If ever an image can sum up the current state of European football in all its cold and bloated glory it is that of Lionel Messi tearfully explaining why he can’t play for his beloved Barcelona anymore.
The best footballer in the world, quite possibly the best footballer ever, stood sobbing in front of FC Barcelona’s logo and laid out the details of a desperate situation that was unfathomable even a week ago.
In short, though Messi wants to stay, and Barca obviously wants to retain him, the Catalan club has found itself in such an atrociously dire financial position that there is no conceivable way he can remain.
Even if Messi took the 50 per cent pay cut he had agreed to and signed the carefully structured contract that would spread his salary over five years instead of the two he actually plans to play, Barcelona’s wages would still be at 110 per cent of the club’s revenue.
La Liga only allows that number to reach 70 per cent, and as such will not allow Messi to be registered.
And just like that, one of the greatest love stories in the history of the sport ends. Messi and Barcelona, whose individual and collective greatness have reached unprecedented heights and defined football for much of this century, have been forced into a premature parting by pure mismanagement and greed.
Messi’s tears were heartbreaking, but his sadness should be all of ours. Not just for the fact he is leaving, but for what it represents for the European game in general, particularly at its very top.
That money rules all in football is not new or surprising, but 2021 has felt like a tipping point.
As COVID cuts and loss of matchday revenue due to the pandemic crippled a number of clubs at the bottom of the sport’s food chain, those at the top launched their ill-fated Super League — a callous cash grab designed to shore up the fragile financial strangehold of the elite at the expense of anyone with designs on challenging them.
There was outrage and consternation, and the plot comically fell apart in an instant, but no real sanction or deterrent awaited those who attempted it. The status quo remained.
But the game was already broken. The scales had long since been tipped with the introduction of Financial Fair Play, a misnomer that merely protects the clubs with existing wealth from the nouveau riche, making sure we will never see another Manchester City or Chelsea explode to prominence on the back of a wealthy benefactor again.
It’s why when Messi has been forced out of Barcelona. There are really only two or three places he could end up.
One, Manchester City, just spent 100 million pounds on Jack Grealish and has another 100 million set aside for Harry Kane. Another, Chelsea, is reportedly about to put the finishing touches on a deal worth about 100 million pounds for Romelu Lukaku.
That leaves Paris Saint-Germain. Messi has friends there already, and a good relationship with their Argentinian manager, Mauricio Pochettino, but the truth is PSG is the only remaining club that can afford him.
To rub salt into the wounds, the move was effectively confirmed days ago, not by the club or the player, but by the brother of the Emir of Qatar, who controls the club through the state-owned Qatar Sports Investment group.
This is football as far removed from the people and from the romance that initially captivated them as is humanly possible.
And while the alternative to this whole mess — Barcelona somehow finding a way to circumvent the rules to keep Messi while continuing to wildly spend beyond their means — doesn’t fix any of these problems and arguably exacerbates them, it at least would keep some purity in the game.
This outcome changes the way we look at Lionel Messi and his career, which is devastating. It affirms the belief that, Super League or no, the elite few clubs are playing a completely different sport to the rest.
It deepens the suspicion that there is no way back from here, that the things we once loved most about football have been permanently replaced by whatever this is.
It’s all just a massive shame.
Fans will return to stadiums in England this weekend for a new Premier League season, which City will probably win, and the big teams will branch off again to compete in the Champions League, which PSG will probably now win, and it’ll all feel normal again.
But something has been lost here. No matter what happens between now and May, Messi’s tears are the story of the season.