The unthinkable has actually happened…
History unfolded before our very eyes today, August 8th, 2021.
Stood at the podium, with the Spanish media before him and the entire world intently glued to their screens, Lionel Messi, maybe the greatest footballer of all time, confirmed the news that had dominated all of our lives for the last few days.
Barcelona’s greatest player in their history would be leaving the club. There would be no new contract.
As Messi stood on the stage, using a handkerchief to wipe away his tears, clearly not envisioning this as the way he would be saying goodbye to his beloved club, us as viewers and fans were left to question how this situation devolved to the point where it reached the worst possible outcome. Fans, culers and otherwise, pointed fingers and cast blame on a variety of parties. Was it La Liga’s fault for not working to keep their biggest star in the league? Was it the fault of UEFA for canning the Super League? The players? COVID? Mother Nature?
No. Ultimately, Barcelona is merely suffering from the consequences of their own actions. Try as they might, it is impossible for them to pin the blame on anyone else, and they must now live with this new reality and begin the “post-Messi era” long before they wanted to.
Barcelona’s poor financial situation is no secret to anyone. Even I have written about their predicament multiple times, changing my opinion quite drastically on how precarious the situation was. La Liga was very clear with the club at the beginning of the summer window: you must reduce your wage bill or else you cannot register any new contracts. Barça’s incredibly poor investment over the last several transfer windows left the club with quite a few high-earning players who were not justifying their wages, and they had to step up to the herculean task of moving those contracts out to other clubs. They tried their hardest too. Junior Firpo moved to Leeds, while Jean-Clair Todibo and Carles Aleñá moved to Nice and Getafe, respectively. Juan Miranda and Francisco Trincão were also among the departing players, but it was not enough. Their main troubling contracts, belonging to the likes of Samuel Umtiti, Miralem Pjanić, and Philippe Coutinho, were nearly impossible to move. It seemed accepted that both of Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembélé would have to leave the club, but neither could be moved on. Ultimately, there was no other choice, the separation had to be made.
And again, this is entirely Barcelona’s fault. The presidency of Josep Maria Bartomeu was a textbook example of how not to run a football club. Financially ruinous decisions were made on the pitch, a vacating of Barcelona’s core principles and trust in their famous academy left them reliant on increasingly irresponsible and idiotic transfers. As players came in that mostly did not live up to the lofty standards that come with wearing that famous Blaugrana shirt, former La Masia players like Dani Olmo, Álejandro Grimaldo, and Andre Onana, players who would have directly helped fill holes in the Barça team, were finding success elsewhere. The financial burden of these transfers and the high wages that came with them left the team with a whole lot of not that great players, and the burden placed on Messi to carry Barcelona to success became greater and greater. The spotlight on Messi also became brighter and brighter as Barcelona’s failures became his failures. The now famous image of Messi standing dejectedly below the scoreboard at Anfield during their Champions League collapse against Liverpool perfectly illustrates what the last few years have been.
It is hard to fully hammer home this point without properly illustrating it (and thank you Sid Lowe for doing all of this math for us). In the 2014-15 season, Barcelona famously won the Treble under now-Spain manager Luis Enrique. From that 2015 summer transfer window until now, they have spent around €1 billion on player transfers. Go ahead, look up Barcelona’s transfer history and look at the players that make up that staggering fee. How many of them definitively worked out?
Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Back? Yeah, it is not a great list, is it? I can make the claim for one player, Frenkie De Jong, having worked out, but even then his first season at Barcelona was incredibly inconsistent. Anyone else? Probably not. And this is even before the Neymar debacle, he would not leave for Paris for another two years. The problem started before then, but it is undeniable that Barça’s reaction to Neymar leaving accelerated their doom spiral. I believe it was also Sid Lowe that said the best thing Barcelona could have done in that situation, after Neymar had completed his move to Paris, was nothing. They instead did the polar opposite, panicking wildly and spending incredibly irresponsible amounts of money on players with high wage demands that ultimately did not work out. The money they got for Neymar was spent within the calendar year, about half becoming the talented but perennially-injured Dembélé and the other half becoming Coutinho, the man that they are unable to get rid of. The bulk of their irresponsible spending came after the Neymar sale, and it coincides with Barcelona going from champions of Spain and true European contenders to collective disappointment and, if we are being honest with ourselves, lucky to have even finished third last season.
Their bed was made, they had no choice but to lay in it. Barcelona were in a ruinous situation financially and, despite spending all of that money on players, they were more reliant than ever on Messi on the pitch. Despite that reliance, the numbers did not lie. League President Javier Tebas made it clear that there would be no relaxing of the regulations. There was no other choice, Lionel Messi could not continue as a Barcelona player.
And that might be the most painful part for Messi and for Barcelona, because neither side wanted this to happen. The new contract was already agreed. Messi took a significant pay cut in an attempt to make this work. He wanted to stay, Barcelona wanted to keep him. He even said as much in his departure press conference. He wanted to stay, Barcelona is his home, but the system would not allow him to stay. It is ultimately not the farewell that a colossus of football and of Barcelona deserves. When we think back to the fond farewells that Xavi and Andrés Iniesta got on the pitch at the Camp Nou, leaving the club as the proud kings that they are, seeing Messi go out on a whimper, being forced to leave the club that he loves and not receiving the adulation of the thousands of fans that have worshipped him as a god for over a decade, is quite sad. I like Messi, but I have no affinity to Barcelona at all, and even I thought his press conference was difficult to watch. It is not the farewell that he deserves.
But there had to be some way out for Barcelona. This did not need to happen, right? What about the CVC deal?
Admittely, I thought the same thing. For those who listened to our last podcast, I mentioned the news that American private equity firm CVC Capital Partners reached a deal with La Liga to invest €2.7 billion into the league with the purpose of expanding the global branding and marketing of the teams involved, with 90% of that money going to the clubs in the league. I, and many others, assumed that this was the “Get Out of Jail Free” Card that Barcelona needed, and that this money would be used directly to register Messi’s contract. Well, it turns out Barcelona rejected the CVC deal, strongly criticizing La Liga and Javier Tebas for it, and I did not understand why until I looked at the details of the deal.
So this is not a direct simple loan. CVC is giving this money to the league, but in exchange for 10% of the league’s television revenue and 10% of any of the league’s future business. Effectively, CVC bought 10% of La Liga. Barcelona (and Real Madrid, for what it’s worth) objected to this. Current club president Joan Laporta said himself that he felt the deal, while allowing him to register Messi, mortgaged the club’s future finances for decades in a deal that was ultimately damaging and unfair, one that none of the clubs had any input into agreeing. Even if it meant not being able to keep Messi, Laporta felt that he could not accept that deal. There are a few reasons for this. The first reason, and it cannot be ignored by how damning the second reason is, being that it really is not that good of a deal. Yes, the immediate money does help clubs that are struggling, but you are effectively handicapping future revenue in exchange for that short-term help. You are making less money in that case compared to if you just worked to ride out the current issues and accept 100% of revenue in the long run. If this is a sign of things to come, and teams and leagues around the continent begin looking to the sometimes exploitative and vulturous hands of large private equity firms to be bailed out, then I am greatly worried about the future of our sport.
But it does beg the question why the CVC deal was so objectionable when it looks remarkably similar, albeit for less money, to the same deal Barcelona struck with J.P. Morgan for the Super League. Well, the answer is in the question: Barcelona has not given up on the Super League dream, and accepting the CVC deal would end that dream for good. Even though the current incarnation of the Super League is dead, the idea itself is still very much alive. Is it worth giving up on Lionel Messi for? I personally do not think so, but I am also very biased against the idea of a Super League. Barcelona are one of three teams that have not withdrawn from the system, and it is clear that it is still something that they hold in priority. Despite the love for each other, Messi ultimately had to leave. And I am willing to accept reason number one as the main driving force, but reason number two is hard to ignore.
But if Messi loves Barcelona so much, why could he not just play for free? He clearly has enough money, right?
Well, there are multiple things wrong with that sentiment, one that I saw quite a bit on social media. I find it quite problematic to tell someone like Messi, who grew up in very difficult circumstances, to give up generation-defining wealth in order to make up for someone else’s mistakes. But even if he wanted to do that, he could not. La Liga rules require that any player signing a new contract not be given a wage that is less than 50% of his current wage. Even if Messi was willing to play for free, the league would not allow it. Even then, it would not actually solve the problem, and Laporta himself admitted it. Barça’s wage bill currently makes up around 110% of their revenue, which is clearly not good. Without Messi receiving the wage he was supposed to, that number would only drop to around 95% of revenue, when it needs to be at about 70%. The problem is not solved. Ultimately, if they could not move other players, they had to move on from Messi.
So, what happens now? Well, Messi is going somewhere, and we will cover that move in another blog post very soon. But for Barcelona, you must now begin the very difficult journey into the post-Lionel Messi era. It is going to be very, very, very difficult for a number of reasons.
Barcelona have quite a bit of talent in their team, but they are clearly much worse without Messi. I do not think there is a major risk of Barça finishing outside of the top four, and consequently not qualifying the Champions League, as I think the only team in Spain good enough to overtake them is Sevilla. They are, however, going to need serious performances from their remaining players if they want to contend for anything this season. With questions already circulating around Ronald Koeman, there is significant pressure for him to solve what has become an unsolvable problem: how does Barcelona play without Messi? There is even more significant pressure on the players, especially the likes of Griezmann, Dembélé, and Coutinho, as the fans are now going to view them as the reason why Messi is no longer there. That is not a microscope I would ever want to be under. That pressure is going to be unlike anything they have dealt with, and I fear it has the potential to get quite toxic between the supporters and the team. It has already been bad, but it will only get worse before it gets better.
Also, no pressure Pedri, but you are kind of “the guy” now. For better or worse, the eyes will all be fixed on the young Spanish phenom, and I dearly hope that he is ready for that.
And Messi? Well, he is off to bigger and better things. A new home in Paris awaits him, and you will have to wait for the next part of this post in order to hear about that move…
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