Lionel Messi the 33 year old football megastar, has been in the headlines for the past couple of weeks. Messi, who has spent almost his entire career at FC Barcelona, told the club recently that he had decided to leave after spending nearly two decades there, leaving most football fans across the globe in shell-shock and emotional mayhem.

It was a lose-lose situation for Barcelona. They either lost Messi for free to a rival club or forced him to stay against his will for another year, before he could finally leave for free.

While it is still hard to process from an emotional angle, Messi leaving FC Barcelona at the end of this season seemed justified based on the occurrences over the past few months. Messi has been under the spotlight of the Barcelona Board who have alleged that he has been pressurising them into signing younger players to accommodate the ageing squad. Eric Abidal, an Ex FC Barcelona player and current Sporting Director has accused Messi of not working hard and always having his way at the club. After being unable to retain the La Liga crown by blowing a four point lead to bitter rivals Real Madrid FC and then being utterly humiliated by FC Bayern Munich 8-2 in the quarter finals of the Champions League, this season was a disaster for Barcelona. In fact, it was the first time since 2007 that they finished trophy-less throughout an entire season. Messi was reportedly unhappy with the transfers and had been pleading with them to sign younger players in order to compete for the Champions League. Considering that the majority of players are over 30 years of age, the strange transfer of young Brazilian playmaker Arthur Melo for an ageing Miralem Pjanić caused further strain and was slowly marking the end of an era for FC Barcelona. Furthermore, reports suggested that Messi was the reason for the firing of the manager Quique Setién, which occurred in August 2020. The culmination of all these events has meant that Messi has had enough of his personal criticism, and decided it is time to part ways with his boyhood club.

While Messi’s exit sparked concrete interest by Manchester City FC and a possible reunion with Pep Guardiola, the exact wording in his contract did not not allow him to leave the Club before 2021. In a recent interview with Goal, Messi expressed his dissatisfaction with the way the Club has been run since the past few years. He eventually decided to stay for another season because of a contractual obligation, the legality of which will be assessed in this article alongside whether or not Messi would have been able to force his way out of the club. The article will also analyse the possible connotations of him joining a new club from a financial and legal perspective.

The contractual clause

Messi signed a four year contract in 2017 and according to El Mundo, Messi’s contract included a whopping $59.6 million signing bonus and $646,000 a week. Inserting a buyout clause of €700 million almost assured FC Barcelona that the superstar would stay at least until 2021. However, Messi’s lawyers wished to insert a “get out of jail free” clause which would allow him to leave at the end of each season on a free transfer (“free transfer clause”), provided he informed the club on or before 10 June of each year.

Now, due to the pandemic, the footballing season across Europe had been stalled for two to three months, which resulted in FC Barcelona’s season finishing only on 15 August 2020. Messi believed that since the season finished in August and not in May as it usually does, he still had the option of terminating his contract unilaterally by using the free transfer clause in his contract. FC Barcelona could ill-afford to lose Messi, both from a footballing and financial angle. If Messi was allowed to leave for free, FC Barcelona would lose a potential €700 million of transfer fees plus additional money earned through sponsorships and advertising. The club was adamant that he represented them for another season, and Ex-President of FC Barcelona Joan Gaspar said that Messi’s contract bound him until 2021, or if he did wish to leave, a release clause of €700 million had to be paid. Therefore, the controversy was whether the date of 10 June in the free transfer clause was to be interpreted strictly or should be given a purposive interpretation, which would imply that the date in the clause represented the end of the season (15 August this year).

Generally, contracts for purchase and loan agreements for players run untill 30 June every year, which traditionally marks the end of a season. Messi’s contract’s date is 10 June, which allows for a 20 day gap before the expiry of the season. Hence, the most likely interpretation is that 10 June in the contract does not represent the end of the season, as the 20 day buffer period would suggest. If it were to represent the end of the season, there seems to be no reason why the contract would not have 30 June as its date. If the matter went to court it is possible they would read the contract holistically looking at the intention of the parties in drafting the clause. An argument could be made that both FC Barcelona and Messi intended the date to relate to the end of the season. Unless the latter interpretation is held, it would be likely that courts would interpret the contract in favour of FC Barcelona.

What were some of the options open to Messi?

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (“FIFA”) and its Dispute Resolution Chamber would have got involved when any potential transfer happened between national federations. The matter may then have been appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (“CAS”). Hence, one possible option for Messi was to approach the Employment Tribunal in Spain itself, where he might have had to pay certain fines to get out of his contract before FIFA could get involved. This would have been time consuming and a settlement agreement may have been a safer option. If this had happened, the new club will probably have had to pay a transfer free, which would not have been as high as €700 million, but would probably still proved costly.

Would it be financially and legally feasible to sign Lionel Messi?

If Messi had been able to unilaterally terminate his contract and join a new club, FIFA could have been approached to provide a provisional International Transfer Certificate (“ITC”) for him to play in the upcoming season. If Messi had joined a new club while the dispute was ongoing and then the contract had been interpreted in favour of FC Barcelona, as per Article 17 of FIFA’s Regulations on Transfer & Status of Players (“Transfer Regulations”) both Messi and any new club would be held jointly liable to pay the €700 million to FC Barcelona. Also, Messi could have faced a potential six-month ban from football and any new club might have had a transfer ban for two entire and consecutive transfer periods.

While it is universally understood that no club could afford to pay a release clause of €700 million without violating the Financial Fair Play Regulations, the only potential way for a club signing Messi would be by way of a free transfer. Of course Messi’s acquisition on a ‘free transfer’ would be a misnomer, as his wages alone would cost a club anywhere between €90-100 million a year. Not many clubs could afford to keep a player at those wages, except perhaps Manchester City FC or Paris Saint Germain. However, this does not mean that Messi’s acquisition would only generate debt for a club. In fact, if he moved on a free transfer, the buying club would see a sharp increase in revenue from jersey sales, sponsorships, higher ticket sales and broadcasting and would recoup some of their costs. With Manchester City being the most likely destination, the chances of the Manchester club finally winning its first Champions League would increase with the addition of the Argentinian superstar, which in turn could ensure greater revenue. While the exact figures are hard to predict, the revenue would be unquestionably increase similarly to what happened when Cristiano Ronaldo moved to Juventus FC from Real Madrid FC two years ago.

A lose-lose for Barcelona?

It was a lose-lose situation for Barcelona. They either lost Messi to a rival club or forced him to stay against his will for another year, before he can finally leave for free. Ultimately they were able to keep Messi, but with his high wages and the current financial struggles at the club, I wonder if their decision to force him to stay will be vindicated. It has also been an embarrassment to resort to legal pressure tactics against such a faithful servant of the club and has no doubt damaged Barcelona’s reputation. From Messi’s point of view, a legal battle which might have resulted in sporting and finacnial sanctions for him and any new club, ultimately was not worth it when he can wait until the end of the season next year to leave for free.

Now and later

Messi has not attended the pre-training coronavirus tests and is currently not training with the squad, which shows that he had made up his mind to leave FC Barcelona. Manchester City’s interest was not just a rumor, with the manager insisting they sign him and the club able to match requisite finances for Messi’s wages. However, as stated in his interview, Messi has made it clear that he is staying for another year only because of the contract coupled with the President’s insistence that he cannot leave before 2021. Messi further stated that though was frustrated with the management and he might win the case, he would never drag the club that “has given him everything” into a litigious battle. The only glimmer of hope for him is if his lawyers could find  a legal loophole or if a mutual understanding for him to leave is found.

Messi’s possible arrival in the English Premier League is a mouthwatering prospect and it may silence the doubters if Messi can succeed in the best league in world football. Anyway, I expect that we will only have to wait until June 2021 to find out more about Messi’s future and life after Barcelona.

Anshul Ramesh

Anshul Ramesh, is a fourth year law student pursuing BA.,LL.B. (Hons.) from Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat, India. He is an avid football fan and is a die hard supporter of FC Bayern Munich.

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