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Soccer icon Messi confirms bitter Barcelona exit in tearful farewell

Barcelona announced it would not renew the legendary Argentine forward's contract Thursday, saying its ' dire financial situation made it impossible for him to stay.
Image: FBL-ESP-LIGA-BARCELONA-MESSI
FB Barcelona forward Lionel Messi cries during a news conference Sunday in Barcelona, Spain.PAU BARRENA / AFP - Getty Images

Soccer icon Lionel Messi fought back tears Sunday as he bid a painful farewell to FC Barcelona.

"I'm not ready for this," Messi, 34, said during a news conference at the club's stadium, Camp Nou — a stage on which he spent the past 17 seasons burnishing a legacy as the club's, and perhaps the sport's, greatest player ever.

"I gave everything for this club from the first day I arrived to the last," Messi told reporters at a hastily arranged event for which neither he nor the sports world appeared ready. "I never imagined having to say goodbye."

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Barcelona announced that it would not renew Messi's contract Thursday. The Catalan giants' dire financial situation and the stringent rules of the Spanish league made it impossible for him to stay despite the wishes of both parties.

"Despite club and player reaching an agreement and their clear intention to sign a new contract today, this cannot happen because of financial and structural obstacles," the club said in a brief statement.

The move left the world of soccer reeling, with its most heralded star forced to leave the only home he has ever known.

Messi said he did "everything possible" to stay.

Fans outside Barcelona's Camp Nou stadium hold up Messi's iconic jersey.Pau Barrena / AFP - Getty Images

The focus now shifts to his next move, with French giants Paris Saint-Germain — owned by the state-controlled Qatar Sports Investment group and therefore rarely short of cash — widely seen as the front-runners for his signature.

Messi did not say what his immediate plans were, but he said joining PSG was a "possibility." He said he has gotten a lot of phone calls from various clubs and has not signed anything yet.

Despite his advancing age, Messi remains a highly productive player in one of the world's most elite leagues, having scored 30 goals in 30 matches last season.

He has helped lead the team to 10 La Liga titles, and he won Europe's most prestigious competition, the Champions League, four times. Messi has also won the men's Ballon d'Or, the award honoring the world's greatest player, a record six times. Just last month, he led Argentina to its first South American championship, the Copa America, since 1993.

He leaves as Barcelona's all-time leading scorer, with 672 goals in all competitions, and he is the overall top scorer in the Spanish league with 474 goals from 520 league matches.

Messi said Sunday he would go on playing "as long as I go on being competitive and as long as my body responds."

Messi wiped tears from his face as he stood at the podium, with his wife and three sons watching on from the front row of the audience. He received roaring applause and a standing ovation, with many of his teammates gathered to watch the occasion.

Messi's departure comes at a time when athletes have become more empowered to make decisions about their careers, with NBA players and stars in other sports and leagues determined and able to craft their own futures.

But having failed to force his way out of Barcelona last year — he was unhappy with the club's direction after a run of questionable moves on and off the field — Messi must now leave against his wishes.

He had appeared set to stay at Barcelona, with Spanish media reporting that the two sides had agreed to a new five-year deal involving a 50 percent pay cut.

But the club, whose debts total well over $1 billion, seemed unable to make the deal work within the frameworks of the Spanish league's financial fair play regulations.

"It was like my blood ran cold," Messi said of the moment he was told he would have to leave Barcelona 21 years after he joined from Argentina as a boy. "It was very sad, very difficult.

"I tried to behave with humility and respect, and I hope that is what remains of me when I leave the club," he said.