Quo Vadis, Lio?

By: Alfonso Duro

A timely hat trick against Sevilla gave Lionel Messi the honor of being Spain’s La Liga top scorer of all time. He has scored 253 goals in 289 games, surpassing legendary striker Telmo Zarra, but just days earlier he had told an Argentine newspaper the end of his era at Camp Nou could be coming to a dramatic close. For anyone not following Messi’s story at his club in the last 18 months, this may come as a shocker. Ultimately, the Argentine is revered as a god in Cataluña, he is the top earning footballer in the world, and is still scoring and breaking age-old records like Telmo Zarra’s this past weekend. Then why would he ever even toy with the idea of moving teams? Well, here are a few odd reasons:

’Cus I’m the tax man: Lionel Messi was the single highest tax payer in Spain in 2014. Shouldn’t be a surprise, since—as mentioned before—he is the top-earning footballer in the world, but his 53 million euro tax bill this year has little to do with his current salary. Actually, it has to do with all his salaries from 2009 onward... for which he never paid any taxes! His father, Jorge Messi, and a few brilliant financial masterminds, devised a plan by which Messi’s image rights, and other “fund-raising” events (like his friendly matches over the summer, TV appearances in Japan or Malaysia, etc.), would be accounted for as revenues as part of fictitious entities formed in Belize and Uruguay, all owned by Messi Senior, and not having any relationship whatsoever to the Argentine superstar. But Lio’s star status was completely irrelevant when the Spanish IRS realized what had gone down. Those Spanish IRS guys surely must be Real Madrid fans.

Messi shelled out 53 million euros, but the fact that he got caught and was publicly humiliated did not sit well with his father, who recently complained: “He paid, what else do they want?” Ah, if everything were that easy. According to Spanish law, anyone failing to declare income above 120,000 euros faces jail time. Messi hid 4.5 million for almost five years from the taxing authorities. I think what they want is to see your son behind bars, Don Jorge.

“You are still my number one”: But it would be unfair to say that, should Lionel Messi leave Barcelona, it would be solely because he is running away from justice. The truth is Messi hasn’t felt “loved” by the Blaugranas for a while. Perhaps it was the fact that they let go of some of his best friends, like Pinto or Cesc; or simply that fans seem to be starting to think of Neymar as the club’s true star. Who knows? The point is that Messi hasn’t been himself for a while now. First it seemed it was a physical problem, then there were rumors that he was saving up for the World Cup, but now, there’s no reason not to see the best version of the four-time Ballon D’Or winner week after week—even more so when Real Madrid is playing their best football in ages. Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu cannot help but scream at the world that he can’t live without Messi, but he will need to do a bit better than that to get on the Argentine’s good graces again. Perhaps a pay increase would do it?

The winds of change: Lately, Lionel Messi has seemed more comfortable in his own skin playing for Argentina than for Barcelona. With the Blaugranas, he has been seen moping around, hiding away from the spotlight in tough games, and showing up only when he feels like it—as he did against Sevilla this weekend. However, every time he has worn the albiceleste in the last two years, we have seen the magical version of the Messi we all know. It could be only natural that a 27 year old man, after spending over a decade with the same team, winning everything, and proving he can crush any record he wishes, would fail to have an incentive to do better at his club. With Argentina, the pending World Cup title—which he was so close to this past summer—seems to keep the fire alive, but with Barça there may be only ashes left from a wonderful past.

In that case, it may be best for Messi to consider a move, somewhere he can feel challenged again and where he will need to prove that he is still the best in the game. Either that, or come to terms with his own reality at Barcelona, and push to bring the best out of him once again when he suits up for the Culés.

Anything but that sad image of the player who could care less whether his team wins or loses would work at this point.

Alfonso Duro is a Spanish freelance writer. When he's not managing Google's agency in the United Arab Emirates (his current job), chances are he's watching and writing about soccer.