UNDER-FIRE Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu has defended his role in this summer’s sensational Lionel Messi transfer saga.
The football world was stunned when the six-time Ballon d’Or winner demanded a transfer from his boyhood club.
Messi had grown disillusioned with matters on and off the pitch, and the 8-2 Champions League thrashing by Bayern Munich proved the final straw.
He was also understood to have been furious that best pal Luis Suarez was exiled by new boss Ronald Koeman.
The Uruguayan would later go on to be sold to rivals Atletico Madrid.
Messi eventually withdrew his transfer request and agreed to stay for one more sesason, with his contract expiring next summer.
Now Bartomeu, who along with the board are facing a vote of no confidence, has said that he put the club first during the entire saga.
Speaking at a press conference, as reported by ESPN, the 57-year-old said: “I was accused of wanting to force a transfer for financial reasons to ‘balance the books.
“That’s not true. I defended the interests of the club, accepting the consequences that refusing Messi’s decision to go to one of our rivals would entail.”
Manchester City and a reunion with his old boss Pep Guardiola emerged as the most likely destination for the Argentine superstar.
But in the end Messi, and his father and agent Jorge, were persuaded to see out the remainder of his contract rather than go to war with the club in the courts.
And Bartomeu is even hoping the 33-year-old will extend his contract with the Catalans in the summer.
He added: “Messi had a contract in vigour. The option to rescind the deal unilaterally had expired.
“And the most important thing was to start a new sporting cycle with Messi in the team.
“I understand he may be angry about not leaving. I tried to explain to him and his family that we could not let him go. He’s the key to Koeman’s project.
“I hope in the future he says he’s happy, that he wants to renew his contract with the club and that he ends his career here.”
If Messi does indeed decide to go for a new challenge next summer, he has been warned he could ‘damage his reputation’.
That warning came from LaLiga president Javier Tebas who also turned on Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar for leaving the Spanish top flight.
Tebas, 58, told AFP: “We’ve been lucky to enjoy him for so many years but Messi should think very carefully about what he does next.
“If Messi left Barcelona, that reputation he has now and that has worked so well for him would be very damaged.
“It’s true he could get a better offer financially but the reputation he has after more than 20 years, I think he has to hold onto that.
“It wouldn’t be a drama. Cristiano Ronaldo left, Neymar left.
“Neymar went to PSG and I haven’t seen the French league reaching a super level because of him.
“That’s the reality. People who think the players are the ones who define a competition are wrong and I’m glad they think that way because they won’t grow.”