THE unthinkable, the unimaginable, the scariest thing in the world for a Barcelona fan has happened… Lionel Messi has handed in a transfer request.
Well, he didn't hand it in – he sent it in by fax, apparently sending it from his cool-air country retreat up in the hills of Catalonia.
The best player in the world could be on his way to Manchester City, Inter Milan, Paris Saint-Germain – any club with pockets deep enough to pay his £1.5million-or-so a week basic salary.
There might not, however, be a transfer fee.
Messi's team argue that a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave this summer for free should not have expired in June because of the extended season due to the Covid pandemic.
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Otherwise, his buyout clause is around the £630m mark.
That's a lot of cash, especially for a 33-year-old. Best player in the world or not.
Shortly after news leaked out from the Camp Nou last night about that fax – a 'burofax', a Spanish legal document – fans began to gather outside the ground to sing: "Messi, Messi, Messi."
Over and over again. Another demonstration is expected tonight.
Today, the mood was turning angry.
"Messi? Messi! Messi leaving?" Montse Munoz, 59, told Sunsport.
"What the hell is going on? It's not Messi who should be leaving, it's the club president. And the new boss Ronald Koeman?
"I'd expect him to handle it better. What the hell is he thinking? I am so so angry."
But others are turning on their star man, their talisman.
"Barcelona owes a lot, a lot to Messi but Messi owes much more to Barcelona," Jose Garcia, 75, told Sunsport.
"I'm glad he's going. Glad. There is a group here who have been making 'money money money', lots of money. But they're not playing for it!"
Like all divorces, the split has been a long time coming.
Messi has been unhappy for a while.
He was unhappy that the club failed to re-sign Neymar. He fell out publicly with the sporting director Eric Abidal. He didn't like the way the club implied, through leaks, that the first-team squad were resisting a 70 per cent pay cut during the coronavirus pandemic.
He apparently wasn't very keen on Quique Setien as coach, and didn't like the way his predecessor Ernesto Valverde was booted out to make way for him – then Abidal implied it was actually the first-team squad who got Valverde the bullet when they were still top of the league.
Most of all, he didn't like getting stuffed 8-2 by Bayern Munich in the Champions League.
Setien has gone. Abidal has gone. Ronald Koeman has taken over as coach and apparently the chats the two men had didn't go very well at all.
Messi was angry when he heard that his best mate at the club, Luis Suarez, was told in a cursory two-minute chat with Koeman that he was not part of his plans.
Now, that's it. The man many fans believed was a one club player is leaving. He wants out.
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Alba Lorenzo, 23, works at the souvenir stall in the Barca Museum at the Camp Nou. She thinks it's the way Suarez was treated that finally flipped Messi over the edge and into another team's shirt.
"The fact that Suarez's contract is not being renewed is what makes Messi think about not staying with the club," she told Sunsport.
"There are reports of conflicts within the team, and continuing in the team creates stress and pressure on Messi. I think that is why he's leaving."
What shirt will he pull on when the new season kicks off in only a few short weeks? Inter's? Manchester City?
Or will Barca somehow save the day and persuade him to stay?
It's still a hope of many fans, as he has played the contract game about ten times before. Sometimes it felt a bit touch and go, at the time. But he always signed a new, better deal.
His three sons were born here. His family is settled in a big house on top of a hill in sunny Castelldefels. Best pal Suarez is a neighbour.
It would be an emotional wrench for him to leave after spending two decades here.
And some wonder whether Messi has the personality to play elsewhere, where he's not rooted in the very turf of the place.
A strange land. A foreign language, nobody has heard Messi speaking English – though his wife Antonela Roccuzzo has excellent English, and their sons go to an English-speaking school.
Messi has also stated many times his wish to end his top-flight career at Barcelona, and most fans prayed that this would be so.
They had hoped for a new president in next year's elections, and a new coach in club legend Xavi soon after – with Messi the ageing leader on the field of play.
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Messi has been at the club since he was a boy, when the club's chief scout was astonished by his extra-terrestrial talents and signed a contract on a restaurant napkin.
But there has always been one unanswered question – could Messi ever be quite as good, playing for a club other than Barca?
It seems we're about to find out.
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