BARCELONA, Spain (AP) - Barcelona’s president and manager defended Lionel Messi on Saturday from criticism for his erratic play during the team’s recent collapse, and made sure to stamp out any talk of the club’s all-time leading scorer leaving Camp Nou.
Barcelona president Josep Bartomeu said the club would offer to improve Messi’s contract so he “will lead the future” of the team, while coach Gerardo Martino diverted the blame for their struggles to his own coaching performance.
Messi has been hammered in the media for his lackluster showings in each loss, when he appeared to give little effort to help his side for long periods.
“We are being unfair to Leo,” Bartomeu told Esport3 television channel. “Our club members need to understand that we must take care of Messi. He has made such an important contribution to this club and he will continue to do so. That’s why we have no doubt that he will lead the future of the club. He is young, he is the best player in the world, and we believe in him.”
“We want to improve it because he deserves it and to adapt it to football’s current circumstance,” Bartomeu said.
He added that he and his board would complete the remaining two years of their mandate.
However, the squad looks set to undergo an overhaul, if Barcelona can find a way to get FIFA to remove its one-year ban on signing new players it handed out for violations in its signing of youth players.
Bartomeu said sports director Andoni Zubizarreta would lead a project to carry out a “profound remodeling” of the team.
“That people are talking about Messi’s future surprises us, I don’t take those comments seriously,” Martino said. “A football player, when he finds himself in these types of circumstances, focuses on the game. Sometimes they can play better or worse, but since it is (Messi) everything is overblown. His future must be in Barcelona until he stops playing.”
Martino is approaching the end of a tumultuous first year of a two-year contract. It is widely expected he will be fired this summer, unless Barcelona can pull off an unlikely recovery to overtake league leader Atletico and Madrid.
Martino accepted his responsibility for the team’s sudden decline, which will likely leave it without a major trophy for the first time since the 2007-08 season.