Could Lionel Messi really leave Barcelona?

Lionel Messi has never talked about leaving Barcelona; he has never even hinted at it. The longer the career of one of soccer’s all-time greats has continued, the more it has seemed certain he would complete his time in the game as a “one-club” man, save for perhaps a couple of farewell seasons back in his native Argentina at the very end, once his legs had slowed.

However, these are unusual times in Spanish soccer and the most startling development of all has come over the past week, with the fractures in the relationship between Messi and key figures at Barcelona laid bare.

All of which has prompted a previously unthinkable possibility: after two decades of loyal service — ever since moving overseas at the age of 12 — could Messi really take his talents elsewhere?

The ruckus came to a head when Barcelona sporting director Eric Abidal gave an ill-advised interview in which he claimed that certain players were to blame for the sacking of former head coach Ernesto Valverde, then insisted that those same players had not worked hard enough to prevent the coach’s firing with their on-field performances.

That prompted Messi to do a most un-Messi-like thing. On his Instagram account, he posted the interview’s relevant quote, circled in red, and challenged Abidal to name those he felt had not given their all.

“Many thought (Messi) was right and even those who thought Abidal might be did not consider it a good idea to say so,” wrote Sid Lowe in The Guardian. “The damage was done and it awoke the greatest fear: Messi leaving.”

Such theatrics are somewhat rare in European soccer but totally unheard of from Messi, whose shunning of the spotlight has been a recurring theme throughout his career. A devoted family man, he is not one for glitzy occasions and the Barcelona high life, nor one to give more of his time to the media than absolutely necessary.

“Honestly, I don’t like doing these things but I think that everyone has to be responsible for his acts and take responsibility for their own decisions,” Messi wrote. “The players [are responsible for] what happens on the pitch, and we have been the first to recognize when we were not good. The people in the sporting directorate should also assume their responsibility and above all take ownership of the decisions they make.”

The idea of Messi in another club’s jersey has long been thought so improbable as to not even be worth considering. Yet the longer things rumble, the more the left-footed wizard, now 32 and with a record six World Footballer of the Year awards to his name, may feel that the waning years of his career are not being maximized to their fullest potential.

Barcelona is currently second in the La Liga standings but is coming off a shaky patch, including three draws and a defeat in its last seven league games. The club has not won the Champions League for five years (hated rival Real Madrid has lifted it three times in that span) and a revolving door of sporting directors (akin to a general manager in American sports) has caused regression rather than progress.

When it was revealed several months ago that Messi had a clause in his contract allowing him to leave at the end of this season for free, no one thought much of it. They’re certainly thinking of it now.

At an awards ceremony in December he also hinted that retirement may not be far off and it is far from certain that he will seek to play towards the age of 40 like Cristiano Ronaldo, the only other player to have come close to the same level of individual excellence this past decade.

There have been growing signs of Messi’s frustration. He wasn’t pleased when the team failed to land Brazilian superstar Neymar for a return or to sign a recognized forward to make up for the prolonged injury absence of Luis Suárez.

And while even up until a couple of years ago Messi enjoyed comfort and familiarity, so much that a switch from the Catalan region where he has made his home all this time was unthinkable, it is now a little less so.

He has matured, with recent public appearances showing a more relaxed state in the public eye and even some humor in television interviews. If he was ever going to go and try something new, like a stint with Manchester City in the English Premier League or even to Italy to renew his head-to-head with Ronaldo, the time is probably now — or at least this summer.

Many thought Barcelona would try to mitigate the current damage by either forcing Abidal to issue a public apology or by firing him; such is the level of influence Messi wields and how devastating his departure would be.

Instead, it was reported on Wednesday that team president Josep Maria Bartomeu had spoken separately with the men in an attempt to secure some kind of truce and believed he had been successful in getting one.

The crisis may have been averted, or merely put on hold for a while. The real crescendo of the situation may come at the end of the season. That’s when a player capable of making the soccer world gasp with his skills could pull off the biggest stunner of them all — by leaving.