Lionel Messi’s move to PSG highlights football’s ills – but nobody can begrudge him


As soon as that initial picture emerged of Lionel Messi waving to disbelieving masses from a balcony at Le Bourget airport, wearing a white Ici, C’est Paris T-shirt and a wide smile, the overflow of snide was served.

“Those tears disappeared quick.”

“Money dries eyes.”

“Just another snake who sold out.”

The greatest player of our generation – possibly the greatest ever – was forced out of the club he joined at 13, after breaking every record and the idea of what’s plausible on the pitch through 17 seasons in which he came to define Barcelona.

After everything he had given them, after everything he had given us, Messi was ridiculously expected to play for nothing “out of love” even though that would have made zero difference to the situation given the financial hole Barca have gradually dug themselves.

Lionel Messi poses with his jersey next to PSG president Nasser Al Khelaifi after Wednesday’s press conference at Parc des Princes

(Getty)

After everything we’ve seen him accomplish, after everything he made possible, Messi was nonsensically meant to park his ambitions for his final years and act out our romantic ideas: a return to Argentina, perhaps mirroring Diego Maradona and opting for a team like Napoli, or – and I can’t believe this is being typed – actively offer himself, at an enormously reduced rate, to any decent side that fulfilled some fairytale arc as a tonic to football’s grim landscape.

The greatest player of our generation – possibly the greatest ever – deserves more than this. All of this. That he couldn’t stay at his club, that the goodbye came in a cold press conference room not in front of a packed Camp Nou, that his next options were more restricted than he ever was on the pitch and that we were here, demanding him to swim against football’s oiled currents, reduce the worth he has earned, and now deriding that he didn’t.

There is no way to skirt around the fact that there is a wretched stench to Messi becoming the latest luxury acquisition of a state PR project, Paris Saint-Germain. No joy can be extracted from the top end of the game becoming so squeezed that the playthings of Qatar, Abu Dhabi and a billionaire Russian oligarch are operating in a league of their own, collecting assets with no monetary ceiling and purposefully eroding the little competitive balance left.

The confidence in which Nasser Al-Khelaifi answered a question about Financial Fair Play underscored that PSG’s president had expected to be asked about those parameters, and that they essentially mean nada.

“We have the capacity to sign him,” he said. Well, of course they do. “If we sign Leo, it’s because we can.” Of course they can.

Had it not been PSG, Messi would have been posing in a Manchester City shirt, which was awfully close to happening last summer. Pep Guardiola has instead smashed the British transfer record fee to recruit Jack Grealish for £100m and will considerably swell that figure if the pursuit of Harry Kane is successful.

Had it not been those two, Chelsea – who spent nearly £230m in a Covid-shaped market and are about to re-sign Romelu Lukaku for £97.5m – was the only other realistic destination for the Argentine.

There was no happy movie ending in sight – and what football has become is not on Messi. He has chosen his most poetic path: a city and culture his family will enjoy and settle in quickly, a joyful reunion with Neymar and his friends Leandro Paredes and Angel Di Maria, a real shot of winning the Champions League under Mauricio Pochettino, who played and roomed with his idol, Diego Maradona.

It is jarring, uncomfortable, a singe to the soul that the 34-year-old will ultimately be used to wash Qatar’s human-rights-abusing image, especially so leading into the World Cup.

But why do we hold players and often even fans more responsible in righting these wrongs than we do governments, governing bodies, associations? The decision-makers, the “custodians” of the game.

Why is it on Messi to give up the opportunity of lifting another Champions League, which has very clearly and vocally been his priority in recent years? Why should he not consider where he’d be happiest playing and his family would be most comfortable living?

Why do we repeatedly suggest footballers should be content with the wealth they have and subscribe to massive salary cuts when we’d not accept that in our own professions or preach it to any other?

It is important to state a few truths too. Messi remaining at Barca would have felt ideal because it is what he truly wanted and owing to his own storyline at the club rather than them being The Good Guys. La Liga’s giants, we shouldn’t conveniently forget, have had a gigantic hand in bloating the market and draining teams of talent in the most destabilising of ways, pressurising targets into skipping training and forcing their way out – as recently seen with Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho.

In fact, PSG’s heist of Neymar and now their coup de grâce in landing Messi has early shoots in Barca’s very aggressive attempt to sign Marco Verratti in 2017.

The French club were furious at the manner their midfielder was tapped up, unsettled and they had vowed revenge. While talk for so long had centred around Neymar returning to Camp Nou to team up with Messi again, in Paris there was growing credence that the only way they would be on the same side was if the six-time Ballon d’Or winner moved to the capital.

Last summer, when Messi wanted out of an incompetent, crumbling Barca, PSG had made an approach and a very comprehensive sales pitch that pointed out how the player’s commercial and social growth would explode.

City, though, had Guardiola and as such, the edge. Working under Thomas Tuchel did not appeal as there was no personal connection nor professional one. At the end of April, having decided he would remain at Barca despite their ballooning shambles, Messi declined another shot at becoming the chief jewel of PSG.

But last Thursday, shortly after it was confirmed that he had no choice but to depart the club constructed in his image, PSG were not just frontrunners but the only ones in the race.

A long talk with Pochettino provided a journey through team dynamics, the differences between Spanish and French football and general culture, tactical ideas, how the holy grail of the Champions League could be secured with him, and that his closing years would not be spent carrying a club squarely on his shoulders, trying to navigate them out of the red. He would have trust and freedom and friendship… and happiness.

Messi hopes he will have another European Cup too. There are no fairytales in football and this may even be marked as the opposite of one, but it’s not on him.

Can we begrudge Messi that silver-lined ending?



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