It’s a remarkable statistic. Before Sunday’s Spanish Super Cup final, Lionel Messi had never been sent off in 752 appearances for Barcelona.
The legendary forward had been dismissed twice while playing for Argentina (against Hungary on his international debut in 2005, and again against Chile in 2019), but had never seen red while playing for his club.
That changed over the weekend, however, when Messi was sent for an early bath by referee Jesus Gil Manzano for hitting out at Athletic Bilbao’s Asier Villalibre.
As Barça attacked in search of a dramatic late equaliser which would have forced a penalty shootout, Messi sent Villalibre to the deck with an off-the-ball swipe.
"It seemed to me a clear aggression from Messi,” Villalibre told reporters, per Rik Sharma, after the match. “I put my body in the way, he got mad and he hit me in the face with his hand."
Messi, who now faces a ban of between four and 12 matches, could have no complaints with the decision. The six-time Ballon d’Or winner deserved to be sent off and he knew it.
Later on Sunday evening, rival fans began to share a two-minute video which shows Messi involved in all sorts of previous altercations and controversies that could easily have led to previous red cards.
On all occasions, however, he managed to avoid being dismissed.
“One of the most dirtiest players ever finally gets what he has been deserving since years,” @FutbolMuu wrote. “The most protected player ever not protected anymore. Justice.”
Stamps, late challenges, pushes on referees, headbutts… the video makes him look like La Liga’s version of Joey Barton, which is perhaps slightly unfair.
That said, it’s clear that Messi has been rather fortunate to avoid a red card while wearing a Barcelona shirt until now.
Former Atletico Madrid left-back Filipe Luis once complained that Messi was protected by La Liga and the media in Spain.
"Here he is 'the protected one' by the press and La Liga,” Luis said, per The Mirror, after he was sent off for a challenge on Messi in 2016. "Obviously nobody wants one of the best players of all time to be out and miss the opportunity to see him playing, that's where all of this came from."
With Messi now potentially approaching the final months of his stay in Spain’s top flight, perhaps we’ll see more referees cracking down on his conduct between now and the end of the season.