Barcelona were plunged into crisis on Tuesday night when the captain Lionel Messi publicly called out the sporting director Eric Abidal, challenging him to name names and accusing him of tarnishing the players’ reputation.
The Argentinian furiously reacted to what he saw as Abidal’s attempt to lay the blame for the sacking of Ernesto Valverde with the players, and demanded that the Frenchman take responsibility for his own decisions. His outburst is all the more significant because Messi has a clause in his contract which enables him to unilaterally walk away for free at the end of the season.
Abidal claimed that Barcelona’s players had not been happy with Valverde, who was sacked on 13 January, and that they had not been working hard enough under their former manager. The response from Messi was swift, public and unequivocal.
It will also have lasting consequences, bringing internal division into the open and laying bare the deep dissatisfaction many in the dressing room feel with the club’s board. An atmosphere of tension already surrounded the club, with criticism growing of the current president Josep Maria Bartomeu and the accusations of failure at an institutional as well as a footballing level.
In an interview with the Catalan newspaper Sport on Tuesday, Abidal said that “lots of players were not satisfied [with Valverde] and nor did they work a lot”, adding: “There was also an issue of internal communication. The relationship manager-dressing room has always been good but there are things that, as a former player, I can smell. I told the club what I thought and that [I thought] a decision had to be made.”
Abidal said that he had started to look into replacing Valverde following the clásico on 18 December. He was eventually sacked after a public pursuit of potential replacements, starting with Xavi Hernández and Ronald Koeman and going through a handful of other candidates before, backed into a corner, finally settling on Quique Setién.
Messi reacted by posting a picture of the interview on Instagram, with a red circle around the subhead which read: “the man in charge of the sporting directorate explains that ‘lots of players were not satisfied and nor did they work much.’” Underneath, he denied that the sacking was he players’ responsibility and accused Abidal of “dirtying” the squad.
“Honestly, I don’t like doing these things but I think that everyone has to be responsible for his acts and take responsibility for their own decisions,” Messi wrote. “The players [are responsible for] what happens on the pitch, and we have been the first to recognise when we were not good. The people in the sporting directorate should also assume their responsibility and above all take ownership of the decisions they make.
“Finally, I think that when players are talked about, names should be given because, if not, we are all being dirtied and it feeds comments that are made and are not true.”
Messi’s response can also be seen in the context of Abidal’s claim, in a defiant, challenging tone, that there had been no offer made to Xavi to take over, effectively accusing the former player of lying. “If [Xavi] has the offer, show everyone,” the sporting director said, adding: “He doesn’t have so much experience.”
In the summer, Messi had amditted tat he wanted the club to sign Neymar, which they failed to do. “I don’t know if they did everything they could,” he admitted. Nor did they succeed in bringing in a striker during this transfer window.
Abidal is a former teammate of Messi’s but his position is likely to become untenable now. He was already under threat after the way the search for a manager was handled and following a transfer window in which Barcelona failed so sign a striker and instead sold two forwards, Carlos Pérez and Abel Ruiz to raise funds and make way for a player who never came.
That sense of crisis and collapse was deepened on Tuesday when it was confirmed that Ousmane Dembélé will be out for the rest of the season with a ruptured tendon in his thigh, while Luis Suárez is also not expected to be back to full fitness until the final weeks of the season at best. The spectre of losing Messi, so often the man holding Barcelona together in recent years, is a terrifying one for the club.