Sports

Messi Had No Choice But to Leave Barcelona

Even though he wanted to stay.

Messi leans on a railing surrounded by cameras.
Lionel Messi arriving in France. Sameer Al-Doumy/Getty Images

One year after asking to leave Barcelona, his home club for more than 20 years, Lionel Messi is finally getting that wish. The world’s greatest soccer player is moving as a free agent to join the French power Paris Saint-Germain, agreeing to a two-year deal reportedly worth $29 million a year in salary, with the potential for an additional $12 million per year in add-ons and an option for a third year. In doing so, Messi becomes the new crown jewel in owner Qatar Sports Investments’ project to win the Champions League and establish hegemony over European soccer.

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This might sound like the typical story of a star player moving on, but there’s a twist: Messi had changed his mind about leaving Barcelona, as hammered home in his tearful farewell press conference on Sunday. His demands from last season had been sufficiently appeased by the arrival of club president Joan Laporta, who took charge of Barcelona’s front office earlier this year after the resignation of Josep Bartomeu. Messi now wanted to stay. Barcelona wanted to keep him. They even agreed to terms on a new contract. So, how did it come to this?

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It starts with money. The club’s finances are nigh-apocalyptic, its profligate spending meeting the loss of revenue caused by the pandemic at almost exactly the wrong time. It had $1.4 billion in debt as of March. Barcelona had paid too much money for too many players, and then paid those players too much money, too. All summer, it has been offloading whomever it could in order to bring its wage bill down, because the Spanish league caps salaries at 70 percent of a club’s revenue, which in Barcelona’s case has gone down just as its debt payments have gone up, sharply cutting into the amount it can legally spend. According to Laporta, Barcelona with Messi was spending 110 percent of its revenues on salaries. Somehow in the club’s statement last week, all this was translated to “financial and structural obstacles,” which, coincidentally, are the same things keeping me from being the owner of FC Barcelona.

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Messi was reportedly willing to take a big pay cut to stay, but even if he had given the club a friends and family discount of “Free!,” Barcelona wouldn’t have been able to put him on the roster without jettisoning another 25 percent of its current payroll, most of whom don’t want to go because nobody else will pay them as much as Barcelona is. Even with Messi gone, Barcelona is going to have trouble registering all the other players it signed for next season. It’s no wonder the club was one of the last holdouts still hoping for the doomed European Super League in April.

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Given how poorly its summer of fiscal consolidation has gone, Barcelona must have known for a while that its only real hope to keep Messi was a reprieve from La Liga that would allow it to skirt the letter of the law. It likely thought it would get it in the end. Many thought that the point of Barcelona’s dramatic announcement last week was a last-ditch attempt to remind the league that it too would be losing Messi, and all the audience members and sponsorship dollars he attracts. But La Liga called its bluff, perhaps to prove to the club that tried to leave it for the Super League that the rules still apply. With Messi’s departure, only one of the 25 on the Guardian’s 2020 list of the world’s best players—Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema—still plays in Spain. El Clásico has entered its classic rock phase, its appeal primarily one of nostalgia.

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PSG, meanwhile, will add Messi to a roster that already claims two of the best attacking players in the world, his former Barcelona teammate Neymar and 22-year-old French dynamo Kylian Mbappé. How long that trio will stay together is an open question; Neymar already left Barcelona in part to escape Messi’s shadow, and Mbappé was supposedly ready to move to a more competitive league this summer. For now, it seems the plan is to give this a trial run at becoming the greatest forward line in the history of the sport.

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PSG will be expected to win every competition it enters. It doesn’t necessarily even need Messi to do so. Lille pipped PSG to the Ligue 1 title by a single point last season, but that was with Neymar and Italian metronome Marco Verratti each missing about half of their league games due to injury. It reached the Champions League semifinals last season and the Champions League final the season before that. Back when Messi was all but certain to re-sign with Barcelona, PSG spent its summer adding European Championship–winning goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, Moroccan speedster Achraf Hakimi, former Liverpool midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum, and world-class wrestling heel Sergio Ramos to its roster. Except for Hakimi, all of them, like Messi, signed as free agents.

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Now, in the space of a weekend, they’ve elevated their superteam to an entirely different level. On Thursday, everyone thought Barcelona had a plan to work it out. By Saturday everyone knew Lionel Messi was going to PSG. The only other potential contenders—Chelsea and Manchester City—were both also backed by massive petrochemical fortunes, and even they fell to the side quickly, likely because they were already focused on other targets. (The Birmingham Barons apparently didn’t have time to get an offer in.)

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While everyone else in global soccer, even the clubs beating back financial spot fires instead of Barcelona’s raging Gulf of Mexico fire vortex, has been trying to cut costs, PSG has used the deep pockets of its ownership to seize all the competitive advantage it can muster. It has the accountants and the bureaucrats—its president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, is the chairman of the European Club Association—to pull off the sorts of Mathmagic Land calculations necessary to sneak the Messi signing past Financial Fair Play regulations. The laws of pandemic economics have struck again; the rich have gotten even richer, and they barely even had to try for it. You say goodbye, and QSI says hello.

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Where does that leave Messi? Richer, for one thing. Even if he and his family would have preferred to stay in Barcelona, pocketing an additional $40 million per year to live in Paris and compete for the Champions League title is not a bad backup plan. And this has proved frustrating to some fans. Even as he spent years as the highest-paid athlete in the history of team sports—his last contract with Barcelona paid him a reported $674 million in total over four years—Messi’s loyalty to Barcelona and the unflashy, blank-slate impenetrability of his personality has made it easy to dissociate him from the ongoing conquest of the game’s highest levels by a smaller and smaller collection of well-moneyed interests.

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Now he’s right in the center of it. Look in the comments on any tweet or article about the deal and you’re bound to find fans arguing that if he wanted to stay at Barcelona so badly, he should have stayed there and played for free, living off his endorsement money and the previous windfall he had reaped from the club out of some kind of gratitude for everything they had accomplished together.

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But Messi doesn’t owe Barcelona anything. Even considering the enormity of the sum he was being paid, one analysis found he made them money over the course of the deal—$720 million during its first three years alone. He was the league’s top scorer for every season of his latest deal. Last year, the season he said he didn’t want to be there, he led La Liga in goals, shots, key passes, and dribbles.

It is not an uncommon experience to look longingly at a certain job opportunity before deciding that the compensation isn’t right, especially when the alternative offers more opportunities for success in your field. PSG provided the right balance of financial reward and competitive advantage. That only PSG seemed able to is undoubtedly a problem, but it’s not Messi’s problem to solve.

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