Carles Puigdemont, former Catalan president, speaks to journalists following a meeting at the offices of the European Free Alliance in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. Catalonia needs an effective government as soon as possible, Catalan President Roger Torrent told reporters in Brussels after meeting with ousted president Puigdemont. Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg Image Credit: Bloomberg

If you are a football fan, you’ll know the importance of Lionel Messi for Barcelona. The striker has just signed a new contract with the Catalan club that will keep him there until June 2021 at the earliest, unless some other club elsewhere is prepared to trigger his buyout clause. That buyout clause is estimated to be worth €700 million (Dh3.18 billion).

But there’s also another kicker clause in the fine print that has been under-reported, and it goes like this: Should Catalonia secede from Spain and the three La Liga clubs that are based in the restive province — Barcelona, Girona and Espanyol — be removed from the national competition, Messi has a free release clause from the Catalan giants. And unless Barcelona are immediately admitted into the Premier League in England, Serie A in Italy, or the Bundesliga in Germany, Messi walks.

While the Barcelona club won’t confirm the details, saying it never comments on the terms of players’ personal contracts, Spanish newspaper El Mundo has reported the terms in detail. The Argentinian signed the new contract on November 25, after Catalonian secessionists held an illegal referendum on October 1 and used it as a mandate to declare independence from Spain. Messi put pen to paper, however, before the December 21 regional election, a vote called for by the central Madrid government after it imposed direct rule on the restive province.

Carles Puigdemont and three other senior Catalan separatists fled to Belgium and sought political asylum there hours after declaring Catalonia independent, and before Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy invoked Article 155 of the nation’s Constitution to suspend the regional parliament and rule the province directly from Madrid.

Puigdemont stood for re-election and campaigned for support through Skype, FaceTime and direct internet feeds to separatist rallies. In essence he was a virtual candidate, never appearing in person in Catalonia, fearing his immediate arrest. Now he could be a virtual president come January 31.

Puigdemont’s Junts per Catalunya is the second-largest in the new parliament of 135 seats. Its 34 seats made it the largest separatist party in the assembly, coming in just behind Cuidadanos, a pro-national party that demanded a sterner line against the secessionists and their bitterly divisive policies. All together the separatist parties won 70 seats, a result that was a stinging rebuke to Rajoy and his get-tough stance on the secessionists. For pro-Madrid nationalists however, they felt Rajoy didn’t go far enough in shutting down the threat of Catalan separation.

And in the coming days, Rajoy now faces the prospect of either allowing the new Catalan parliament to re-elect Puigdemont as its regional president and letting him oversee its work from exile in Belgium — an exercise that would both redefine the meaning of democratic representation and bring a whole new dimension to the phenomenon on telecommuting — or suspend the Catalan parliament once more, and re-invoke the powers of Article 155.

In calling the December 21 elections, Rajoy took a gamble that pro-nationalist parties would gain a majority of support. That was a gamble he lost — and was probably likely to do so anyway, given the widespread antipathy towards Madrid and the Guardia Civil, Spain’s federal police. The images of its members rough-handling voters from polling places by the hair and at the end of swinging batons last October 1 were never going to be easily erased nor countered by nationalist politicians.

Having called the December 21 vote, it leaves Rajoy in a difficult position should he now declare that result to be effectively null and void, and re-imposes direct rule. That leaves Rajoy open to criticism that he is acting in an undemocratic manner, calling for a vote and then ignoring the results because it doesn’t suit his ends.

Earlier this week, Rajoy’s government tried to reactivate an extradition request against the exiled leader, but it was nullified even as Puigdemont travelled to Copenhagen to attend an event at the city’s university and to meet with political activists pushing for the Faroe Islands’ independence from Denmark.

Rajoy has said that Puigdemont must attend the Catalan parliament in person if he hopes to be sworn in as the new regional president.

“It’s absurd that someone may intend to be a candidate to be the head of the regional government while being in Brussels and running away from justice,” Rajoy fumed.

If Puigdemont is permitted to be elected the new regional president — or is indeed elected by the new parliament — his appointment would have to approved in a royal decree signed by King Filipe VI, a bizarre likelihood in that the separatist leader is technically a fugitive from Spanish justice. As soon as Puigdemont shows up anywhere in Spain — independent Catalonia or anywhere in the other 18 provinces that make up the nation — he will be arrested and charged with sedition, just as 10 or so other Catalan secessionists are now sitting in various places of criminal detention.

It’s not as if Puigdemont would be the first president of the regional parliament to fall foul of the law.

His predecessor, Artur Mas, was fined €36,500 and banned from public office for two years for organising a previous plebiscite on Catalan independence in September 2014.

Critics, however, say that the new-found push for Catalan independence these past three years stems in part from the fact that Mas’ Democratic Convergence of Catalonia (CDC) had been mired in corruption. Mas took over its reins from another former Catalan president Jordi Pujol. Last week, Pujol has been ordered to repay €6.6 million after a court found the CDC had run an illegal kickbacks-for-contracts scheme in which cash was channelled through Barcelona’s Palace of Catalan Music auditorium foundation. Barcelona provincial court handed down prison sentences to 12 people, including a former treasurer of Pujol’s CDC and a former president of the foundation.

A long-running investigation, known as the Palau case, established that the Spanish construction company Ferrovial had paid commission to the CDC in return for public works contracts, funnelling the money through the music venue between 1999 and 2009. The CDC became so tainted by the scandal that it dissolved, rebranding itself as Convergencia i Unio — the party Puigdemont now leads from Brussels.

Somehow, with all of this playing out for years to come, Messi’s footballing career will be long over before that free release clause would ever kick in.