that had firmly consolidated financial and footballing power over their respective leagues. As I grew up and became more a fan of the game itself than just my childhood team, the hatred for Messi faded, and I was able to appreciate just how remarkable his play was. (Did the same for Ronaldo for a while, but an off-field matter quickly revived my distaste for him). Messi’s career at Barcelona as it is currently would already be enough to cement his status as arguably the greatest ever, but like everyone else, Messi included, I would love to see more.
Fast forward to August 14, 2020, and I am once again blown away by Barcelona, only this time they’re on the receiving end of a seismic defeat, the likes of which massive clubs rarely experience. The 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich was perhaps an unsurprising shock, the sort of defeat that finally exposed the hollow interior of a once invincible team. And at the center of it was Messi, who looked both defeated and completely unsurprised at the final whistle. He had perhaps accepted what was happening during the match, or maybe even earlier than that after his side’s dramatic La Liga collapse, either way Messi had the look of someone who wanted change. Whether it is change in structure, or change in scenery, remains to be seen. Empires collapse in different ways, but the fall is unstoppable when the single pair of shoulders holding it up are gone. Manchester United know that all too well, and soon Barcelona may as well.
I suppose this would be a good place to list the practical pros and cons of trying to attract Messi to Manchester United. They are two of the most influential names in sport, and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has somehow managed to start a pretty promising rebuild at United, along with the return of Champions League football and, hopefully, maybe, please, Jadon Sancho. Along with that, Financial Fair Play laws have been dramatically relaxed, and Messi potentially could force his way out without a transfer fee. Messi in the fold would require some retooling of the current squad setup, but the idea of him at the center of the pitch surrounded by Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, and Mason Greenwood sounds like a dream come true. One might say far too good to be true, as these potential factors are dwarfed by the resources and squad quality of a certain cross-town rival and aforementioned oil state club.
City have Messi’s former Barcelona manager, Pep Guardiola, some of the brightest talents in football, including world class players Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Aguero, and Bernardo Silva, and have the money to buy whoever else they could possibly need to build Leo and Pep’s Champions League challenging squad. They might be lacking in atmosphere, fans, tradition, history, etc. — you know, things that helped endear Barcelona to Messi — but there is no doubting their quality on the pitch or pull in the transfer market. Not to mention the massive wages they could pay Messi, both on and [Ed.: allegedly!] off the books.
There isn’t much avoiding it: City are probably the favorite option if Messi does actually leave Barcelona. The fit is incredibly appealing in almost all regards, and perhaps Manchester United should resist the urge as well. The inefficiency of Ed Woodward in completing transfers is well-documented, and United already have a limited budget without any Summer 2020 signings. Hopes are that the club can acquire Jadon Sancho and possibly a defender to help continue to build towards something that resembles a team with direction.
But maybe, just maybe, Messi is an individual that can help with that. Maybe I’m a hopeless football romantic, (actually, that’s exactly what I am right now) but United and Messi might be what each other need right now. A club looking to return to greatness, and a player looking for the perfect setting to close out his career in Europe. It probably would be too good to be true for Messi to choose another club steeped in footballing greatness than for him to spend his last prime years at a lifeless entity of the modern game; one where Messi’s talents would likely find success, but within the context of shameless financial doping at a club that acts as a PR front for an abusive regime.
Not that Manchester United’s owners are exactly saints themselves, but the club is, for now at least, still somewhat resemblant of a football culture that carries meaning and love across the globe. More so than any other sports club in the world. Just for once in the modern game it would be refreshing for the magic to stay alive.