If Lionel Messi’s departure from Barcelona was genuinely sad for him, his arrival at Paris Saint-Germain is just depressing for the game.
It is another development in this saga that completely articulates the absurdity of football’s modern finances, and the lack of competitive balance that is destroying the core of the sport.
The constant counter-argument is that PSG are one of a limited number of choices, because few others can afford him. That is precisely the problem and why it is so depressing. It isn’t some coincidence.
It comes from a decades-long absence of regulation in football, that allowed some clubs to inflate to such a size that the prospect became attractive to some of the questionable states in the world as sports projects.
They have set the top end of the market. The Independent has been told that, as far back as that fantastical summer of 2017 when the French club acquired Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, one of PSG’s ambitions was to short squeeze the football market. That was to raise wages and fees so high that fewer and fewer clubs could compete. Messi is the ultimate example of this.
The game’s distorted finances have played their part in conditioning Barca into dismal decisions, and ultimately squeezing their greatest ever player out against his will. This is an absurdity, so much of it lacking in any kind of reason.
It should be stressed this isn’t to absolve Barca of blame. They deserve plenty of it.
It also shouldn’t be to overlook Messi’s personal and professional situation. There is a lot of logic to this move on his part, before you even get to the money.
He knows a lot of the PSG players. It is close enough to Barcelona that it doesn’t involve an upheaval for his family. They are also so close to winning a Champions League.
That is said to still be more important to Messi than anything else. It is why he would never have yet considered leaving Barcelona for MLS or Newell’s Old Boys.
The last choice would have been the ultimate in romance, and in truth a little bit much to expect of any player.
Because of the emotions a footballer like Messi inspires for how he plays, there is always a danger of idealising their own motivations, and what they represent. No one should be under any illusions about that. No one should project their own ideals onto that.
It is still remarkable that, at this point in the game’s history, clubs like AC Milan, Inter Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal – clubs that have been in the Champions League final within the last 15 years – would be considered “romantic” choices. That’s before you even get to mooted parallels with Diego Maradona like Napoli.
None of them could come close to matching what PSG could offer, in circumstances as much as wages.
And yet all of this is only true because of what PSG are as a state project, right down to that convenient location. Paris was particularly attractive as an opportunity for investment for Qatar, and that has created the club’s wealth that has brought so many South American stars as well as the chance to win the Champions League.
And yet we can’t overlook what will be staring us in the face. Messi is one of the purest footballers in history in terms of how he plays. There is a rare beauty to it. That footballer will now indirectly be an ambassador for the Qatari state, much more so than when the country’s businesses sponsored Barcelona.
We can’t overlook the context there, either. No one can really plead ignorance any more. The fact the 2022 qualification campaign has started is already creating dilemmas for players and managers on whether to speak out about Qatar’s human rights questions in the blandest ways. There is more awareness than ever before.
There is of course a fair argument that this is just another way players are denied agency at a point when they have never been better paid, in a similar way to how Messi has been forced out of Barcelona.
If they want to maximise their abilities in the way they should be entitled to, the reality of the modern game is they have to engage with interests many of us wouldn’t want to.
That is just one other way this is so depressing. It shows how the game has been taken over.
But, equally, Messi is not just some young player who has won nothing and just arrives at these limited choices as he looks to win the medals to maximise that talent.
He is now a free agent and, as perhaps the best in history and still the best in the world, he now had more choice than anyone else. He could have chosen any number of offers for £300,000 a week, where he wouldn’t have ceded in the way many expected at Barcelona. There’s now a different context. Any number of clubs could have afforded that.
He’s chosen a state project, one of only two in the game. Last year, by all accounts, he chose the other one in Manchester City. Let’s make no bones about that.
If it’s obviously unfair to put some of this on players, it’s also fair for the rest of us to be a bit put out by it. You only have to look at the example of one of Newells’ other heroes, Marcelo Bielsa. He makes his choices on very different parameters.
All this story shows is how narrow the parameters of the top level have become. Any idea of competitive balance is being obliterated. The elite field is now arguably narrower than the Super League. That had 12 clubs. The current number of clubs who can financially compete post-Covid is maybe at six, even four. It has got that bad.
Would there even be much sporting value to the achievement if Messi did win the Champions League with PSG? None of the players or fans would care of course, but the reality is that it would be a consequence of concentration of wealth more than ever before in history. PSG have just kept accumulating until they’ve got to this point.
And yet one of sport’s delicious ironies is its very human dynamics can disrupt things in unexpected ways of their own.
Look what PSG have accumulated. They have perhaps the best front line that has ever existed in Messi, Neymar and Mbappe, but who here is pressing? It puts a curious pressure on the rest of the structure.
And that’s under a manager, in Mauricio Pochettino, who favours pressing almost more than any other. It is young, fresh and hungry players who are best suited to that. It is also why the links to Tottenham Hotspur in the summer were true. There had been frustrations on Pochettino’s part with how PSG work.
The Argentine has, for his part, always wanted to work with Messi. That could be magical. It could be beautiful. The attacking trio will no doubt be wonderful, producing moments that will fill social media.
And yet it still feels oddly hollow. It isn’t necessarily suited to how football works. All this is, however, how the modern game works. So much of it is downright depressing.