Money. Everything in football now is about money. It’s also about greed, and ugliness and animus but mostly it’s about money.
Lionel Messi is moving to Paris St. Germain. Whether he had to is ultimately for people with vastly more knowledge to sort. What we know is that he is going to the only club that can affod to pay his freight.
Money tests everything, even the boundaries of love. When faced with a difficult choice in accepting the CVC deal brokered by head of La Liga or let the club’s crown jewel go, Joan Laporta chose to keep the dying embers of the Super League going, that ugly, cynical project that threatens the fabric of a game that has already been woven into something unrecognizable.
Players, sitting at home, fresh off refusing to accept pay cuts because why should their lifestyle suffer to fix a problem that wasn’t of their own making, now have to face a season of dramatically less possibility, of dramatically less global interest. And the money will console them, at the end of the day.
Messi himself, on wages that would make Croesus blush, accepted a pay cut to wages that would merely make Croesus blanch a bit, also wants to get paid. And he should. In the dying embers of his career, how can you apply value to a player who is, many suggest, bigger than the game. They’re wrong, but they can suggest such things all they like. The fair value for Messi is all the money. PSG has all the money, et voila.
When news broke of the dire fiscal straits in which Josep Bartomeu and his board left FC Barcelona, money became something more significant. Culers, for years and presidential term after presidential term, have become accustomed to thinking of money in the abstract. This player isn’t worth that. Why yes, that astronomical fee is fair. The club should do it. It was all weird and fun, like a real-life game of Football Manager. But real life is different.
Real life is salary caps and EBITDA, wage to income ratios and all that stuff people would prefer not to think about. “Who are we adding to the roster?”
And of all the things that the interminable wrecking project of Rosell, then Bartomeu were going to bring, who among us thought that it would mean the departure of Messi. He was signed on a napkin in a restaurant and became a colossus that doth bestride football. And now he’s gone because of hubris, stupidity and greed. Not just player greed, not just board greed, but our greed. Because it was all to build a winning team, to get our approval, to make magic when week after week, month after month, they must have looked at the numbers and hoped for a miracle.
And then came a pandemic.
It wasn’t COVID that caused the damage. But it was COVID that tipped it over the edge, that proverbial back-breaking straw. Suddenly that massive player wage bill became a burden, the debts incurred to keep the big names coming because hubris, supporters and pride demanded, became a burden. We can talk all we want about the other awful things that Bartomeu and his cabal did, but had they popped in a couple of trebles, only hardasses like a few of us would have been saying, “Yeah, but … ”
Never forget that. Money buys players, which buy championships. Everyone wanted championships, wanted to taste that vicarious joy of victory parades on open-top buses, and drunk players surfing the adulation of throngs of supporters. The board wanted that too, but for their own reasons. And they did stuff to get it, to get one last hurrah for Messi, as we all demanded. They bought and bought and didn’t sell, paid more and we all thought it was fine, except for those who really looked at ratios and numbers and warned that something wicked this way comes.
In many ways Ilaix Moriba and that saga is the defining story of the new state of the club. Money. The player wants more, too much more. Sit me? Okay. Just don’t not pay me what I think I am worth. The club says, okay. Then sit. And that brick wall has a person on either side with their head pressed against it. A player, a talent, raised at teh club who wanted nothing more than to succeed at that club — well, except for money — is tossed aside because money.
Laporta at his press conference blamed La Liga, as many predicted. Tebas played a game and lost. His bluster that the league didn’t need Messi was just that, evinced by the deal he brokered that banked a part of the future of the league on getting Barça enough cash to resign the player that everyone needed. A new eight-year deal in the U.S. was just signed with ESPN and people like me knew that Tebas would do everything to ensure that the only superstar remained in the league, that the promos and adverts that ESPN was already running featuring Messi weren’t to become just relics. His last gasp was that CVC deal, a cash infusion aimed at short-term gain and staving off something that nobody wanted. Allegedly.
Tributes and honorariums in support of a magnificent player are for later. For now there is anger, cynicism and acceptance of the reality. For a long time, we were able to think that the game was still something pure. We could watch talented players do great things and absorb ourselves in that. And as Messi strode up to take a free kick, the wonder of it all remained. What magic would he bring to us? We never thought about the cost, what had to happen to bring that to us every week. We weren’t supposed to. But it was all an illusion, ripped away like the paper off a printer that shows a negative balance in a set of business ledgers.
Players play football but money makes it happen. You either have it or you don’t. Years and years of unprecedented earning and growth were being fed by the shovelful into the gaping maw of more. Bigger signings, bigger salaries, because that’s how big clubs rolled. What nobody wanted to deal with, but must now manage, is that in the modern game of football, a big club is a club that has the money to do what it wants. Forget about history, grandeur and legacies of great players. Can you pay or not?
Barça couldn’t, and everyone loses except PSG, who has all the money. Welcome to the real football.