He’ll Always Have Paris
The chaotic Lionel Messi transfer fiasco reflects the messy financial state of European soccer. Barcelona’s loss is Paris’ gain. But at what cost?
And so, it has come to this. Lionel Messi, some say the best soccer payer who ever lived — and they have a point — is leaving his boyhood dream club Barcelona after 20 years for a new life in Paris, with Paris Saint-Germain.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Fairy tales have happy endings, and this was a fairy tale. Barcelona was a club so established — and wealthy — they once paid UNICEF for the privilege of wearing the UNICEF logo on their team shirts, foregoing the lucrative sponsorship money of profit-driven corporate sponsors like Samsung (Chelsea, in a former life) and AIG (Manchester United). Barcelona turned down corporate money, in other words, so they could be seen as doing the world some good. UNICEF in turn saw Barcelona as being another donor to the cause of feeding the world’s hungry children.
Messi was sickly as a child. He came from a blue collar, working class family in central Argentina, far away from the glamor of the coastal capitals. At age 10 he was diagnosed with a crippling growth hormone deficiency; his father’s medical insurance wouldn’t cover the bills. Messi was talented enough, even at that young age, that talent spotters for some of the top Argentine clubs had scouted him for their academies, but owing to Argentina's economic collapse at the time, no club was willing to take on the medical bills for a 10-year-old who might or might not make it as a first-team player when he came of age.
Messi had family relatives in Catalonia, the north-east province in Spain that abuts the Mediterranean, and they arranged for him to have a trial with Barcelona’s team academy. Barcelona were reluctant, but they saw his talent and they decided to take the chance. Incredibly — and this is true — Messi’s first contract, as a child, was negotiated and signed on a paper napkin at a restaurant. The rest, as they say, was history.
Even today, for all Messi’s goal-scoring exploits, for all the records, for all his skill, for all the titles he helped win for Barcelona, he still doesn’t look the part of a star athlete. He is not particularly tall. He is not particularly muscular. He doesn’t look particularly strong. He isn’t particularly fast, in the conventional sense of sprinting at blinding speed down short distances, as his rival Cristiano Ronaldo is. He has a head for the game, though. From a young age, much like Wayne Gretzky in hockey, he was a savant at reading the game. Today, even at age 34, late middle age in pro athlete terms, his feet work like magic. He still reads the game better than anyone, he can still slip in a pass no one else sees coming, and he is still capable of scoring the impossible goal from an impossible angle.
Off the field, he is happily married, with children he loves, and respected by all who meet him, even though he remains as shy and quiet in front of the camera as he was when he first arrived from Argentina.
Oh, and he made a lot of money. The exact figures don’t matter here, but suffice to say that the more titles he won for Barcelona, the more Barcelona paid him.
Behind the scenes, though, the financial sports world changed.
The European soccer leagues have always worked differently from North American big league American sports. The English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A, France’s Ligue 1, the German Bundesliga and Spain’s La Liga are different from the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, and they work in different ways. In the European sports leagues, players may be paid eye-watering salaries, but they are owned outright by the their clubs.
Player unions, where they exist at all, are weak and ineffectual, and have little say in how their businesses are run.
Clubs don’t trade players so much as arrange player transfers, astronomical sums attached, and only during officially designated transfer windows, twice a year, over relatively short times, measured in weeks, not months.
Finances across the European sports leagues have been rocketing out of control of late, and quickly. Today, a transfer fee for an elite player like Messi can run as high as £150m, nearly $200m USD in New World money, whereas 20 years ago £20m was more the norm.
In today’s volatile, fast-changing fiscal landscape, clubs can get into financial trouble in a hurry. TV revenue has jumped, true, but the old-school way of making money — charging fans to see the game in person — is less lucrative today than things like corporate sponsorship and merchandising deals.
The game has gone global. It’s worldwide. Soccer was always popular in other countries, but today it’s a global obsession. There are more Liverpool fans in China today than there are in Liverpool. Lionel Messi is now a household name from the UAE to the USA, even in households that don’t follow soccer.
In a some might say futile bid to get a handle on profligate team owners, soccer’s governing bodies — sports bodies with acronym names like FIFA and UEFA — have passed so-called “Financial Fair Play rules, FFP.
This is a somewhat misleading name, because FFP is not so much about fair play per se — ie. narrowing the gap between rich and poor — as it is about forcing responsible spending habits on otherwise profligate clubs team and owners.
Under FFP rules, a club is not allowed to spend more money than it brings in.
This is designed to stave off potential bankruptcies, which are a black eye for the entire game.
And over the past few years, Barcelona’s spending, on star players — other than Messi! — who didn’t pan out, have rocketed into the stratosphere.
Still, it looked as recently as three weeks ago that it all would end well.
Messi negotiated a contract extension with Barcelona earlier in the summer. He agreed to a 50% pay cut, to stay with his boyhood dream team, and out of loyalty to a longtime general manager and close personal friend.
Both parties signed on the dotted line, and the new season, underway as you read this, looked set in stone. The stars were aligned, both for the star player and a star team.
But then somebody checked the books.
And the numbers didn’t add up. To put it mildly.
It turns out Barcelona’s finances are a mess, such a mess that even if Messi were to play for free — think about that for a moment — Barcelona would still be operating in the red. Too much outgoing, not enough incoming. And the Covid-19 pandemic has not helped. Barcelona, arguably the most famous name in world soccer, is on the brink of insolvency.
At this time, only three clubs in the world can realistically afford Messi’s salary, even at the discount price of 50% off, and Paris Saint-Germain is one of them.
It helps, too, that PSG is managed by the respected Argentine coach Mauricio Pochettino, who is not only a countryman of Messi’s but hails from the central Argentinian state of Santa Fe. They are contemporaries, in other words, figuratively if not literally. Peas in a pod. As it stands now, Messi will always have Paris.
What has all this got to do with the actual game of soccer?
Not much, really.
Except that Lionel Messi’s life story was always about more than just kicking a ball around for kicks. It was one of the few fairy tales that could genuinely be called a fairy tale.
Now, though, it’s unfolding more like a gothic horror story.
There are some object lessons to be learned here by US sports leagues. For one, spending more than what comes in doesn’t bode well for the future stability of any pro sports league, whether it’s the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS or MLB, let alone La Liga..
Secondly, as much as most fans and virtually all team owners may be ideologically opposed to unions, unions exist for a reason. They represent the people with the talent, the workers who do the actual work, the star athletes who fans pay to watch. In a strange way, unions help businesses keep their books balanced, by constantly reminding owners of the need to find a balance between outgoing and incoming.
Look, Lionel Messi’s best years are behind him. That much is self-evident. He probably looked forward to serving what little playing time he has left to his boyhood club. He had a contract to that effect. He may yet find happiness in Paris — who wouldn’t? — despite his tearful breakdown at that press conference this past week. This fairy tale may yet get its happy ending.
That happy ending won’t involve Barcelona, though. In Messi’s case at least, Barcelona’s loss is Paris’ gain.
And somewhere in the middle of all this, the shy, quiet, retiring, somewhat frumpy star-athlete-who-doesn’t-look-like-a-star-athlete is left looking stunned and somewhat saddened by it all.
Yes, it’s a mess.
About the author
Earth community. Visual storyteller. Digital nomad. Natural history + current events. Raconteur. Cultural anthropology.
I hope that somewhere in here I will talk about a creator who will intrigue + inspire you.