The day Barcelona accepted that Lionel Messi must never leave
His winning goal at the Santiago Bernabeu was a defining moment, but it is Lionel Messi's contract that has elevated him to new heights.
It was the day the status of a footballing institution accepted that an individual player had finally reached an unprecedented status at a club that represents more than just a sporting entity. This was the day that Lionel Messi's place at the club that had nurtured him to the legendary figure he is today reached another level. The day was the 25th November 2017.
A symbol of Catalonia in times of political unrest, Barcelona are indeed 'mes que un club'; a name synonymous with domestic and European success for generations, and a club represented by some of the greatest players in the world. There is no doubt that Barcelona are one of the most famous names in the history of the beautiful game.
From the famous El Clasico fixtures of the past and present to multiple successes in the UEFA Champions League, in recent years Barcelona have become a team that defines a football generation, and while former manager Pep Guardiola is widely heralded for what he created at the Camp Nou, it is Messi that has consistently implemented magic on the field over the best part of the last two decades.
But as one of the world's leading clubs, Barcelona are no different to their rivals in terms of implementing a ruthless transfer streak that ensures they remain in contention to be the very best. There is no room for sentiment or complacency when their rivals are spending huge sums to lure the best players in the world their way, and with loyalty increasingly limited in the modern game, the highest bidders inevitably get their man.
Over the course of an average career, a player will improve, peak and decline. It is widely accepted that once an outfield player has turned 30 they will head into the latter stage of this career trajectory, and for the biggest clubs, this is usually the time to find a replacement and say goodbye. There are exceptions to the rule, but few players are rewarded at this stage of their career quite like Messi.
Because on the 25th November 2017, the 30-year old Messi signed a new lucrative contract to keep him at the Camp Nou until the 2020/21 season. With the buyout clause set at an eye-watering €700 million, it is fair to assume that the diminutive Argentinian will see out his new deal at the club he joined as a 13-year old in 2000.
For such a big club to offer a 30-year old a new long-term contract is rare, and also a huge financial risk. However, while Barcelona have already shown in the January transfer window that they have ambitions to strengthen and improve their squad with the investment in Philippe Coutinho, there are political motives attached to Messi's new contract which serve only to emphasise his status.
Recently there have been reports that Messi could have been tempted away from Barcelona as Real Madrid dominated both domestically and in Europe, but manager Ernesto Valverde has settled the ship this season, and has shown impressive man-management to keep a talented squad content. Only a handful of clubs could afford Messi, but his commercial value alone would make him a bargain at any price.
But Messi is more than a cash cow, and it is his undoubted talent as a footballer that makes him worth his weight in gold. Considered as one of, if not the best, player of all time, his close control and ability to finish from any angle with effortless ease has provided some of the most defining footballing moments of the last two decades.
Valverde has had to manage Messi effectively, and the occasional rest has had a positive impact on his overall contribution to the cause. He clearly still has the magic in his feet, and he will be a pivotal figure behind whatever Barcelona achieve this season. His rivalry with Cristiano Ronaldo provides further motivation, and with both players unwilling to play second fiddle to the other, they have pushed each other to unprecedented heights.
From a playing perspective alone, Messi at the present time would be difficult to replace, but over the remaining years of his contract, his powers will inevitably wane. New players will arrive to challenge for his coveted number 10 shirt, but it will remain in his possession while he remains a Barcelona player, and the chances are that it will remain his on merit.
But there are many other elements to consider when assessing Messi's status at the club. President Josep Maria Bartomeu could have cashed in on his prized asset, but regardless of how the money was spent, he would forever be remembered as the President that let Messi leave the Camp Nou. It is a label that would never be forgotten, or forgiven.
Players such as John Cruyff, Ronaldinho, Diego Maradona, Romario, Ronaldo, Hristo Stoichkov, Ronald Koeman and many other legendary figures have represented Barcelona with great distinction over the years, but they were all considered to be replaceable when the time was right. Appreciating that you merely serve Barcelona is an accepted part of playing for such a great club.
But Messi is different, and that is why he has elevated himself to a position that puts him above any other figure that has ever graced the club. From sporting to commercial perspectives, Messi is an irreplaceable figure. His status commands that the fans would not forgive his departure, and as the individual that defines and symbolises a club representing a region fighting for independence, the club badge has no powerful human presence without him.
Messi will take to the field at the Camp Nou for one last time in the coming years, and it will be more emotional than the exit of any of his predecessors. His inverted character will wish for a low-key departure, in direct contrast to Ronaldo when he finally says goodbye to Real Madrid, but Messi will be celebrated like a god, and he will forever hold a powerful influence at the club long after his retirement.
And so, it is not the record number of goals, the Ballon d'Or trophies, the Champions League successes, the club loyalty or the domestic dominance that confirm Messi's overall status at Barcelona. It is the fact the club cannot afford to lose him at any price, and Barcelona will never again hold another player in the same esteem as Lionel Messi.