Lionel Messi has changed greatly in some ways and not at all in others.
It is hard to imagine the Messi of a few years ago standing up in front of the media and speaking on behalf of his team, as he did on Tuesday night, after Argentina’s 3-0 win over Colombia.
The Barcelona No. 10 is notoriously reluctant to put himself in the spotlight off the pitch, but as captain of the Albiceleste he came out to lay down the law.
Messi and his team-mates were angry with the media, who had savaged them after the 3-0 defeat they suffered in Brazil a few days earlier, partly for that but also because of an accusation made against Ezequiel Lavezzi.
Messi and Argentina found their form against Colombia.
The Hebei China Fortune forward had, per the Daily Mail, been alleged by a journalist to have used a drug ahead of the Colombia game which led to coach Edgardo Bauza not picking him. Oliver Todd wrote:
The row surrounds an allegation from reporter Gabriel Anello, who works for Argentine radio station Radio Mitre.
Anello had tweeted: "Lavezzi is left off the substitutes’ bench tomorrow because of the joint that was smoked last night in the camp? I’m asking… just asking."
Hebei China Fortune winger Lavezzi is set to take legal action against the journalist involved in what he calls: "False statements against me and the serious damage that have generated to my family and in my work."
This was the final straw for Messi, who stood before the media and made an announcement while his team-mates postured behind him, backing him up.
Messi walked onto the stage and explained that he and the squad were here to communicate a decision they did not want to send out via a statement, preferring to "show face." He explained:
We are here to say we have made the decision not to talk to the press any more, obviously you know why. There were a lot of accusations, a lot of disrespect, and the accusations they made against Pocho [Ezequiel Lavezzi] are very serious. If we don’t say anything, the people will think that it’s like this, that it’s true. And we prefer to cut this once and for all. We’re upset that it has to be like this, but there’s no other option. We know that most of you guys don’t play that game, this game of lacking respect. We can be criticised if we lose, or win, or if we play well or badly. But this is getting into personal lives and it’s not the first time this has happened. We can’t allow it, it’s very serious. If we don’t put a stop to it now, we’ll never stop it. They will keep killing us, they will keep saying a million things, but we will not be participants in this. Many thanks and goodnight.
It’s rare to see him speak with such conviction, but another time he did so was in the aftermath of the Copa America Centenario final, when he announced he was retiring from international duty with his country.
After a short but intense period of mourning, tears spilled, the brutal pain of seeing Chile collect a trophy that could so easily have been Argentina’s—for the second year running too—Messi came out into the mixed zone and said that he’d had enough.
"That’s it," said Messi. "It’s over for me with the national team. That’s four finals. [Winning] is what I wanted most but it didn’t come.
Messi is now more comfortable speaking out.
“That’s how I feel now, what I think. I’ve done all I can. It hurts not to be a champion. It’s very hard but the decision is taken. I will not try anymore and there is no going back.”
Of course he did change his mind, but regardless, he showed plenty of character and fire for a player that some think is lacking in those departments.
The speech in support of Lavezzi was a riposte to those who don’t believe he is made of captaincy material, that he just has the armband because he is the best player.
It’s true Messi shows leadership with his feet on the pitch, but he is now doing so off of it too.
That’s not something he needed to do, just a further sign of maturity and dedication to his team.
What hasn’t changed is his pure ability to dazzle and destroy. Colombia felt the full force of it on Tuesday as he put in the same kind of performance that saw Barcelona spear Jorge Sampaoli’s Sevilla a couple of weeks before.
Messi is in sensational form at the moment, even for him.
His recent form is impressive—even going by the forward’s own stunningly high standards.
Perhaps a combination of that and his newfound “against-the-grain” character has given some media outlets the nerve to question the player’s longevity at Barcelona.
Marca published a story [link in Spanish] which claimed Messi told Barcelona in July that he didn’t want to renew his contract, which expires in June 2018.
Diario Sport rebuffed the claim, saying Barcelona believe it was an act of revenge from the Madrid newspaper for Barcelona’s snub of their awards gala in October.
Certainly, all indications coming out of the club both before and after the incident suggest that it has always been planned to deal with Messi’s extension early in 2017.
Part of that was because the club have been waiting to reach a deal with a new main sponsor, which they have now agreed with Japanese company Rakuten—earning around €55 million for each of the next four seasons.
Josep Maria Bartomeu agreeda deal with Rakuten.
President Josep Maria Bartomeu spoke at an event to announce the deal, saying per ESPN: "We’re all convinced, we’re all positive Leo Messi will end his sporting career in Barca. All the members of Barca believe this is how it has to be, because he is the player that in the last few years has brought us sporting success."
And Barcelona’s coach Luis Enrique also believes Messi will continue at Barcelona. He spoke abut it in his press conference on Friday, saying:
I imagine Lionel Messi will be at Barcelona for many years. It would be nice that a player who leaves his country to come to Barcelona and to be No. 1 in history ends up finishing his career here. I would like that, but it’s up to him. It’s something between the club and the player. To have Messi is a guarantee of what he signifies, his history, of his performance as a player, and it’s a story that should have a happy ending.
And with the exception of Messi seeing out his playing days back in Argentina for Newell’s Old Boys, the rational mind finds it hard to believe he could leave Barcelona for anything.
Then again, this is a universe in which Donald Trump is president of the United States of America, so perhaps certainty over anything should be downgraded. But for now it’s best to take Lucho’s word for it—expect Messi to continue at Barcelona for many years to come.
Rik Sharma is Bleacher Report’s lead Barcelona correspondent. All information and quotes obtained firsthand unless specified. Follow him on Twitter here: @riksharma_.