Hot-Take Sunday: Another Fine Messi
It’s not so much the all-compassing nature of this news story to which I object. One of the biggest sporting institutions on the planet is a complete financial basket case, and this has led to it losing arguably the greatest player of all time, who’s been with them for more than half of his life. It’s a big news story, in a year of very big news stories. What I think I object to is the narrative that we are all supposed to care.
In many respects, the motto was a stroke of genius. “Mes que un club” is a phrase that is almost infinitely moldable, according to who’s absorbing it. Supporters could interpret it as being about their love for the club. Catalan nationalists might consider it to be about the club’s relationship with the region that it represents. It’s just enough like English to be recognisable in the highly-profitable Anglosphere. Over the last few months, though, it’s come to take on a different meaning to the rest of us. “Mes que un club” is now an appropriate calling card for an institution which is still actively seeking to turn European football upside-down for its own selfish ends. They want what they want, and they don’t really care who they ride roughshod over in order to get it.
The cherry on this particular cake since the European Super League fiasco (Part One) is that it is now clear that Barcelona’s desperation for an even bigger slice of the pie wasn’t instructed by a desire to grow bigger and fatter, but to remain as big and fat as they’d already become. This is a football club which has had every advantage that one football club could ever possibly enjoy. Barcelona have been the beneficiaries of vast revenues and a huge support base, years and years of unbroken success, and being one of three or four clubs on the planet who always get all the players they want.
Yet this, somehow, hasn’t been enough. Barcelona have been staggeringly mismanaged for years now, and it feels very much as though the single biggest mistake made by the club over this time has been to forget the value of money. Even now, when it’s clear that the club is on the precipice of a financial apocalypse that would be without precedent in the entire history of the game, they’re still trying to bend the game itself to their will. Nothing else matters to Barcelona apart from continuing to be this Barcelona in perpetuity.
All of which leads us to Lionel Messi’s tearful press conference this morning. Whether intentional or not, the fact that it was taking place was instructive about the modern game. There was a time when players said their goodbyes in front of the fans, but in this case there are no fans to be seen anywhere. It’s all just business. The multi-millionaire, so very sad after 17 years playing for the lavish football club, will just have to go another lavish football club and see out the rest of his playing career earning more than in a week you’ll earn in a half a lifetime elsewhere. They do vary because it’s not a precise art, but the lowest estimate that I can find for Lionel Messi’s net worth is $300m.
All of which brings us on to the subject of his next destination, which is almost certainly going to be Paris. PSG, we are reliably informed, are the only club to which Messi could possibly go. The reasons for this vary a little according to who you ask, but the bottom line seems to be that they are the only club that could meet his wage demands, which rather begs the questions of why Messi feels he needs so much more money, and how long he believes he has the inalienable right to earn this amount for in the first place.
It is argued that he “deserves it”, but such glib explanations seldom explain why in much detail. How, exactly, do we measure ‘value’, these days? PSG regularly get to the latter stages of the Champions League, and while they couldn’t retain their Ligue Un title last season, it doesn’t feel as though they should need to be spending this amount on one player in order to overhaul Lille this time around. During the 2018/19 season, Parc des Princes was just about at capacity for every game, so it’s hardly as though he’ll attract more paying visitors to their ground, and while they will doubtlessly sell a lot of shirts off the back of this contract, it seems unlikely that they’ll make anything like their money back.
Over 17 years at Camp Nou, Messi won ten La Liga championships and four Champions Leagues, all of which doublessly looked like a spectacular return on investment at the time. But when last summer came around Messi sought to activate a release clause in his contract, only to find that he’d left it too late. Contracts were renegotiated, and Sergio Aguero was brought in to keep him company. Neither player, however, can now even be registered for them for the coming season.
This is, of course, because Barcelona have been wildly overspending on players wages. Their wages to turnover ratio was 115%, and Messi’s departure reduces that to 95%, when the club needs that to be at 75% in order to meet the Spanish league’s rules. The cost-cutting has already been savage. Gerard Piqué, Marc André ter Stegen, Frenkie de Jong and Clément Lenglet have already agreed to reduce their salaries, while negotiations are due with Jordi Alba and Sergio Busquets for the same. Carles Aleñá has gone to Getafe for €5m, Junior Firpo to Leeds for €15m, Jean-Clair Todibo to Nice for €8.5m. Francisco Trincão has joined Wolves on loan, with a €25m option to buy.
Still, though, the bottom line remains the same. Barcelona’s financial incontinence is such that Lionel Messi is a luxury that the club simply cannot afford. PSG paid them €222m for Neymar in 2017, but Barcelona have more than frittered that money away. Ousmane Dembélé for €135m, Philippe Coutinho for €135m, Antoine Griezmann for €120m, Malcom for €41m, Paulinho for €40m and Nélson Semedo for €35m all stand out from the four years since then. The upshot of it all is that Barcelona are now almost €1.2bn in debt and trying to shed players like desperate passengers throwing weight from a plummeting hot air balloon.
This is a mess, but it’s a mess that has been a long time in the making, and it’s the result of a culture that Barcelona have been completely complicit in upholding, because it suited them to do so. They played up their exceptional ism for so long as it was profitable – consider their refusal to accept shirt sponsors because it would sully the purity of their shirt for years, only to change their minds when the price was right – and Messi was happy to accept as much money as he could, for as long as he could.
In a broader sense, this whole sequence of events tells one story more clearly than any other, the story of a game hopelessly corrupted by money, which is becoming no more than a battle ground for various states to play out their soft-power fantasies while pricing a greater and greater number of people out of the game at the same time. When they tell us to, we have to ignore the fact that they are rapcaious businesses and focus instead on the human element, because it suits them for us to do so. And when they finally do manage to carve European football up for their own benefit, they’ll expect us to do the same yet again.
All for their own benefit, all for their own benefit. That’s the only common theme, throughout this entire, dismal story.