When Lionel Messi told his family last summer of his intention to leave Barcelona to play abroad, everyone involved in the conversation was in tears.
The move never materialised as the Argentine opted against taking the club to court following a high-profile dispute in which he felt his contract entitled him to leave for free, a stance the Catalans disputed.
There is no buyout clause in the final year of his contract so he could have left for free in January, but the 33-year-old has yet to make a final decision about his future. Even though he has considered moving on a few occasions, he has never been so close to leaving the club he joined as a 12-year-old.
Back then, it was his decision to stay in Spain with his father, rather than return to Argentina, that eventually ripped his family apart. That choice was life changing. The one he faces now will not be quite so traumatic but it will have major implications.
The uncertainty around his future is brought into sharp focus this week as Messi leads Barcelona into a mouth-watering Champions League last-16 tie against Paris St-Germain, a club who wanted him in the summer and whose interest has not waned.
Pressure being put on Messi by PSG
As the PSG fixture has moved closer, Barcelona have received constant messages from France about Messi’s future.
The magazine France Football has published a mocked-up picture of Messi wearing a PSG shirt along with a huge article detailing chapter and verse on all aspects of any deal that could bring the player to France.
Barcelona have accused PSG of showing a lack of respect, although the French club are of the opinion that Barca’s stance is a bit rich given their pursuit – via the front covers of the Catalan sports media – of players such as Marco Verratti, Angel di Maria, Marquinhos and particularly the much-hyped (and now dead in the water) return of Neymar to Barcelona, potential moves also often publicly discussed by Barcelona players and even directors.
They would also point out that Messi is a free agent so they are entitled to make their move.
Neymar is another who has chipped in and wasn’t exactly sitting on the fence when he announced after PSG’s victory against Manchester United in the Champions League in December: “What I want most is to play with [Messi] again, to be able to enjoy being on the pitch with him again.
“He could play in my place. He won’t have any problems, I’m sure. I want to play with him again and I’m sure that, next season, we have to do it.”
Di Maria, Verratti and Leandro Paredes have also ventured an opinion and even Leonardo, PSG’s sporting director, has said they would try to get him if he came onto the market.
Messi has sent a very clear message to the media that he is less than pleased that many people, some of whom he considered friends, have been pressuring him into making a decision.
A complicating factor is that, with Neymar apparently agreeing to stay in Paris, Kylian Mbappe is also now changing his tune about leaving the club and will have to negotiate his contract this summer if he is to do so.
His deal expires in June 2022 and PSG have indicated they are prepared to pay him about the same as they are paying Neymar, which is about 37m euros net – something suitors Real Madrid cannot offer unless an imaginative contract is put in place.
Nobody can guarantee what Mbappe will do next. So where does that leave Messi? Because if there’s one thing that absolutely no-one believes, it’s that there will be room for all three players at PSG.
The Messi saga is also having a knock-on effect on the decision-making process at other clubs. Kevin de Bruyne is delaying his contract talks with Manchester City as he was not particularly happy with City’s first offer and the impression he has, published by Belgian media he trusts, is that he is not being offered as much as they can afford, perhaps because they are keeping that money in case Messi arrives.
Unhappy in the summer – how does Messi feel now?
When Messi sent the club notice of his intention to leave in August via the now infamous burofax, he was exasperated. He has since explained in one of only two interviews he has given that it was the only way he could get the club’s attention.
He had, he told Goal.com’s Ruben Uria, been trying to tell them of his intention to leave for months but without success. Putting it in writing was the only way to make the club take notice.
Messi knew his contract stipulated that if he wanted to leave he had to inform Barcelona by the end of last season. He submitted his transfer request on 25 August, with the season still ongoing because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But Barca’s stance was that the cut-off date, following the contract to the letter, was 10 June, days after the regular season would have ended in normal circumstances.
Eventually Messi decided not to become embroiled in a legal battle, despite the fact he was convinced he could have won it. But that was a million miles away from saying he was happy about the situation.
He wasn’t and, in fact, he felt betrayed. That was not helped when the club started to brief the media off the record in a bid to make Messi look like the villain of the piece.
Despite that unhappy backdrop to this season, Messi reluctantly decided to stay, though at times you have sensed he is there with clenched teeth.
Now with president Josep Maria Bartomeu confined to history and a new president set to be elected on 7 March, Messi has become more focused on the objectives on the pitch.
He knows the club is going through a difficult period but more importantly knows there is nothing he can do about it, except for performing as well as he can.
The team has improved and a youthful nucleus has emerged. They are unbeaten in 12 games in La Liga, winning nine of those. Big group hugs and smiles confirm that new manager Ronald Koeman is making the best of a limited situation.
Much was made of the Messi-Koeman relationship and potential power dynamic when the Dutchman was appointed in August. The captain does not have a problem with his manager as such, but neither does he have an unshakeable bond with him.
People close to Koeman are keen to make it known the pair enjoy a close relationship, that they talk lots about football, that Messi appreciates the fact the Dutchman is a straight talker.
But in reality it is not as good a link as the one he enjoyed with Ernesto Valverde. That same straight talking in public can get Koeman into trouble, as he has little filter when he expresses his opinion. There has been respect from the off though.
The pair met at Messi’s house before the burofax incident, when Messi told Koeman of his intention to leave.
Koeman told the player in no uncertain terms that whatever had happened in the past with the board had absolutely nothing to do with him. Messi, he said, would be the leader of his side, but whatever he decided would be respected.
It didn’t take Koeman long to find out that all was not well in the Barcelona dressing room, with many of the old guard resenting the way the jettisoning of some of the previous team leaders had been handled by the club.
Messi was still seething about the way Luis Suarez had been shown the door, apparently via a telephone conversation with the manager that lasted less than two minutes.
There was also disquiet with the ongoing negotiations taking place between the players and a board that they profoundly mistrusted regarding the reduction of wages because of coronavirus.
The good news for Koeman and Barcelona in general is that Messi has slowly begun to get his mojo back.
The Argentine is certainly demanding but he believes there is a project in the making, even though he also recognises reinforcements are needed, and he is not sure how that can be done with the club on the verge of bankruptcy.
His attitude on the pitch serves as a mirror to what is happening off it. Goals are celebrated with the whole group and he now seems switched on throughout.
He has been benched for a few games, but that was something that had been agreed with the manager. Meanwhile, he is one of the leading scorers and assist-makers in La Liga, despite missing games because of two injuries.
So what happens next?
The only thing Messi has decided up to now is that he has no intention of deciding anything until the season is ending.
The first thing he is waiting for is to find out who the new Barcelona president will be. The favourite is former president Joan Laporta, and the news from his camp is that they are totally confident the captain will stay if he wins the election, although they would hardly say anything different while the campaign is under way.
The talk is of Laporta looking to bring forward a project that would probably be based on selling the French contingent (Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Clement Lenglet and Samuel Umtiti) with a view to bringing in about 200m euros and then strengthening the side with the addition of a centre-back – David Alaba from Bayern Munich perhaps, and almost certainly Eric Garcia from Manchester City – a left-back and then maybe a top player up front, probably someone like Erling Braut Haaland.
The harsh reality, however, is that it remains to be seen whether or not in the current economic climate selling those players would drum up 200m euros on the open market. Either way, sales will have to be made.
Laporta will use the Qatar World Cup as a tool to persuade Messi to stay in Spain. Why muddy the waters with an uncertain and potentially unsettling change less than 18 months out from what will almost certainly be his last World Cup hurrah, his final opportunity to take the only major trophy that has eluded him?
Messi does dream one day of going to the United States, an idea encouraged because of the close friendship between his wife Antonella and Daniella Semaan, the wife of his great friend and former team-mate Cesc Fabregas.
Cesc and Daniella have been trying to convince the Messis to join them in their next adventure, which they hope will be in Major League Soccer.
Things change in football and frequently very quickly. After seemingly getting their season back on track, Barcelona now face an uphill task to make the Copa del Rey final after going down 2-0 at Sevilla in the first leg of the semi-final last week, while they have a potentially season-defining tie with PSG on Tuesday.
Barcelona have not beaten Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid or Sevilla since 2019. How will Messi feel if Barcelona fall when they meet the big guns this season in European and domestic competition?
Messi has not spoken to any of the three presidential candidates and has no intention of doing so. And he won’t tell the new president what to do. He will listen to what he has to offer, what the plan is, and then live day by day until it is time to take the biggest decision of his adult life.
PSG (and Manchester City) will be waiting.