Lionel Messi admitted he wanted to leave Barcelona in order to get out of Spain after authorities investigated him for tax fraud.

The Argentina star and his father were found guilty of evading tax on income from image rights by a Catalonian court in 2016 and were sentenced to 21 months in prison, although this was changed to a fine a year later.

Messi has now revealed he felt so "mistreated" during the investigation that he considered quitting Barcelona so he could get out of the country, but he thinks other clubs were put off making official offers as they knew he was at heart a one-club man.

"In the years 2012, 2013 and 2014, I had a tough time," Messi told RAC1. "Yes, for the issue with the Hacienda [Spain's state tax agency]. It was really difficult for me and my family because people didn't really know what was happening. They heard things and they opined. A part of the press did the same, too.

"I think I was the first [footballer to be investigated by the Hacienda] and for that reason it was all so hard. My kids were little.

"At that time, I honestly thought about leaving. Not because I wanted to leave Barca, but to leave Spain because I felt mistreated and I didn't want to be here. I had many doors open but never anything official because everyone knew my desire was to continue but it was something which went beyond my feelings towards Barca."

Question marks over Messi's future appeared again this September when he told Sport that, although he did not want to leave Camp Nou, he was eager to be part of a "winning team".

It was suggested the 32-year-old was referring to recent Champions League frustrations, with Barca's last triumph coming in 2015 and their past two campaigns ending in humiliating defeats to Roma and Liverpool.

However, Messi has made it clear he wants to end his career with Barcelona and may even pass on his dream of playing for boyhood club Newell's Old Boys in Argentina before he retires as he does not want to uproot his family.

"It's true we struggled to get started this season, but we have a good squad with great players to be able to win everything," Messi said.

"We are here to win and to win titles. In recent years we have been close. In the last two years, it was our fault for the way we got knocked out. It wasn't the project or the coach. We have a great squad to be able to win everything.

"And obviously, if they want me, I'm delighted [to stay]. I will repeat: my idea is always to stay here. My idea and my family's idea is to end my career here."

He added that he has "always dreamed" of playing for Newell's.

"But sometimes you have to think more about the family than what you want," Messi said. "The family is the most important thing."

Messi also hopes to see former team-mate Xavi return to Barca as a coach, even if that happens after he has retired. Xavi is currently coaching Qatari side Al Sadd.

"He's in training and at some point he'll come back here," Messi added. "I have a feeling he'll be similar to [Pep] Guardiola. I don't know if I'll experience it as a player, of course."

Samuel Eto'o joked he will "kill" Xavi if his former Barcelona team-mate never coaches the Catalan giants.

Xavi, who won multiple major honours as a player at Camp Nou, has long been seen as a future Barca coach and has started his managerial career in Qatar with Al Sadd.

With Ernesto Valverde again coming under pressure amid an underwhelming opening to the season for the Catalan giants, Eto'o offered a clear suggestion on who could replace him. 

"He is the f******g boss in Qatar and in Spain," Eto'o told Cadena SER of Xavi.

"If he doesn't end up coaching Barca, I'll kill him!"

Xavi and Andres Iniesta were part of one of football's great midfields, with Eto'o hailing the latter's talent.

"In the [2006 Champions League] final in Paris he played like [Diego] Maradona, [Lionel] Messi and Cristiano [Ronaldo] combined," Eto'o added.

"I already said in my first interviews: he's the best player I have trained with.

"People were surprised I didn't say Ronaldinho or Messi, but time has proved me right.

"He's never been recognised at the level of Leo or Cristiano, but Xavi and Iniesta are at that level."

Barca's next great star could be Ansu Fati, the 16-year-old becoming the youngest player to feature for the club in the Champions League when he started against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday.

Fati already has two goals in three LaLiga appearances and Eto'o is excited by the forward's huge potential.

"Only God knows what's to come with Fati. He's very good," said the former Cameroon striker. "That one has two pairs of balls... he doesn't have one pair, he has two."

Fati has been playing alongside Barca's new signing Antoine Griezmann, who also has two LaLiga goals this term.

"Playing at Barca is like drinking a good glass of wine," Eto'o added. "Griezmann is drinking from that glass and enjoying it for a long time."

Sergio Ramos became Spain's joint most-capped player on Sunday, moving level with former Real Madrid team-mate Iker Casillas.

Captain Ramos lined up for his national team for the 167th time, as they played a Euro 2020 qualifier against the Faroe Islands.

The appearance also moved him into the top 10 for the most-capped internationals ever in a list that includes only three other Europeans - Italian Gianluigi Buffon, Latvian Vitalijs Astafjevs and Casillas.

Here we profile Spain's five most-capped players.

 

Sergio Ramos - 167 caps

Ramos, 33, made his debut back as an 18-year-old against Chile in 2005, becoming the youngest player to debut for Spain in over half a century.

He was an ever-present at right-back during the World Cup triumph in 2010, won the European Championship twice with his country and is also in the top 10 of Spain's leading scorers.

Iker Casillas - 167 caps

Another to make his international bow as a teenager, Casillas was part of Spain's Euro 2000 squad having made his debut earlier that year.

Casillas became La Roja's number one at the World Cup two years later and held onto his spot between the posts until 2016.

Xavi - 133 caps

Former Barcelona midfielder Xavi was part of Spain's Olympics squad in 2000 and went on to feature at four World Cups, three European Championships and two Confederations Cups.

He received Player of the Tournament honours when Spain won Euro 2008 and was in the Team of the Tournament line-up for both the World Cup in 2010 and Euro 2012.

Andres Iniesta - 131 caps

Xavi's former Barcelona team-mate Iniesta will most fondly be remembered as the man who finally brought the World Cup to Spain after scoring the extra-time winner in the final against Netherlands in 2010.

Iniesta landed the Player of the Tournament award at Euro 2012 and continued to star for Spain until his retirement from international football after the 2018 World Cup.

Andoni Zubizarreta - 126 caps

The only player in this list not to have played for Spain this millennium, goalkeeper Zubizarreta first pulled on the La Roja jersey in 1985.

He featured in four successive World Cups for his country and retired in 1998 as Spain's most-capped player - a record that was only broken in 2011 by Casillas.

Giuliano headed the winner as Al-Nassr earned a 2-1 home victory over Al Sadd in the AFC Champions League quarter-final first leg in Riyadh on Monday.

Xavi's side took the lead in the first half when Hassan Al Haydos' miskick fell kindly for Ali Asad to fire into the top-right corner.

The hosts hit back before half-time through Abdulrahman Al-Dossari from a corner and they won it with a well-worked goal in the 72nd minute.

Brazilian Giuliano was the matchwinner, nodding in from close range after being cleverly teed up by Feras Al-Birakan to earn a lead ahead of the return leg in three weeks.

Former Barcelona star Xavi hailed Neymar as "spectacular" as the Brazilian continues to be linked with a return to the LaLiga club.

Neymar, 27, is said to want a move back to Camp Nou after two seasons with Paris Saint-Germain.

His head coach, Thomas Tuchel, admitted to knowing about the forward's desire before the Copa America began over a month ago.

Barca have reportedly made contact with PSG about executing a deal for the player who is revered by club favourite Xavi, a team-mate of Neymar's for two seasons.

"In terms of football, he is a bomb, he is spectacular," Xavi said.

"I consider him a good guy, humble, a hard worker that gave his best at Barcelona.

"But it is Barcelona who need to make that decision. I want the best for Barca. If someone can guarantee that Neymar will have success at Barca again, I would be the first to want him to come back.

"But you never know. It all depends on Barcelona and their decisions."

While uncertainty surrounds Neymar's future, Barca have already secured one top target in Antoine Griezmann.

The France forward made his debut alongside Frenkie de Jong as Ernesto Valverde's men suffered a 2-1 defeat to Chelsea this week.

Xavi has been impressed with Netherlands international De Jong, a fellow midfielder, and also believes the experienced Arturo Vidal still has a role to play for the LaLiga champions.

"Both are good," said former Spain international Xavi, who now coaches Qatari side Al Sadd.

"Arturo Vidal gives you so many things like intensity, he gives you timing, sacrifice, he steals balls, he doesn't lose them easily. I think he is a complete footballer.

"He is a footballer with a very good level, like De Jong. We saw the other day [De Jong] is a footballer who can mark an era in Barcelona.

"He is able to dominate the game, he sees it easily and doesn't lose the ball.

"He also makes sacrifices to work defensively. I think they are top-level players, very good for Barca."

Neymar returning to Barcelona would be "incredible", though former star Xavi insisted a transfer to re-sign the Paris Saint-Germain forward would be "very difficult".

LaLiga champions Barca have been linked to Neymar, who left Camp Nou for French giants PSG in a world-record €222million deal in 2017.

PSG sporting director Leonardo confirmed Neymar – who failed to turn up to the first day of pre-season training – is available for the right price.

Xavi played alongside Neymar before moving to Qatari side Al Sadd in 2015 and the 39-year-old told Movistar: "He would be an incredible signing.

"But I see it as being difficult, honestly. I think it's very difficult.

"We have seen so many things that I thought I'd never see though, such as PSG paying €222 million, so we'll have to wait.

"There's no doubt that he's one of the best players in the world, but let's see what Barcelona do."

While Neymar's future is uncertain, Atletico Madrid star Antoine Griezmann is reportedly set to join Barca.

France international and World Cup winner Griezmann – who has a €120million release clause – will leave Atletico after five years and Barca are favourites to sign the forward.

"He's a great player, a world star," Xavi added. "He made a difference with Atletico Madrid and with France. He's an extraordinary player.

"It's still not official, but it seems like he's going to Barcelona. I think it'll be a great signing."

Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong played down comparisons to club greats Xavi and Andres Iniesta.

De Jong, 22, was signed by the LaLiga champions from Ajax in January for a reported €75million, but only made the move at the end of the season.

The Netherlands international has already been compared to Xavi and Iniesta, however, De Jong had no interest in discussing any similarities.

"I don't want to be compared with those players," De Jong told Barca TV.

"It's the perfect club for a midfielder. They hold onto the ball well, they control the play, it suits me perfectly."

De Jong joins Barcelona after a fine season with Ajax, winning a domestic double and reaching the Champions League semi-finals.

Barca were also eliminated in the semis, continuing their wait for a first Champions League crown since 2015.

Discussing his goals for 2019-20, De Jong is eager to be a regular starter for Barca – and he wants to help deliver in Europe.

"I want to start most games. All players want that. I'll work as hard as I can in training to show what I can do in games," he said.

"I like to play attacking football, for it to be attractive and for people to have fun when they come to the stadium.

"Both me and Barca are really keen to win the Champions League this year and I hope that's what happens."

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