After asking the president of FC Barcelona if the newly-renovated Camp Nou will have a Lionel Messi statue, the answer that comes back encapsulates the mood around the club after the midweek win over Liverpool.
‘No, it will have 10!’ says Josep Bartomeu laughing. ‘We’ve got one of Ladislao Kubala. We’re working on one of Johan Cruyff. And the day that Messi retires — well, I won’t be president because he’ll outlast me. He has so much football still to give.’
No one at the club wants to contemplate Messi’s retirement and even more so as Barca’s president sits down with The Mail on Sunday 24 hours after the Argentine’s dismantling of Liverpool.
Lionel Messi is mobbed by his team-mates after a stunning individual display against Liverpool
Josep Bartomeu believes the talisman who destroyed the Reds has more to give for the club
‘I still think it’s a long way off,’ says Bartomeu. ‘He’s only 31. Look at the power in that free kick. He’s a long way out and that ball really flies. He’s stronger than ever.’
Barcelona are due to begin rebuilding the Camp Nou in the summer of 2020.
‘That will be flattened,’ says Bartomeu as he looks out of his office window at the club’s Mini Estadi across the road.
It has hosted Barcelona B-team matches since 1982. It will be replaced by a new arena for the club’s basketball, handball, roller hockey and indoor football teams. In total, the renovation work could end up totalling £510million.
Everything should be finished by 2023. That sounds like the perfect distraction for fans trying not to think about Messi’s retirement – he’ll be 35.
‘Well that’s you saying that, not me,’ says Bartomeu still beaming. ‘I hope Leo plays on until he’s 45! I don’t know what he wants to do but it would be fantastic to have him in the team when we inaugurate the new stadium.’
(L-R) Naby Keita, Fabinho, James Milner and Virgil van Dijk try to shackle the Argentina star
Messi waves to the Nou Camp crowd after scoring his second goal against the Reds
He knows he’s hit the jackpot presiding over the club in the era of its greatest ever player.
‘Presidents from other teams, when they come to the Camp Nou the first thing they say is: “Is Messi going to play today?” They support their teams but they love football and want to see him,’ he says.
There will have been disappointment in the Celta Vigo directors’ box on Saturday night with Messi rested ahead of Tuesday’s second leg at Anfield.
His two goals against Liverpool leave him 90 minutes from his fourth Champions League final in 10 years. He has lit up the competition that most in football agree is the greatest in the game.
Bartomeu says he’s a Champions League fan. ‘It’s “la leche!”,’ he says, using that strange Spanish idiom that translates literally as ‘It’s the milk!’ but means something like ‘It’s the business!’
But he sits on the executive board of the European Clubs Association, playing a part in talks to shape the next wave of changes that will take effect in 2024. So why change the Champions League when it is such a spectacular success?
Messi has led Barcelona to La Liga title and they look set to reach the Champions League final
‘Because we are going to change it for the better,’ comes the reply. ‘Nothing is perfect. The process of improving something never stops.’
Will this mean a closed European Super League with permanent members there on historical name, not merit, and matches played at weekends? Bartomeu allays some of those fears, others less so.
‘Barcelona has already openly said that we are against matches being played at weekends,’ he says. ‘We have a very strong league and we enjoy playing in it.’
On the subject of a meritocracy there are mixed messages.
‘We should remember that Barcelona’s basketball team is in the Euroleague because we have a permanent position in it by contract. We did this in basketball many years ago. But right now it’s not on the table to make a closed Champions League. Until 2024 it will continue to be the same.’
And if that sounds like the change is eventually coming, he adds: ‘Barcelona does not support a Super League and UEFA know that.’
‘I still think (retirement) is a long way off… look at the power in that free kick,’ says Bartomeu
He says what supporters want is more European fixtures. ‘It was 11 years since we had played against Manchester United in the Camp Nou. With Liverpool we hadn’t played them since 2006. That shouldn’t be normal.’
Quite how more games can be fitted in without the Champions League encroaching on domestic calendars doesn’t seem to be up for explanation just yet.
‘I’m not going to get into details because it is not down to me to do that but it will be a lot more attractive for the fans from 2024. You will like it.’ But what if we don’t? This season’s tournament does seem to have topped most before it, in terms of excitement. And is there another twist coming this week in the second leg at Anfield?
‘There’s no euphoria here,’ says the Barcelona president. ‘When we scored the second goal we weren’t playing our best football and we were under huge pressure from Liverpool.’
Messi’s intervention changed everything, as it so often has over the last decade. As he prepares for another semi-final in England, it is worth recalling the times he was linked with a move here.
Bartomeu sat down to discuss all things Barcelona with Sportsmail’s PETE JENSON
‘No, no, it hasn’t been hard,’ says Bartomeu convincingly when asked if it has been difficult to keep him.
‘What matters is that we have been able to have good players and coaches with the same very clearly defined philosophy.
‘Whoever the coach is, it’s the same way of playing so Messi feels very comfortable here. Why would he change it for another club with a different concept of football, why would he go elsewhere?’
That suggests that no matter how much Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain offered, Messi would never have left. Does Bartomeu still fear the threat of football’s nation-state funded clubs? ‘It’s not a threat, it’s a reality,’ he says. ‘They have unlimited resources.’
After losing Neymar to PSG in 2018 does he still have any faith in Uefa’s Financial Fair Play enforcement?
When PSG signed Neymar they wrecked Barcelona’s plan for him to be the post-Messi project
‘The regulation works, I imagine,’ he says cryptically. ‘The other day I saw that PSG had some issue and because of an irregularity in the manner (of bringing the complaint against them), it didn’t succeed.
‘But I have a lot of faith in UEFA and in the football authorities. There are English clubs who have the feeling that City don’t act the way they should but I have spoken to them about this and they say the same — if the Premier League and the Champions League don’t find anything, then we have no reason to be worried.’
When PSG signed Neymar they wrecked Barcelona’s plan for the Brazilian to be the ultimate post-Messi project.
‘He had the chance to be the No 1 when Messi went,’ says Bartomeu. ‘It never worked out that way and we got a lot of money and we invested in two players, Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele.’
Neymar moved to escape Messi’s shadow and win the Balon d’Or. As things stand, that prize is shaping up to be Messi’s once more.
‘This year I wouldn’t give him the Balon d’Or,’ jokes Bartomeu. ‘He’s beyond that now. He’s in a category of his own. For years now he’s just been competing against himself. There are other great players but he is in another dimension.’