Lionel Messi hands in Barcelona transfer request as fans protest outside Camp Nou

Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona looks on during the La Liga match between FC Barcelona and RC Deportivo La Coruna at Camp Nou stadium on October 15, 2016 in Barcelona, Spain.

Lionel Messi has never been closer to leaving Barcelona at any point in his 20 years at the Catalan club.

Representatives of the Argentine attacker sent a certified fax to the Barca board on Tuesday afternoon outlining the 33-year-old’s intention to walk away from Camp Nou for free this summer.

Messi’s contract expires in 2021, but the club captain has told Barca he wants to activate a clause which allowed him to leave this summer.

Football Flame understands that clause expired in June, with Messi obliged to tell the club in May if he had wanted to depart.

However, with the season extended due to Covid-19, the Argentine's interpretation is that the clause would be applicable until the end of this month.

Barca are confident that the clause is not valid now and insist that their star player can only leave if another club pays his release clause, which stands at €700 million.

Messi has expressed his frustrations on a number of occasions in recent months.

In January, the Argentine was unhappy at claims by former sporting director Eric Abidal that the players were not training properly under Ernesto Valverde.

There was also anger over the coach’s dismissal, followed by reports that the board had paid a social media company to protect the reputation of president Josep Maria Bartomeu and discredit others, including Messi.

The season then ended with a humiliating 8-2 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, after Messi had twice warned that the team were not good enough to win the competition.

Barca’s transfer policy has been another bone of contention, following a run of poor signings in recent seasons and a failed attempt to bring back Neymar last summer, when the Argentine admitted he did not know if the club had done all they could to re-sign the Brazilian.

Messi interrupted his holiday to meet with new coach Ronald Koeman last week, but the Dutchman’s short phone call to tell Luis Suarez he was no longer wanted by Barcelona may have been the final straw for the Argentine and a big turnaround will now be needed to keep him at Camp Nou.

Bartomeu’s exit might help and around 300 fans protested outside the club’s stadium on Tuesday night to demand his resignation.

But Bartomeu has denied reports that he is set to hand in his notice and is understood to be closing ranks amid the latest crisis at Camp Nou.

And even if Messi were to leave, the 2020-21 campaign would still be a transitional season - with Koeman and without Suarez.

Messi, at the age of 33, wants a winning project and does not have time to wait as he approaches the end of his career.

That said, he was also part of the debacle against Bayern. None of Barca’s players performed well in the 8-2 loss and there is some frustration among the fans that Messi has not spoken since the Champions League quarter-final exit.

After the game, defender Gerard Pique said he would be prepared to leave if he was part of the problem, but Messi is the club captain and he has stayed silent.

The situation now seems to be beyond a power play or a call for change, but the Argentine’s potential departure remains complicated.

At this stage of his career, Messi would want to stay in Europe and try to win another Champions League, but only a handful of clubs could afford him.

Manchester City and Inter Milan would likely lead the race for his signature.

The Premier League champions would be able to offer a mouth-watering reunion with Pep Guardiola and a strong sporting project ready to challenge on all fronts, while a move to Italy would appear more suitable because of the language, culture and for family reasons.

In the meantime, intense and difficult days lie ahead at Barcelona as everyone associated with the club comes to terms with an unthinkable and unwanted reality: that after 731 games, 634 goals, 34 titles and 16 seasons at Camp Nou, Messi may never play for the Blaugrana again.

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