In those frantic final hours of April, before a gang of Europe’s biggest club owners reveal their plan to make a great fellow in an unwanted and unwelcome world, a rift has emerged in their ranks.
One faction, led by Andrea Agnelli, president of Juventus, and Florentino Perez, president of Real Madrid, wanted the announcement as quickly as possible. Agnelli, in particular, was feeling the personal pressure to act, in fact, as a double agent. They said everything is ready. Or at least it’s ready as it should be.
Another group, centered on American monarchy groups that controlled England’s traditional giants, advised caution. The plans still need finesse. There is still debate, for example, about how many spots can be handed over to teams that have qualified for the competition. They felt it was best to wait until summer.
If the first group had not won the day – if the entire project had not exploded and collapsed in disgrace in a turbulent 48 hours – it would have been this week, after the Olympics but before the start of the new season, when they presented themselves – serving the elite vision of football’s future.
The collapse of the Premier League was, of course, a source of Mubarak’s relief. Instead, this week was handed a dystopian illustration of exactly where the football stands are, suggesting little solace should be found in their failure.
On Thursday, Manchester City broke the British transfer record – paying Aston Villa $138m for Jack Grealish – for what may not be the last time this summer. The club is still hoping to add Harry Kane, Tottenham’s talisman and England captain, for a fee that could be as high as $200 million.
And then, of course, dwarfing everything else, it turns out that Lionel Messi will leave – he will have to leave – FC Barcelona. According to the rules of the Spanish League, the financial resources of the club make it unable to register the greatest player ever for the next season, both physically and financially. She had no choice but to let him go. He had no choice but to leave.
Everything that has happened since has been so shocking that it would be surreal, but so predictable that it was inevitable.
There was a tear-stained press conference where Messi revealed he had volunteered to accept a 50 per cent salary cut to stay at the club he had called since he was 13, scoring 672 goals in 778 games, breaking every game. A record that was there to break, winning everything there was to win and creating a legend that may never be matched.
Once that was over, the first wisps of smoke emerged from Paris, indicating the identity of Messi’s new home. PSG, it seems, was dealing with numbers. Messi has been in touch with Neymar, his old companion, to talk things through. He contacted Mauricio Pochettino, the manager, to get an idea of how this might work. PSG has been in contact with Jorge, his agent and his father.
Then it happened on Tuesday. Everything was agreed: a salary of $41 million a year, basic, over two years, with a third option. When his Camp Nou photo was stripped, a gap emerged between the huge posters of Gerard Pique and Antoine Griezmann, Messi and his wife Antonella Roccuzzo boarded a plane in Barcelona, all packed up and ready to go.
Jorge Messi confirmed to reporters at the airport that the deal was done. PSG removed it with a tweet. Messi landed at Le Bourget Airport, near Paris, wearing that shy smile and a T-shirt that read: “Ici, C’est Paris.”
This wasn’t a trip that many had ever envisioned. But he had no other choice. Or rather, the player for whom everything was possible, for once, had only a limited set of options.
There is an image of modern football in this restrained selection, and it is a stark one. Lionel Messi, the all-time best, has no real agency about where he plays his last few years. He was not even able to resist the economic forces that hold the game.
He couldn’t stay where he wanted to stay, in Barcelona, because the club went, recklessly, into financial ruin. The combination of the incompetence of executives and the arrogance of the organization is largely responsible, but not entirely.
The club has spent a lot of money badly in recent years, of course. The legacy that Messi did so much to build was wasted. But it did so in the context of being asked and expected to compete with clubs backed not only by oligarchs and billionaires but by entire nation-states, their ambitions unchecked and their spending unchecked.
The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the onset of the disaster, and thus Barcelona is no longer in a position to hold even a player who wants to stay. When it came time for his departure, he found a scene where a handful of clubs – nine at most – could offer the possibility of allowing him to compete for the Champions League title once again. They had left everyone behind a long time ago, relegating them to the second rank.
And of those, only three could even come close to earning a well-deserved huge salary. He should not be envious of his desire to pay him his fortune. He is the finest advocate of his art in history. It would be rude to ask him to do it so cheaply, as if it were his duty to entertain us. It could have just been Chelsea, Manchester City or Paris.
For some – and not just those who come close to PSG from their hearts – this will be an appetizing prospect: a chance to see Messi not only reunited with Neymar, but allied for the first time with Kylian Mbappe, who many eventually assume will take his position. The crown as the best, and with his old enemy Sergio Ramos too.
No doubt it will be captivating. And undoubtedly profitable: T-shirts will fly off the shelves; You will trade sponsorships; Television ratings will rise as well, perhaps raising all French football with them. may be successful in the field; It will undoubtedly be good to watch. But this is not a measure. As well as the sinking of the ship.
The arrival of the Premier League engineers, in April, with a wrong answer, is not in doubt. The vision of the future of football they put forward was one that benefited them and left everyone, in fact, burning.
But the question that prompted her was the right one. The vast majority of those 10 teams knew the game in its current form was not sustainable. The costs were too high, the risks too high. The arms race they were engaged in only led to destruction. They have recognized the need for change, even if their desperation and self-interest mean that they cannot determine what form that change should take.
They were worried that they could not compete with the power and wealth of the two or three clubs that were not subject to the same rules as everyone else. They felt that the playing field was no longer level. They believed that, sooner or later, the players would gather first and then the titles around Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City.
That was urgent, it turns out. Paris Saint-Germain signed Messi. City could commit more than $300 million to just two players within weeks, as the rest of the game deals with the impact of the pandemic. Chelsea spent $140 million on the striker as well. This is the week when all their fears and all their terrible predictions have vanished.
There should be no sympathy, of course. Those same clubs did not care at all about the competitive balance when the imbalances suit them. Nothing hurts the chances of meaningful change more than their failed attempt to amass as much of the game’s fortune as possible for their own ends.
But they are not the only ones who lose out in this case. In April, in that whirlwind of 48 hours, I felt that football had avoided a bleak vision of its future. When Messi landed on the ground near Paris on Tuesday, with surrealism and determinism colliding, it was hard to ignore the feeling that he was just trading him for another.
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