One must leave behind a home — in Messi's case, the only home he has ever known, having come up through the Barcelona youth system.
Often, one needs to learn a new language.
People who were rivals turn friends.
If the rumours about Messi moving to Paris Saint-Germain are true, he has already made a start where finding friends is concerned. He was photographed hanging out in Ibiza with Neymar, Marco Verratti, Angel di Maria and Leandro Paredes.
And why does everything change for the fans?
I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps it has something to do with having to choose between a favourite player and a favourite team. The team is not the same anymore. And there’s a chance the player who once saw “your” team through to win after win, will now stand between the team and the trophies he once won them. And yet he will be as beautiful to watch on the field as ever, except he will not look the same.
It is disorientating—and sometimes heart-breaking—to watch someone in the “wrong kit” for the first time.
One of Jerry Seinfeld’s funniest, and yet most profound sketches, has this to offer about being a team fan:
“Loyalty to any one sports team is pretty hard to justify. Because the players are always changing, the team can move to another city, you’re actually rooting for the clothes when you get right down to it. You know what I mean, you’re standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player, but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt, they hate him now. Boo! Different shirt. Boo!”
The lines are so true they make you laugh.
But when it actually happens, it is ugly to watch and likely terrifying to experience.
When Luis Figo moved from Barcelona to Real Madrid, he was labelled a “traitor” for the sacrilege. Debris would find its way to him every time the two teams met, and sometimes when they didn’t.
Lionel Messi was among the reasons I, as a fan, made the equally sacrilegious move from Real Madrid to Barcelona. In the early 2000s, Real Madrid’s management made a host of decisions that left fans feeling betrayed. First, they broke up the sparkling combination of Raul and Morientes, discarding the latter for stars and the merchandise they would sell. Soon enough, Real Madrid began to look like a World’s Best XI, with the who’s who from each team. Brazil’s Ronaldo came, and David Beckham and eventually Cristiano Ronaldo. The likes of Morientes and Fernando Hierro were sent off unceremoniously. Some years later, Raul would follow. The tradition of treating players poorly continues, right up to Iker Casillas. How can one, in good conscience, remain a fan of a team that discards the people who made one a fan of the team?
In the meanwhile, Barcelona would focus on building a team. Stars came, but only the ones who fitted in. And the youth system gave them stars too, men who had once been boys in blue and pink and would go on to become forces on the international stage.
Messi will be vilified for his choice. Why is money so important, Barcelona fans will ask, how can you betray the team?
We often forget that the relationship between a player and a team must be mutual. How loyal are teams to their players?
There is a handful of players who remained in one club all their lives, like Paolo Maldini for AC Milan and Ryan Giggs for Manchester United. There are others who spent their entire senior careers in one club, like Francesco Totti for Roma. Iker Casillas would have been among the Maldinis and Raul among the Tottis if not for what happened at Madrid. And Messi would have been a Maldini if the contract extension had worked. But there was simply no way it could work.
Before Joan Laporta took over as President, things had come to such a pass that Messi nearly approached the courts to get out of his contract with the team.
The fact that Barcelona was mismanaged is evident from the figure Laporta gave as their estimated loss over the past year — €487 million. Between the club’s financial problems and the La Liga’s salary cap rules, they can no longer afford to pay their talisman what he merits.
And why should he settle for less? We often forget just how short the careers of sportsmen are. They play at the highest level for between 10 and 20 years — in extremely rare cases, 25. Often, they burn out. We speak of their “lavish” lifestyle, but one’s needs typically expand to suit one’s bank balance.
International sport takes a physical toll. It takes a mental toll. It takes an emotional toll. And it often remains the one thing one can rely on — as manager or coach, perhaps.
Messi’s leaving Barcelona is the end of an era. But it is not a selfish move. When one has given nearly three decades to a club at every level, moving on when the club will not support one is the sensible thing to do.