World's Best

The World’s Greatest Soccer Player Moves On

The story of why the world’s greatest soccer player has no team right now is ultimately not about sports at all. It’s about money. To understand this unpleasant affair, it’s useful perhaps, and certainly sobering, to go back just a few years, to October, 2018, when F.C. Barcelona, the club that Lionel Messi joined as a thirteen-year-old boy from Argentina, announced that it had earned more than a billion dollars in revenue the previous fiscal year. Even in the bloated and absurd universe of soccer finances, in which élite players can command transfer fees upward of a hundred million dollars, this was a staggering sum—and it was due in no small part to Messi himself, who, since his competitive début, in 2004, had become a phenomenon. He scored seemingly at will; in 2018, the year of the billion-dollar revenue, he racked up forty-seven goals for the club across all competitions. Of course, titles and trophies, not individual achievements, are the measure of a club’s stature, and, domestically, Barcelona had had a decade of dominance: in May, 2018, the club won its seventh La Liga title in ten years, to match its six Copa del Rey trophies over the same period. And, although Barcelona hadn’t won the most prestigious European club competition of all, the Champions League, since 2015, there were still reasons for optimism. The club was, supporters assumed—hoped—just a few good signings away from the European success that all its fans craved.

Of course, that wasn’t how it worked out. Even then, a closer look at Barcelona’s position would have shown how precarious it all was. Messi, a once-in-a-generation talent, had been at his most lethal while playing alongside his friends Luis Suárez, of Uruguay, and the Brazilian superstar Neymar, until the latter moved to Paris Saint-Germain for a world-record transfer fee of more than two hundred and sixty million dollars. The enormous revenue numbers that Barcelona touted were swollen by that astronomical transfer. Money is money, and talent is something else entirely. Players as good as Neymar aren’t easy to replace. Predictably, the Catalans went on a spending spree, and no one was in the mood to offer them any bargains. The Neymar windfall was quickly spent (“reinvested” would be too generous a term) on players who have been, for the most part, disappointing. They were offered contracts commensurate with their inflated transfer fees, and, by the following year, the club’s wage bill was the highest of any sports team in the world. It’s also worth noting that Barcelona’s net profit from that billion-dollar revenue in 2018 was a relatively modest fifteen million dollars.

Domestically, Barcelona was still competitive, of course, but year after year its Champions League campaign ended in humiliation. And, with each disappointment, you could sense Messi’s patience running out. Athletes have a short window for success, and Messi has already held his place at the top of world soccer for far longer than would have been reasonable to expect. Yet there he was, playing alongside a diminished cast of overpaid and underwhelming supporting players. By last summer, he’d had enough, and, after initially asking for a move and being rebuffed by the club, he grudgingly announced his intention to play out his contract, which ran until the end of June, 2021. This campaign Barcelona finished third, though Messi, now thirty-four years old, once again led La Liga in goals, as he had in each of the previous four seasons.

But an odd thing happened along the way: although he had announced his intention to leave, Messi had a change of heart over the course of the season. The club president, Josep Bartomeu, resigned, and the new leadership promised to persuade their talisman to stay. And they did, apparently—only there was the pesky problem of money. The basic structure of the deal that the club offered Messi has been public knowledge for weeks: Messi would take a fifty-per-cent reduction in wages (reportedly down to around just $23.5 million the first year, thank you), which would tie him to the club for five more years. It was unlikely, however, that he’d be playing in La Liga until age thirty-nine, and a more plausible scenario included playing in Major League Soccer here in the States, before possibly returning to the club in some sort of ambassadorial role. The bulk of his wages was to be paid out once the club was back on a solid financial footing. Messi had agreed and was set to sign as soon as he returned from his summer vacation.

But, no matter how cleverly the deal was structured, or how much of the pay was to be deferred, Barcelona was unable to meet a strict salary cap imposed by La Liga. (Each club’s cap is based on its revenues, wage bill, and debt. The rules are in place to force clubs to live within their means, although, in Barcelona’s case, it may be a little late for that: 2018’s billion dollars in revenue has become more than $1.4 billion in debt.) The club’s cap for the upcoming season is nearly half what it was prior to the pandemic, putting Barcelona in the laughable position of having signed contracts with players it cannot register. COVID played a part in this chaos, to be sure—in January, the club reported that it had lost a hundred and seventeen million dollars in 2020—but an empty Camp Nou can hardly explain how the situation became so desperate. This past spring, Barcelona was part of an attempt to create a closed European Super League, a grotesque money grab and public-relations fiasco that collapsed under the pressure of widespread fan revolt; and, even though most of the other clubs have withdrawn, the Catalans have not. A Super League, with supersized income, would perhaps have salvaged the club’s battered finances, but for now, at least, that prospect is dead. In order to re-sign Messi this summer, Barcelona needed to sell other players, but no teams showed any real interest in buying the club’s handsomely paid castoffs. Perhaps Barcelona thought that the league would bend its rules, as it has often done for the giant clubs. This time, however, it did not. For days, fans held out hope that it was all a bluff, a negotiating tactic, designed to pressure La Liga officials, but, when Messi’s teammates began posting sombre, sentimental farewells on social media, it was clear that the unthinkable was true. Messi himself spoke to the press on Sunday morning from the Camp Nou, with his family and a handful of teammates in the audience. “This year I was convinced, my family and I, that we were going to continue here, that we were going to stay at home, which was what we desired the most,” he said, choking back tears. “I did my best to stay, and it wasn’t possible.”

Lionel Messi is unique, and this is why something as banal as a player changing clubs after running out his contract was deemed worthy of a push alert from major news outlets. What he has accomplished in a Barcelona jersey is astonishing, of course: the guile and the brilliance of his playing, the vision and the touch, all the intangible ways in which he affects games and makes the players around him better. You don’t win six Ballon d’Or awards by accident. And then there are the six hundred and seventy-two goals he has scored for the club in fewer than eight hundred games, the more than two hundred and fifty assists, and the thirty-five trophies, including four Champions Leagues. This summer, while the club’s accountants and lawyers tried to make the numbers work, Messi led Argentina to a fourth Copa América final, winning this time, his first major trophy with the national team. Officially, preposterously, he was simultaneously the best player at the tournament and an athlete with no club to play for.

Players change clubs all the time, so why do we care about Messi? Why are soccer fans around the world so upset? Why are grown men posting videos of themselves weeping against the gates of the Camp Nou? In Latin America, we are loyal to our players in Europe, but not necessarily to their clubs, which are, after all, temporary. How many Brazilians began watching the French league after Neymar moved to P.S.G.? How many Chileans backed the Italian giants Inter Milan this season because Alexis Sánchez was part of the team? In Peru, the local media keep tabs on Peruvians who play abroad, featuring their performances, no matter how minor, in every match recap.

And yet, as most élite Latin American players of Messi’s generation have bounced around Europe, from club to club, taking their nation’s fans with them, he has never moved. He is as iconic and recognizable in the red and blue stripes of Barcelona as he is in the light blue and white stripes of Argentina. Wherever Messi goes—P.S.G., most likely—millions of fans will follow. Hundreds of millions of dollars, as well.


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