Messi and Bartomeu salary-cut battle exposes Barcelona divisions again

Lionel Messi Bartomeu contract
FC Barcelona
The Blaugrana skipper has lashed out at figures inside the club trying to discredit the players, suggesting that a civil war is edging ever closer

During his solitary season as Barcelona coach, Bobby Robson regularly used to ask himself, "Do I need this in my life?"

The affable Englishman had naively presumed that his job was to merely "try to win football matches. I didn't come for this political battle."

But that's what Barcelona was, and remains: a colossal political battle.

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"Football here... is about power, about the necessity of winning," Robson told author Jimmy Burns. "It's about this city and about Catalonia. The army cannot be defeated..."

The army, as Robson saw it, was the press, the key tool in influencing public opinion.

Essentially, whoever controlled the press, controlled the club.

Perception, therefore, is key. Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu knows that. As does Lionel Messi.

Which is why the two most important figures at Camp Nou presently find themselves on the opposite sides of a battle for control of the narrative surrounding the Barca players' salary cut.

On Monday, it was announced that Messi and his colleagues had agreed to wage reductions of up to 70 per cent in order to limit their club's losses during the Covid-19 crisis, which has caused a suspension of all footballing activity in Spain – one of the European countries worst affected by the pandemic.

In addition, the captain revealed that the players would "also make contributions so that club employees can collect 100 per cent of their salary while this situation lasts."

Lionel Messi Sergio Busquets Barcelona Betis

This was a massive and noble gesture on the part of the Blaugrana squad, one that should not be overlooked.

However, there is no denying that the most significant part of Messi's announcement was the pointed reference he made to articles printed in recent days claiming that the players were reluctant to agree to the salary cut.

The Argentine not only dismissed the veracity of the stories, he also, far more significantly, claimed that they had come out of Camp Nou.

"It didn’t surprise us that inside the club there are some trying to put us under the microscope and pressure us into doing something that we were always clear we would do," Messi wrote.

This was an extremely significant development in the relationship between the dressing room and the boardroom, which has been in decline since Neymar's transfer to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017.

The failed attempt to bring the Brazilian attacker back to Barcelona last summer also heightened the tension between the club's most influential players and their president, as the Blaugrana didn't have sufficient funds to make the deal happen, given their €120 million outlay on Antoine Griezmann earlier in the window.

There was a suspicion in the dressing room that Bartomeu didn't want to re-sign Neymar; he merely wanted to be seen trying to re-sign the forward.

Speculation that one thing was being said in public and another in the boardroom only intensified when Cadena SER claimed in February that Barca had hired a public relations company to "protect" Bartomeu's reputation via social media accounts and "erode" the image of his enemies, including former players, election candidates and even Messi.

Bartomeu acknowledged that Barca had indeed employed I3 Ventures – who were tied to one of the social media accounts mentioned in Cadena SER's expose – to "monitor different areas of the club online" but insisted that the allegations that the company had been hired to discredit anyone were "totally false".

He nonetheless terminated the club's working relationship with I3 Ventures. That was never going to kill the story – or lessen the tension.

Messi had reacted cautiously to the whole affair.

"It's weird that something like this happens, but we will have to wait to see if it is true or not," he told Mundo Deportivo.

Tellingly, Messi demonstrated no such restraint in his wage cut statement.

Lionel Messi Barcelona

By saying that the players were "unsurprised" by the media coverage, he clearly feels that there are figures within the club who are surreptitiously trying to cast the players in an unfavourable light and has evidently had enough of the perceived behind-the-scenes skulduggery by making his frustrations known publicly.

Bartomeu, for his part, was quick to support Messi's assertion that the skipper and his colleagues had always intended to cut their wages for the good of the club.

"He told me from day one that this reduction had to be made," the president told Sport.

"Perhaps [the players] have been frustrated by things said by people inside and outside the club, who do not have all the information.

"But the negotiations were carried out only by Oscar Grau and me, and we have not said anything."

When asked by Catalunya Radio who was responsible for the leaks, Bartomeu replied, "I don't know."

What we do know, though, is that what should have been a positive news story championing the unity of the club has instead exposed the deep divisions at its very core.

This season alone, Gerard Pique has criticised Barca's pre-season schedule, Sergio Busquets has questioned the club's transfer strategy, Arturo Vidal has threatened legal action over unpaid bonuses, and Messi has clashed with technical director Eric Abidal over allegations that some players didn't try hard enough under former coach Ernesto Valverde, who was sacked by Bartomeu even though no replacement had been lined up.

Hardly surprising, then, that in the first home game after the PR company scandal, chants of “Bartomeu, resign!” rang out around Camp Nou.

The pressure on the president has only intensified this week and there have already been calls for the 2021 election to be brought forward to this summer.

Bartomeu is unable to seek a third term but he has repeatedly spoken of his desire to see out the final year of his tenure.

Consequently, another political battle is brewing at Barcelona. And Bartomeu and Messi are already fighting for control of the army that cannot be defeated.

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