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By Joseph Walker
BARCELONA (Reuters) -Barcelona was forced to let star player Lionel Messi leave the club because his high wages coupled with strict La Liga financial rules could have jeopardised its future, President Joan Laporta said on Friday.
Both the club, which has suffered steep losses recently, and 34-year-old Messi had wanted to sign a new contract. But the Argentine's deal would have taken salaries to 110% of the club's earnings, a financially risky move given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Laporta said.
"The club is above everything - even above the best player in the world," Laporta told a news conference.
"We reached agreement but couldn't formalise it, because of the club's economic situation, which means we can't register the player due to salary limits," he said.
Without Messi's wages, salaries would account for 95% of Barcelona's income, while ideally, they should not exceed 70%, "so there's still a lot of work to be done", Laporta said.
Messi had wanted to sign a new contract at Barcelona on reduced terms, reportedly 50% below his latest pay, but the club was unable to come up with an arrangement that also complied with the financial rules of Spain's La Liga competition.
Messi's last contract, signed in 2017, was the most lucrative in world sport according to a January report in newspaper El Mundo. Forbes has listed him as the athlete with the world's second-highest earnings in 2021, at $130 million.
"To suddenly end like this when you thought he was already contracted again... It's really sad, really really sad," said 36-year-old student and Barca fan Jose Rivero, standing on the street in the Catalan capital.
Even fans of arch-rivals Real Madrid were sorry to see Messi leave.
"I consider Messi one of the best, if not the best player of all time," said newsstand owner Roberto, 63, at his kiosk in the Spanish capital.
Laporta said the club had lined up two new deals with Messi, firstly a two-year deal made payable over five years, and then a separate five-year deal, but could not get either deal done because of La Liga's Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules.
Messi's father and agent Jorge Messi did not reply to Reuters' requests for comment.
Laporta said they would have been able to get Messi's deal over the line had they agreed to La Liga's proposed 2.7 billion euro injection from CVC https://www.reuters.com/lifestyle/sports/spains-la-liga-agrees-sell-10-stake-cvc-nyt-2021-08-04, but he was not willing to gamble on that for the short-term gain, while the club considered CVC's investment well below what 10% of La Liga is worth.
"In order to meet FFP, Barca had to agree to an operation, essentially re-mortgaging the club, which would affect us for the next 50 years in terms of TV rights, and I had to make the decision," he said.
La Liga president Javier Tebas wrote on Twitter however that the CVC deal would not mortgage those rights for 50 years, but rather "ensure they are more valuable for all clubs".
Laporta said the coronavirus-impacted 2020-21 season's financial losses, now put around 400 million euros, would be double what had been expected and the club needed to think about its future rather than putting itself "at risk for the next 50 years" just for the sake of just meeting FFP criteria.
Messi has been at the club for all of his playing career, but Barcelona announced on Thursday that the six-time Ballon d'Or winner would leave after 18 years.
Barca's all-time top scorer and appearance maker technically ended his 21-year association with the club at the end of June and is currently a free agent after his previous contract expired.
Messi, who joined Barcelona aged 13, has helped the club claim 10 league titles, four Champions Leagues and three Club World Cups during a glittering career.
The Argentine's next move remains unclear and for now he remains without a club ahead of the 2021-2022 season.
He has long been linked with a move to Manchester City, where he would be reunited with his former Barcelona boss Pep Guardiola or France's Paris St Germain.
PSG manager Mauricio Pochettino told reporters on Friday that Messi is an "option" that is being evaluated by the club, without elaborating.
Manchester City's Guardiola said the Premier League champions had no plans to make a move for Messi.
Still, some observers believe that the announcement of Messi's departure is actually Barca boldly calling La Liga's bluff over its financial rules.
Laporta lamented the financial situation that he had inherited from former club president Josep Maria Bartomeu, describing it as "far, far worse" than anticipated.
"I don't want to go on and on about the situation we inherited, and the awful decisions that were made in the past. We have gone from bad to worse," he said.
(Reporting by Joseph Walker, Nathan Allen and Joan Faus; Additional reporting by Jordi Rubio and Luis Felipe Castilleja; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Hugh Lawson)