His consistently brilliant match-winning performances have papered over the figurative and literal cracks that have been steadily widening at the Camp Nou.
Yet this season especially, an aging team without an apparent identity has seen performances and results fall apart, regardless of Messi’s exploits; off the pitch, the regeneration of the stands of a once great stadium has been put on hold due to the financial difficulties Barcelona finds itself in.
Without a trophy so far this season — the team finished five points behind Real Madrid in La Liga — the Champions League offers Barcelona one final chance of silverware.
On Saturday, it welcomes a rejuvenated Napoli to the Camp Nou for their round of 16 second leg, with the scores delicately poised after the 1-1 draw in Naples. Defeat would undoubtedly be a disaster and would present Barcelona with its first trophy-less season since 2007-08.
« We’ll see what happens, but I see a black future, » Catalunya Radio journalist Ernest Macià Ballus tells CNN.
At the turn of the decade, Barcelona was, in many ways, the model for any elite European club; a young visionary coach with a clear philosophy, a revered and highly productive youth academy and a clear transfer strategy.
Pep Guardiola’s promotion to head coach from the Barcelona B team in 2008 signaled the start of the most successful era in the club’s history.
With a core of graduates from the club’s academy, La Masia, Barcelona won 14 trophies during Guardiola’s four seasons in charge, including an unprecedented treble for a Spanish club.
Fast forward eight years and only Messi, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Pique of the acclaimed La Masia alumni remain on the pitch, while the rest of the club appears in disarray. So, what has gone wrong at the Camp Nou?
Barcelona’s ‘Espai Barça’ project, the ambitious renovation plan for the Camp Nou and surrounding area, was due to be completed by next year. Instead, it hasn’t even begun.
The estimated cost of the project is reported to be between $600 million and $800 million, money the club has struggled to raise.
Some of the blame can be apportioned to the coronavirus outbreak, but this is a project which the club has wanted to undertake for more than a decade. The enforced lockdown due to the pandemic brought football to a halt around the world and slashed clubs’ income through ticket sales and television rights deals.
Barcelona was particularly badly affected. The club’s wage bill is the highest in world football, according to a report published by UEFA earlier this year.The Global Sports Salaries Survey by Sporting Intelligence puts Barcelona’s average annual salary spend per player at $12.3m for the 2019-20 season. According to Barcelona’s last accounts, up to June 30, 2019, the wage bill for all their sporting teams, which includes basketball, handball among other teams, was 671 million euros ($792 million), with the vast majority going to the football club’s first team. That year, the club’s turnover was 990 million euros ($1.16bn) and projected to increase the following year. However, with money no longer coming in through gate receipts, TV deals and museum tickets, first team players and staff had their wages reduced by 70% in March to « minimize the economic impact » caused by coronavirus.
Barcelona, of course, was not the only major European club to enforce a salary reduction, but it laid bare the precariousness of its current finances.
Big-money transfersThese problems have been exacerbated by the club’s move away from promoting La Masia players to the first team — an academy which has developed a host of stars, notably Messi, Guardiola, Andres Iniesta and Xavi — instead choosing to spend vast transfer fees and wages on already established stars. Barcelona has reportedly spent more than $1 billion on transfer fees since the 2013/14 season.
The world record $263 million sale of Neymar to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 temporarily plugged the financial gap, but the club immediately spent the money trying to find an adequate replacement for the Brazilian, often paying big on desired players.
Around $170 million was paid to Liverpool for Brazilian forward Philippe Coutinho, whose unproductive time at the club came to end with a loan move to Bayern Munich after less than two years in Barcelona.
Another $120 million — plus $45 million in potential add-ons — was reportedly spent on the largely unproven Ouseman Dembele from Borussia Dortmund. The Frenchman has shown flashes of his potential, but his three years at Barcelona so far have been defined by several long-term injuries that have limited him to just 74 appearances.
Most recently came the $135 million signing of Antoine Griezmann, who has so far failed to replicate anything close to the form he showed while at La Liga rival Atletico Madrid.Such are its current financial woes, the club sold promising young midfielder Arthur to Juventus in exchange for the 30-year-old Miralem Pjanic.
These signings, and many others, have not only negatively impacted the team, the results and its finances, but also the very fiber of what it means to be FC Barcelona.
« There have been problems with how they basically run the club, as far as money is concerned, » Macià says. « Bringing in players with high prices, players that didn’t work. They did buy some good players, like Frenkie de Jong, for example, a young and talented player, but … he needs to adapt to our philosophy.
« But if there’s not anyone who ignites this philosophy, it’s difficult. If there’s not a leader that tells the new players how we play at Barcelona, it’s difficult because the only priority is to win the next game. And if this is the only priority, you will never win that title.
« [We cannot] play like an ordinary team. Other teams are better at playing ordinary [football], like Milan or Inter, they do not need to play beautifully and with a style, they have good players and they are good at it. While in Barcelona, they need to do something more than just win titles … and it still won’t be enough.
« So Barcelona will need a reconstruction and, I’m afraid, they wouldn’t have enough money to do it.
« They wanted to refurbish the Camp Nou and the project has been stopped. They also had to build a new [arena] for basketball and other professional sports at the club, and this project has been stopped as well. There’s no money for these projects. »
‘Soul of the club lost’
Back in 2012, the season after Guardiola left the club, his replacement Tito Vilanova famously fielded an entire 11 of players who had graduated from La Masia. Barcelona beat Levante 4-0 that day and it was an occasion heralded around Europe, as the academy was put on a pedestal as the gold standard for other clubs to aspire to.
Messi, Busquets, Pique and Jordi Alba still remain from that side, but La Masia’s production line has since slowed. In the subsequent eight years, only Sergi Roberto has graduated to become a first-team regular.
« From 2004-2010 there was a policy for years of bring players from La Masia to the first team, » Macià says.
« When Guardiola was the coach, everything was easier for these young, talented players growing up in La Masia. But then Guardiola went and the coaches that came here were basically focused on trying to win and the current board didn’t force them to try and raise players born in La Masia, so the soul of the club has been progressively lost.
« It’s gone from ‘More than a Club,’ which is the motto that is still in the stands, to more of a simple club in which you can see a good football team, but one that is losing its identity. »
While the board’s decision to focus on big-money signings, instead of nurturing its own talent, could be the root cause, as Macià also noted, Barcelona is also no longer able to hold onto La Masia’s most promising stars.
Cesc Fabregas’ move to Arsenal in 2003 as a 16-year-old is perhaps the most famous example of this, but it’s a trend that has continued.
Manchester City defender Eric Garcia, Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Xavi Simons and Manchester United-bound Marc Jurado are just three of La Masia’s most gifted youngsters to have left for pastures new.
Discovering the next Xavi
But perhaps it’s unfair to compare La Masia’s current production line to that of Messi, Xavi and co, arguably the greatest group of players any academy has produced.
Such was the success of those graduates — Messi, Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Busquets, Pique, Carles Puyol and Victor Valdes all started the triumphant 2009 Champions League final — every new prospect is burdened with the expectation of having to be the « next Xavi » or the « next Iniesta. »
« It’s about generations, you cannot expect every single year or every five years to see four players in the starting XI that just came from La Masia. It doesn’t really work like that, » Fabregas tells CNN Sport. « Iniesta is one of the best midfielders in history. Xavi, probably the same.
« But if you analyze it well from the beginning, how they started and how they made it, Iniesta really started to play regularly and was considered a top player at 22. We [Arsenal] played the  Champions League final against them. He came on at halftime and he changed the game and he was only 22. Iniesta started playing every single game and was considered in the undisputed starting XI at 23.
« Xavi had a lot of ups and downs at Barcelona. The real Xavi that we all know and we all admire, and is probably one of the best players in the history of Barcelona, started really at 28 when Pep came into the club and said: ‘Listen, you are my man. Everything will go around you.’
« In 2008, after the European Championship, Xavi came from two years of winning nothing at Barcelona. There were a lot of rumors; he will go, he’s not good enough. Then someone comes, believes in you and, all of a sudden, you’re a different player, a different animal and you go on for four or five years at a level that you wouldn’t even expect you had.
« So that’s why sometimes it’s a bit of luck. It’s about having someone to trust you so much, that gives you the opportunity. »
With Messi nearing the end of his career, Macià believes the board needs to move away from the « win at all costs » mentality that has prevented the club from taking risks on young talent and revert back to the philosophy of player progression that legendary Barcelona coach Johan Cruyff, who focused on how the academy teams played rather than the end result, instilled.
« The squad is very short, it’s much older and it’s difficult to replace players like Xavi and Iniesta, » he explains.
« Messi had the best generation of homegrown players in La Masia around him, which made an impressive pack, and you had a total team with total football. Now, of course, these players are not here, it’s very difficult to replace them.
« It seems we have the impression that they [the board] are not trying [hard] enough to try to create a style and try to go back to the roots that Johan Cruyff started and Guardiola continued, and we are losing what we were [as a club]. »
Messi vs. the boardWhile Messi’s powers remain superhuman — he ended this season as La Liga’s top scorer for a record seventh time — they are no doubt beginning to wane.
Unfortunately, this season he has also had to expend his energy on fighting battles off the pitch.
Back in February, Messi, a man who rarely speaks out, openly criticized Sporting Director Eric Abidal after his former teammate accused the players of downing tools to get manager Ernesto Valverde sacked.
Club president Josep Bartomeu called an emergency meeting with the pair and prevented a mutiny, but Messi has since publicly aired his grievances with the club on two further occasions; once during the wage reduction negotiations and then following the recent shock defeat to Osasuna.
« Messi has been doing very well for 15 years and he was making the president better, the players better, he was making everyone around him better, » Macià says.
« Because his influence is so big — was and is so big — he could make up for it [club’s lack of leadership]. But now he’s just starting to slow down progressively and steadily, and all the problems now appear. »
Against Eibar in February, thousands of Barcelona fans held up white handkerchiefs in the stands — a common way for Spanish fans to show their discontent — as « Bartomeu, resign » echoed around the Camp Nou.
Fans were unhappy after it was alleged Bartomeu had hired a firm to attack the club’s own players on social media, something the president and the club denied.
While supporters may not have got their wish immediately, Bartomeu’s presidency will only last for one more year.
Fans see Barcelona’s 2021 presidential elections as one of the most crucial in the club’s history. Will it be a turning point for the club’s fortunes, or will the same mistakes be repeated?
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, six senior members of the Barcelona board resigned and sent a strongly-worded letter to Bartomeu criticizing the management of the club and calling for the elections to be brought forward. In response to the resignations, the club said the resignations were « due to a reorganisation of the board put forward by Bartomeu. »
« The [new] president cannot repeat the [current] situation, » former Barcelona player Francesc Arnau tells CNN. « I don’t know what will happen in one year, two years or three years, but a lot is changing at Barcelona; the players, the president and the structure of the organization.
« We cannot know what the future holds, but for this Barcelona it’s impossible to repeat the titles of the [old] Barcelona and it’s difficult to repeat the last 10 years of Messi because of his age.
« If the [new] president doesn’t influence a lot, the change [election] isn’t important, but if the president can be influential then change is coming. »
‘It’s not because of Leo’
Few people would have given Napoli much of a chance against Barcelona in the Champions League before the enforced break, but these two teams have enjoyed differing fortunes since football returned.
While Barcelona has struggled in La Liga, Napoli’s resurgence under new coach Gennaro Gattuso culminated in a historic Coppa Italia win over Juventus in June as the club secured its first major trophy since 2014.
But Fabregas believes any team with Messi in the side has a chance. Talk of the Argentine’s demise, he says, is premature.
The new format of ties being played over one leg instead of two also gives Barcelona a better chance of progressing, if Messi is able to produce yet another moment of magic.
« I believe that Leo had a very good season, » Fabregas says. « People can tell me what they want, but I watch every single match. He scored 25 goals, he made 21 assists in his worst season. If you tell me that I could do that, then I would be very, very happy, believe me, and this would be the best season of my career.
« People shouldn’t look at the results so much, they should look at the performances to see what he does and what he doesn’t do, and then analyze. Leo had a top season, but the problem is that maybe around him the team didn’t have a top season, but individually himself, I saw him as usual.
« When you are winning, when you are successful it’s because 15, 16 players have been at the top of their game. It’s difficult to win Champions Leagues and league titles competing against Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid when only four, five or six players compete at the level required.
« That’s why Barcelona have struggled this season with Lionel Messi in their team and having watched it, it’s not because of Leo. »
After Messi branded the team « weak » following that defeat to Osasuna on the penultimate day of the season, coach Quique Setien openly admitted he did not know whether he would still be in charge for the remainder of the Champions League campaign. Much is on the line this weekend.
Victory against Napoli on Saturday would mean crisis postponed, if not quite crisis averted.