MADRID (AP) — Once again, Barcelona couldn't do enough to entice Lionel Messi.
Nearly two years after the club was forced to let Messi go against his will because of its financial struggles, Barcelona again missed out on a chance to bring the World Cup winner back.
The 35-year-old Messi announced Wednesday he would not return to Spain and instead said he was going to join Inter Miami in Major League Soccer.
There had been hopes of a reunion between the Argentina great and the Spanish club where he thrived for nearly two decades before leaving to join Paris Saint-Germain, but in the end there was only more disappointment for both sides.
Again, Barcelona's finances kept the club from luring Messi back.
The Argentine apparently wanted to return but didn’t want to go through the ordeal of not knowing whether the Catalan club would be able to sign him. He said he was told the club would have to either sell other players or lower salaries, and he didn’t want that to happen.
“I really wanted to come back. I was very excited to be able to return," Messi told Spanish media. “But after having experienced what I experienced and the exit I had, I did not want to be in the same situation again, waiting to see what was going to happen.”
Barcelona was mired in debt when Messi left in 2021. The club couldn't make the numbers work back then as Messi was forced to wait in hopes of having his contract renewed. This time, Messi said he wasn't going to wait on others.
“I wanted to make my own decision, thinking about me and my family,” Messi said.
It wasn’t all about the money for Messi, who chose Inter Miami despite reportedly having a much more lucrative offer from Saudi Arabia. He said he wanted to “get out of the spotlight a bit” and focus more on his family after a “difficult time” with PSG, but made it clear that he would have returned to Barcelona if the numbers had worked.
"We were hopeful because we talked a lot and he said he wanted to come,” Barcelona coach Xavi Hernandez told Spanish media on Thursday. “I noticed a change in the last few days. It can’t be easy to be Leo Messi. You have to be a ‘10’ on everything. He saw that he wasn’t having a good time and he didn't want that kind of pressure, it’s normal.”
The club deflected blame, saying that Messi decided to go to the United States because he preferred a less-demanding league so he could prioritize time with his family.
"President (Joan) Laporta understood and respected Messi’s decision to want to compete in a league with fewer demands, further away from the spotlight and the pressure he has been subject to in recent years,” the club said in a statement after Messi's announcement.
But Laporta again couldn't offer much to Messi even after restructuring the team's finances. He had used some of the team's future assets to revamp the current squad with players such as Robert Lewandowski, Raphinha and Jules Koundé, leaving little salary cap space to fit Messi. There wasn't going to be much room left even after the departures of former Messi teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
Laporta had said he would do everything possible to bring Messi back even though he acknowledged it wasn't going to be easy. There was still hope on Monday when Messi's father, Jorge, who is also his agent, was in Barcelona and said his son had the team as his first choice. On that same day, though, the club was informed that Messi was going to join Inter Miami.
Barcelona won the league title this season for the first time since 2019, but it still struggled in the Champions League and the Europa League. The team’s first title since Messi’s departure had been the Spanish Super Cup in January, when it defeated rival Real Madrid in the final in Saudi Arabia.
Barcelona wished Messi “the best of luck in his new professional phase” and said it will work “to promote a proper tribute from Barça fans to honor a footballer who has been, is, and always will be beloved by Barça.”
Messi arrived at Barcelona’s youth squads at the age of 13 and played in 17 successful seasons with the main team, helping the Catalan club win 35 titles, including four Champions Leagues, 10 Spanish leagues and seven Copa del Reys. He won a record six Ballon d’Or awards with Barcelona as the world’s top player, and remains the team’s all-time leading scorer with 672 goals in 778 appearances.
Messi pledged to one day come back to Barcelona, just like he did in his tearful farewell speech two years ago.
Next time, though, it probably won't be on the field with the famed No. 10 jersey on his back.
Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni