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O’Boyle: Messi free agency could change soccer landscape

| Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Remember “the Decision”? Who can forget.

How about Kevin Durant’s “next chapter”? That was pretty wild too.

What if we could see something like that in the world’s biggest sport? What if it happened to a player playing for a team that expects nobody to ever want to leave? What if it happened to the best player of all time in his sport?

A lot happened this summer in the world of soccer. There was no World Cup or European Championship, but instead soccer fans saw some of the most shocking transfers of all time, highlighted by Brazilian superstar Neymar’s move from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain, a record-breaking deal that used sponsorship deals from the Qatari government, who own the French club, in order to legally skirt “Financial Fair Play” regulations.

Neymar’s move set off a chain reaction in world soccer, most notably inflating the prices of just about every other player in the world. But there’s one related story that may have received some traction, but has been kept relatively quiet considering how earth-shattering it could prove to be: Lionel Messi still has not agreed on a new contract with Barcelona. His current deal expires in less than a year.

There has been no free agent in soccer close to this caliber. Legendary players have changed club before, some have even left some of the biggest and best teams in the world, such as when Cristiano Ronaldo left Manchester United for Real Madrid in 2009. But if Messi’s contract expires, Barcelona will get nothing in return. That’s rare for elite players, and it could happen to the greatest of them all.

Messi has been inarguably a top-two player in the world for almost an entire decade, certainly the best in the world for at least five years and perhaps non-stop since 2009, and yet he’s still only 30 years old. He’s scored over 500 goals for Barcelona, approaching the all-time record for any top-flight European club, yet goals only show a tiny portion of what he can do. The list of soccer legends who consider him the best of all time is long, and will only get longer.

More importantly, he already plays for one of the two biggest clubs in the world, and has since his professional debut in 2004. He’s been part of Barcelona’s system since 2001. And players rarely leave Barcelona if the club doesn’t want them to. Neymar did, perhaps to escape Messi’s shadow. It’s hard to believe a club as big as Barcelona could lose two superstars of Messi and Neymar’s caliber in back-to-back seasons.

If Messi does become a free agent, it’s entirely speculation as to where he’ll go. Manchester City has been a popular suggested location, and certainly has the money to afford him, while other Premier League clubs would likely also attempt to lure him to England. There is of course a very strong possibility that he simply returns to Barcelona, but the fact that the possibility of Messi leaving Barcelona for free exists at all should be one of the most important stories in soccer. Barcelona club president Josep Maria Bartomeu has proven unpopular in recent months after Barcelona failed to win La Liga or progress past the quarterfinals of the Champions League last season. But as long as Barcelona has Messi, everything on the field could be fine. If Messi walks, the entire soccer landscape changes.

The countdown is on. Circle June 30, 2018, on your calendars, just in case.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Daniel O'Boyle

Daniel O'Boyle is a senior sports writer living in Alumni Hall, majoring in Political Science. He is currently on the Notre Dame Women's Basketball, Men's Tennis and Women's Soccer beats. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, Daniel spends most of his free time attempting to keep up with second-flight English soccer and his beloved Reading FC. He believes Lonzo Ball is the greatest basketball player of all time.

Contact Daniel