For almost 20 years, the bond between Lionel Messi and his beloved Barcelona has appeared unbreakable and brought success beyond anything, player or club, could have imagined when they first pledged themselves to each other.
And so, Messi’s declaration this summer, that he was determined to walk out on the Catalan club he joined in 2001, aged 13 was startling, but of course, ultimately futile.
After so many years of happy marriage, not to mention the 34 trophies, including ten La Liga titles, four UEFA Champions League wins and six Copas del Rey, it was never going to be easy for Messi to skip out of the front door, or for Barcelona to allow him go.
The divorce may yet happen, but it will be next summer before the separation takes place.
Lionel Messi joined Barcelona aged 13 and may finally be ready to leave his boyhood clu
However, this is not the first time that Messi’s head has been turned as he’s racked up almost 500 appearances for the Catalans, scoring 445 goals.
And now, as he reaches the later stages of his career, as scouts, agents and managers begin to reminisce, and books are written, more and more tantalising glimpses emerge of the clubs that almost succeeded in prising him away from Spain.
Most recently we learned of Chelsea’s pursuit of the six-time Ballon d’Or winner, but Arsenal and Manchester City have also come close to tempting him, and perhaps most intriguingly, it turns out that Messi could have succumbed to the rough charms of Scottish football, Alex McLeish and Glasgow Rangers.
Sportsmail takes a look at what could have been.
Messi was tempted by Arsene Wenger to join Arsenal in 2003, but he stayed at the Nou Camp
Relationships are important to Messi. Team mates, FC Barcelona and family all weigh in the balance of his decisions.
Barcelona’s treatment of his great friend Luis Suarez this summer and the disintegration of his relationship with the club president, Josep Bartomeu, destabilised him at the Nou Camp, and almost pushed him into the waiting arms of Pep Guardiola.
But back in 2003, the departure of another good friend, Cesc Fabregas to Arsenal, nearly ushered him out then, too.
After turning down Arsenal, Messi quickly established himself at Barcelona and is pictured competing with Chelsea’s Arjen Robben in the Champions League in 2006
Messi was only 16 (pictured) when Wenger came calling to persuade him to move to London
Messi was 16-years-old. He and his family had emigrated to Spain from their home in Rosario, Argentina three years before. Messi was at the very beginning of his Barcelona odyssey, perhaps still surveying the field, considering his options, when the sweet-talking Gunners’ boss, Arsene Wenger, offered him the chance to come to London.
Wenger was attempting a daring triple raid on La Masia, Barcelona’s famous youth academy that translates as ‘the farmhouse’, targeting Messi, Fabregas and Gerard Pique.
‘Fàbregas and Messi played together in the same team,’ said Wenger in a recent biography. ‘We wanted to take Fàbregas, Messi and Piqué. It worked only for Fàbregas.’
Fabregas chose to join Arsenal in September 2003, for just under £3 million and Pique went to Manchester United a year later for almost £5m, but Messi stayed put.
Wenger targeted Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas, as well as Messi, but only Fabregas joined
Arsenal boss Wenger was one of the most progressive coaches in Europe in the early 2000s
The pull of Arsenal, and his friend, Fabregas, was counter balanced by Messi’s deep affinity for Barca even then, and the Gunners failure to provide a house for his family.
‘It was not completely down to a flat in the end,’ explained Wenger. ‘It was down to the fact that, in the end, Messi was comfortable at Barcelona.’
The player’s former agent, Fabian Soldini agrees.
‘Messi was also asked to go, but he didn’t want to leave.’ he told the Spanish publication, Marca, last month.
But Francis Cagigao, who was sacked from his role as head of recruitment this summer after 24 years, has revealed there was another, more mundane complication.
Another Wenger target, Pique, signed for Manchester United a year later in September 2004
‘Messi, [Gerard] Pique, [Juan] Mata were very, very close, and there were others,’ he told Mail Online last week. ‘With Messi, work permit issues ensured we couldn’t get as close as we would have liked.
But where the silver-tongued Wenger failed, Scotland’s Alex McLeish almost succeeded.
Rangers’ boss Alex McLeish made an audacious bid to bring Barca talent to Scotland in 2005
It was 2004-05, and Rangers were working their way through another successful season in the Scottish Premier League In a two-horse race, they were destined to come first and pick up the League Cup, too.
In 2006, (pictured), Messi established himself in the Barcelona team
McLeish and his assistant, former Dutch midfielder Jan Wouters, who was capped 70 times for Holland in a career that took in Ajax and Bayern Munich, were on the hunt for players who could keep Celtic at bay for another season and launch a more convincing assault on Europe.
McLeish, whose rugged appearance and uncompromising style with Aberdeen, Motherwell and Scotland belied his progressive managerial approach, was accustomed to looking abroad for players.
So, the pair exploited Wouters’ Dutch connection with Frank Rijkaard and his assistant, Henk ten Cate, who were managing Barcelona, to bring in some new talent on loan.
‘We didn’t have a big budget at the time,’ McLeish recalls in Graham Hunter’s book, Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World.
‘We thought that the fans might be a little bit more understanding if we brought younger or less experienced players, but who were evidently of good quality,’ said McLeish.
Alex McLeish’s assistant, Jan Wouters, knew the then Barca coach, Frank Rijkaard (pictured)
The conversations turned to Messi, then still only 16, and for a tantalising moment it looked like he could be on his way to Glasgow.
However, the Nou Camp coaches eventually came to the conclusion that the stamping grounds of Dunfermline Athletic, Livingstone and Inverness Caledonian Thistle were not the right path for their technically gifted protégé.
‘The guidance from Henk was that he was probably too young and possibly too slight to get benefit from Scottish football,’ said McLeish candidly.
McLeish was enjoying a good season with Rangers when he contcated Barcelona about Messi
Barcelona decided that the physicality of Scottish football may not suit their young protege
‘Even then, they knew how good he was and they must have thought that letting him go to British football might be a risk because of the tough tackling and the physicality.’
The deal was finally killed off when Messi, perhaps spurred by the prospect of a painful Saturday afternoon in Dundee, fired Argentina to victory in the 2005 World Junior FIFA Championships, with six goals and the Best Player in the tournament award.
After Rangers failure to tempt Messi, the trail to British football ran cold until the 2013-14, 10 years later, when it was Jose Mourinho’s turn to persuade Barcelona’s all-time top scorer to head to northern Europe with a Face Time call, £225m offer and a £50m annual salary.
Jose Mourinho tried to tempt Messi to Stamford Bridge over FaceTime with a blockbuster deal
It was another unsettling period for Messi, now aged 26, and again relationships came to the fore.
Tata Martino was in charge of Barcelona after replacing the unwell Tito Vilanova and the season turned out to be a bad one for Messi.
Injuries, defeat to arch rivals, Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final, loss to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League and the Rojiblancos triumph in La Liga at the Nou Camp ate away at the Argentinian international.
Real Madrid tried to coax the maestro south to the Santiago Bernabeu, according to Gianluca Di Marzio in his latest book, Grand Hotel Calciomercato.
But Messi dismissed them out of hand.
Real Madrid reportedly approached Messi to join them but the Barca man knocked them back
However, at the same time, Messi was being pursued by the Spanish taxman and it had a profound effect upon him.
He would eventually be found guilty of defrauding the authorities of £3.6 million between 2007 and 2009, escape a prison sentence but be ordered to pay a fine of £223,000 in 2017.
‘In 2013-14 I did want to leave Barca,’ Messi admitted in an interview with Rac 1 Radio, last year. ‘There was a situation that went beyond what I felt for the club.
‘At that time, with the mess of the treasury, I wanted to leave, not wanting to leave Barca but wanting to leave Spain. I felt mistreated.’
The stage was set for master-tactician, Jose Mourinho, who was then manager of Chelsea
Contact between Messi and Chelsea first began in January 2014, according to Di Marzio, as the west London club gathered their forces in advance of two successful assaults on the Premier League title in the next three seasons.
However, the proposed transfer collapsed after Deco (left) went to Messi’s dad Jorge
After speaking with intermediaries, as well as former Barca team-mate and ex-Chelsea central midfielder, Deco, now an agent, a meeting was set up with Messi and Mourinho via a FaceTime call.
That reported encounter went well with Messi telling his camp afterwards: ‘With Mourinho, for how he’s spoken to me, I can win whatever I want: he’s a winner, go ahead and close the deal.’
Messi would have earned £50m per season plus 70 per cent of image rights at Stamford Bridge. The fee would have been £225m.
And yet once again the deal collapsed, with Messi’s friends and family at the centre of the drama.
Mourinho was successful in attracting Fabregas to Stamford Bridge, but not Messi
Chelsea were pushing on more than one front and they did do business with Barcelona that summer, signing Fabregas.
Di Marizo reports that Deco was being squeezed out of talks as Mourinho spoke directly to Messi himself. Fabregas warned Deco of the situation and the former Portugal playmaker duly told Messi’s father and agent Jorge.
Messi senior was angry at being excluded from negotiations. And with that the latest mouth-watering deal to bring Messi to Britain was killed off as the player listened to his father and stayed at the Nou Camp, again
Messi’s close relationship with Pep Guardiola could yet see the Argentinian move to Britai
And so, to Manchester City.
But we are not talking about the big bust up with Barca this summer.
Pep Guardiola joined Manchester City for the 2016-17 season and rumours circulated that the club wanted the pair that had been so effective in Spain to reunite at the Etihad.
It was another challenging time for Messi, who broke down in tears after Argentina lost the Copa America final to Chile in 2016. Was he looking for a new challenge?
Messi was distraught after Argentina lost the Copa America final to Chile in 2016
City chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak confirmed that City did indeed reach out to Messi and went as far as showing him their considerable cheque book, pledging a salary of £1,500-a-week, or £78m-a-year.
‘We asked Guardiola to talk to him,’ said al Mubarak. ‘We offered him triple the salary he has at Barcelona, but he never accepted.’
As ever, it was more complex than that and Guardiola later denied an actual offer was made.
He said: ‘Maybe he will want his kids to learn English, I don’t know. And if that happens, which I hope it won’t, then there will be a list of four, five or six clubs who will want to sign him.’
However, as Messi’s relationship with Barcelona fragmented, the rumours were reignited this summer.
The playmaker’s relationship with Barcelona preseident, Josep Bartomeu, has broken down
The 33-year-old was on the verge of quitting in the recent window after becoming disillusioned with Barcelona’s stuttering form and controversial leadership
He was devastated by the departure of Suarez to Atletico Madrid and any respect he had for the president, Josep Bartomeu, had apparently ebbed away.
‘The truth is that for a while there hasn’t been a project or anything, they’ve been juggling things and plugging holes as things happen,’ Messi said in a statement explaining his intention to stay reluctantly in Catalonia, at least for this season.
‘All year I’ve been telling the president I wanted to leave, that the time had come to look for new challenges in my career.’
Messi had even told his family that his relationship with Barcelona was coming to an end.
It was a ‘brutal drama’.
Messi told his family he would leave Barcelona, in a ‘brutal drama’
‘The whole family began crying,’ explained Messi. ‘My children did not want to leave Barcelona.’
However, the president refused to countenance Messi’s departure in a bitter row over the exact terms of his contract, insisting that an eye-watering £630million buy-out clause would have to be met in full by any potential suitors.
Reluctantly, Messi committed himself to Barcelona until his contract expires at the end of this season, since he ‘would never take Barcelona to court because I love the club’.
However, City and the prospect of a reunion with Guardiola still whispers to him.
‘He’s the best player in the world, he’s the best player of his generation,’ Omar Berrarda, the club’s chief operating officer, told the Manchester Evening News recently. ‘I think any club in the world would like to explore the possibility of him joining their team.
Messi, can start to negotiate with other clubs from January
Now the great love affair with Barcelona is over he will surely make the break this time.
But only Messi, his family… and perhaps his old mentor, Pep Guardiola, know will know his true intentions.
Messi is out of contract at Barcelona in summer 2021 and could finally say goodbye