Neil Humphreys: Wrong move if Messi leaves Barca for Chelsea
PAPER TALK: Spain’s Marca (above) says ‘Barca fall apart’, while England’s Sun (below) reports on Messi’s Chelsea connection. PHOTOS: INTERNET SCREENSHOTS
The Premier League's daftness has no limits.
Lunatics often run the asylum in the New Year and the Lionel Messi conspiracy theorists are having a field day.
Between the festive fixture mayhem and the closing of the transfer window, English football suffers a bit of a lull so rumour-mongers tend to clutch straws quicker than Messi logs onto his laptop.
According to a flurry of feverish reports, the Argentinian is joining Chelsea because he has decided to follow the club's Instagram account.
He has also followed Cesc Fabregas and Filipe Luis and both Messi and Chelsea are united by their stripes of adidas.
So it must be a done deal. (I follow JJ Abrams and Mark Hamill on Twitter and own a Star Wars T-shirt, but that doesn't mean I'm joining the cast for Episode VII).
Still, Roman Abramovich is reportedly considering a £200 million ($408m) deal for a player who enjoys a near-religious reverence around Barcelona and owns every domestic and continental honour that could be bestowed upon the world's most accomplished practitioner of perfect football in the last decade.
The only flaw in this argument, however, is that it makes no sense whatsoever.
Messi has never shown the slightest interest in playing in the faster, scruffier, relentless English Premier League. And why would he?
He rules La Liga with an iron will and a feather-light left foot.
Without ever losing his endearing common touch, Messi walks among kings. He's feted by Spanish royalty and practically canonised by the Catalans.
On the continental stage, he's Alexander the Great. There are no more worlds to conquer. The World Cup remains the elusive Holy Grail, but a stint at Stamford Bridge is hardly going to bring that particular trophy any closer.
If anything, the silly speculation only reveals the Premier League's inherent arrogance.
Strip away the daft stories, mostly put forward by British or EPL-supporting media, and the naked ego is exposed.
There is a faint whiff of old-school prejudice about the Premier League's alleged superiority here.
Messi might be the all-time leading scorer in La Liga and the Champions League and owns four Ballon d'Or trophies, but he needs to go to Stoke on a wet Wednesday night to really prove his mettle.
Such parochial sentiments have long hung around the British game, like BO in a dressing room.
George Best was often put forward as a better player than Pele not because he had the superior talent, but because he performed on inferior pitches.
Pele shone only in the Santos sun, whereas Best battled on bone-hard surfaces to overcome the wind, rain and snow of Manchester's bleak mid-winter (often all in the same game).
Even if the argument had merit in the 1960s (and it's easily disputed), Messi makes a mockery of such hoary hogwash.
Beyond the top four, most of Messi's La Liga opponents can't compete, so they kick him instead.
The son of a factory worker who left home at 13 to join Barcelona is a born survivor. Messi rides roughshod over every cynical tackle. He rises above the raised studs.
Three Champions League triumphs incorporated different climates, surfaces and environments and still Messi prevailed.
So the idea, no matter how casual or fleeting, that there is unfinished business, that Messi still has a professional itch that only the Premier League can scratch is ludicrous.
He doesn't crave the Premier League spotlight any more than he lusts after Abramovich's lucre.
The hype would be insufferable and the inflated expectations unbearable (and the thought of him being berated by Jose Mourinho for not tracking back enough doesn't bear thinking about; it'd be like a tennis coach attacking Roger Federer for not hitting the ball hard enough).
Watching Messi from afar for so long makes him more myth than man.
From a distance, he's superman. Up close against the Premier League's parked buses, he might struggle to lift every one of them. He might occasionally look like Clark Kent.
Messi surely has no desire to take on the cliched challenge of facing Stoke on a wet Wednesday night to prove his manliness.
He has nothing to prove. It's a backward step.
An immortal doesn't need to be a real man.
Barca in turmoil
Five days of 2015 was all it took for crisis mode to envelop Barcelona as two club legends Andoni Zubizarreta and Carles Puyol left their roles with the Catalan giants following a shock 1-0 defeat by David Moyes' Real Sociedad last weekend.
Yet, worse could still be to come with rumours of dressing room discontent between coach Luis Enrique and star players such as Lionel Messi and Gerard Pique, bringing Enrique's position under serious threat should they fail to comfortably see off Elche in the Copa del Rey on Friday morning (Singapore time) and beat La Liga champions Atletico Madrid at home on Monday morning.
Zubizarreta's sacking as the club's sporting director by president Josep Maria Bartomeu on Monday came as little surprise.
Bartomeu is fighting a losing battle to see out his mandate until 2016 and needed a scapegoat for the one-year transfer ban imposed on the club by Fifa for irregularities in the signing of minors, which rules out any further reinforcements to the playing squad until next January.
Anticipating the ban, Zubizarreta was in charge of Barca's near 160 million euros' ($255m) splurge on seven new players over the summer which has so far proved largely unsuccessful.
The most expensive signing in the club's history, Luis Suarez, has scored just one league goal, while 18m-euros defender Thomas Vermaelen is yet to make his debut for the club after being sidelined until April with a hamstring injury.
However, there was widespread shock when former captain Puyol decided to follow Zubizarreta out by resigning.
The 36-year-old intimated his departure from the Nou Camp may be fleeting, stating that he hoped "to grow both personally and professionally so that, in the future, I can return home".
Yet, it was another major body blow for a beleaguered board to lose an icon with a lot more recent credit with the fans, having won three Champions League and six La Liga titles in the past decade.
Indeed, in the brief period between Zubizarreta's sacking and Puyol's resignation, the latter was being touted as the ideal man to step into the role of sporting director with a year to properly learn the ropes before having to dive into the transfer market.
Instead, reports in Spain yesterday suggest that Fiorentina's sporting director Eduardo Macia will be approached for the role.
The boardroom unease has spread onto the pitch as Barca failed to capitalise on Real Madrid's first defeat in 23 games last Sunday away to Valencia, as just hours later, they suffered a third league defeat of the season with Enrique having left nearly 300m euros of talent on the bench.
Messi was among those left on the sidelines after returning to Spain from his Christmas break in Argentina only 48 hours before the match.
The four-time World Player of the Year then missed an open training session in front of the club's fans on Monday due to a reported stomach bug.
However, the rumour mill churned into overdrive when the Argentinian followed Chelsea's official account and their players Cesc Fabregas, Filipe Luis and Thibaut Courtois on the social networking site Instagram later in the day.
Selling Messi, particularly in the midst of a transfer ban, is unthinkable even for a Barca board on the brink.
On the contrary, getting he, Neymar and Suarez playing well together on a consistent basis appears to be the Catalan side's only hope of claiming some silverware come the end of the season.
Should Enrique fail to provide the necessary answers when Diego Simeone's Atletico revisit the scene of their title triumph last season, he may be next to face the brunt of Bartomeu's blame game. - AFP.