It’s been a while since Lionel Messi’s last in-depth interview with a major news outlet, but one has just landed today from Barcelona-based daily SPORT. Given the timing in early September, the main focus is on Barça’s offseason — eight straight questions were leveled at Messi concerning the club’s failure to bring Neymar back from Paris Saint-Germain.
It wasn’t a secret, but the Argentine openly admits that he wanted the Brazilian back at the Camp Nou.
“Honestly, yes. I would have loved to have Neymar back,” Messi says. “I understand those people who are against his return and it’s understandable for what happened with Ney and the way that he left. But thinking about it on a sporting level, I personally think Neymar is one of the best players in the world and having him in our squad would increase our chances of achieving our objectives. But, in the end, it didn’t happen and we have to only think about the squad we have and focus on our goals.”
The remainder of the Neymar-focused questions attempted to provoke a response from Messi that could be seen as being aimed at Barcelona’s board of directors, but the 32-year-old remained steadfast in his claim that he really had no clue how far along negations ultimately went — he only knows that Neymar was committed to leaving Paris and returning to Barcelona.
“I don’t know what happened with the board,” Messi said. “I know that I spoke with Neymar and he told me how things were going. He was desperate to come back. I don’t know if the club really tried or not. What I do know, Neymar was hoping it would happen. I also understand it’s very difficult to negotiate with PSG after all their previous back and forth issues with Barcelona. And it’s difficult because Ney is one of the best around. Negotiations are never easy. I can’t offer an opinion because I don’t know everything. I know what was published and what they said.”
As for the present, Messi’s scheduled return date after suffering a calf injury on his first day of preseason training remains a mystery. The attacker has ruled himself out of Saturday’s monster clash with Valencia at the Camp Nou, and it doesn’t sound like he’ll be fit for next Tuesday’s Champions League fixture against Borussia Dortmund.
“I am still training on my own and I do not have a fixed date for my return,” he said. “I will do tests and when we see that I am 100% fit, I’ll be ready. I won’t play against Valencia and we’ll see if I’ll be fit in time for Dortmund or Granada (Sept. 21). But as I said, I don’t have a fixed date to return.”
As for the future, Messi isn’t concerned about being considered a favorite for the 2019 Ballon d’Or award. His only obsession is with old “Big Ears.”
“When we start the season we always say the same thing: that we want to win everything and try our best to achieve that,” he says. “I hope we can settle in quickly, we want to win every title. But it’s clear I would like to win the Champions League because it’s been a long time since I last did that. As a club, and on a personal level, we must win the Champions League.”
There’s also been a lot of talk recently surrounding Messi’s contract at Barcelona and the far-fetched notion that he could leave on a free transfer at the end of the season. But the 32-year-old certainly doesn’t sound like a man that’s angling for a move — he just wants to ensure that he’s at Barcelona because he’s at his best, not because he’s tied down to a longterm contract into his late 30s.
“What I can say is that I want to be at Barcelona as long as possible. I’ve said throughout my career that this is my home. But I also don’t want to have a longterm contract and only be here because of it. I want to be here because physically I’m fine, to play and be an important member of the squad. And as I said before, I need to see there’s a winning team because I want to keep winning things at this club. For me, money or a clause don’t mean anything. Other things motivate me and the most important thing is having a winning team.”
However, his annoyance at how the Neymar saga closed and his need for evidence of a “winning team” at Barça doesn’t paint the rosiest picture of current relations between player and club. The additions of Frenkie de Jong and Antoine Griezmann obviously show Barcelona’s desire to win now, but is the gap between the Catalan club and English giants Liverpool and Manchester City narrowing or widening?
In a revealing interview with The Guardian’s Sid Lowe today, Dani Ceballos (on loan at Arsenal from Real Madrid) said exactly what Messi fears: “I’ve never seen anything like what I saw at Anfield; I haven’t seen a team that plays better, that presses like them, the way the fans carry them along. They take the air from you.”
With Messi, all things are always possible for Barça. But it’s undeniable that the two English clubs are threatening a period of European hegemony.
“My idea is to continue here for as long as I can perform well and my body allows me to do that,” Messi says. “Obviously, I want to win and I want to win at this club. This is my home. I don’t have any intention of going anywhere but I want to keep competing and winning.”
Finally — the only question that really matters — is that dinner with Cristiano Ronaldo going to happen?!
“I don’t know if there will be a dinner because I don’t know if our paths will cross for obvious reasons, each one of us has our own life and our own commitments. But obviously I would accept the invitation.”