We often remember things and people as a series of emotional moments. We don’t really control them, but we have vivid recall when it matters most. I remember the moment I met my wife more than 14 years ago, although she was just a friend-of-a-friend and at the time it was no more momentous a meeting than when I met the friend who was with her. I do not remember meeting that friend a couple of years before.
In this case, my first thought was, simply, “Wow.”
My second thought, a few minutes later, after my wide eyes had returned mostly to their normal size, was, “We are in some deep financial trouble.”
I am talking, of course, about the departure of Lionel Messi. The player himself seems to have been blindsided; the only people ready for it were the directors at PSG, who probably said, “We found €50 million in the couch cushions, would you like them?” Everyone else was caught flat-footed like Eric Garcia during a simple passing move.
I was in the stadium when Messi scored a hat trick against Brazil, leaving Marcelo literally on the ground on his way to the third and best of them. The whole stadium, Argentines and Brazilians alike, held their breath as he uncorked a 30-yard curler. It was a goal the instant it left his foot, but you couldn’t get the roar out before it was in, you couldn’t do anything but let your eyes widen, your hands flutter a bit, your adrenalin not even capable of catching up. It was glorious and it was impossible and it was oh so easy for him. Bang. Goal.
And now: Bang. Gone.
It doesn’t feel right, even in hindsight when more financial information is available. The man didn’t want to leave and there’s only vague suggestions from people who have no idea what they’re talking about that he was making far-fetched demands of the club. They were offering him deals and he was accepting them, then they were offering lower deals and he was accepting them, and finally they weren’t offering anything at all and he was gone.
Why, though, was the greatest player of all time strung along by the club? Why, though, did it all just seem off? The obvious thing is that it felt like something was deeply, deeply wrong at the club. The finances were in such disarray that we couldn’t afford to sign the one player who could single-handedly keep us relevant in every competition we entered, so we had to sadly let him go even though we fought like hell to keep him. Fought? Against whom?
In August, it was Tebas and the league, who were signing a ludicrous deal with an investment firm (CVC) that would have hamstrung the club for years to come and certainly changed how financing was approached. Or, that’s how Laporta spun it and given that Tebas is about as big a bag of power tools as you’re going to find, that made sense. Tebas was auctioning La Liga’s future for a short-term financial fix for a few clubs flailing economically thanks to the pandemic? He dangled the ability to renew Messi as the carrot that was going to lead us into a dark and wretched place. The league could have simply changed the financial requirements for everyone in order to save far more than just one Catalan club. Instead, we got treated to daily interviews and recriminations about this or that financial aspect.
So Messi left and we were able to maneuver our way to signing or loaning Memphis Depay, Kun Aguero, Eric Garcia, Yusuf Demir, and Luuk de Jong. That’s quite the haul of players, but players on paper don’t necessarily mean ballers on the field. Depay is doing as well as can be expected, carrying the offensive load all on his own because Kun hasn’t played a minute or even made the bench and Luuk might as well not be playing. Whatever their particular skills, it’s hard to employ them if they’re not in the stadium or isolated up top with a wildly inconsistent approach.
Only, wait, we couldn’t sign Messi, but could sign five players? Why not just combine the salaries of those 5 players and say “Hey, Leo, this is what we can afford?” and well, yeah, that’s the big question, isn’t it? Or why not just accept the CVC deal in order to retain your greatest ever player?
Obviously, the team was working with a succession plan, which you have to have for any squad member. You can’t just go in thinking “it’ll work itself out” or you end up like–oh no, we’re Valencia, aren’t we? We might even just be Valencia if Valencia thought you could leer at players until they offered to play for free. Laporta secretly wished Messi would volunteer to play for free, because that’s a smart way to run a club.
Except, hang on, doesn’t La Liga have a minimum salary? It sure does! €150,000 or so, which technically Barça couldn’t afford while also signing other players, but in his wisdom, Laporta appears to have wished that would just be some sort of waived clause. This whole thing sounds like the time in college when I rolled out of bed late, remembered I had a test that day, raced to class, realized I hadn’t actually studied either, and sort of just jumbled my way through the questions. I got an A and I think Laporta was assuming that’s what he would get too, but I was taking a low-level Spanish course that didn’t count towards my major and he was trying to run a football club.
Further, the club has announced staggering losses: €481million. There may be some accounting tricks involved to frontload the misery and make it seem like Laporta is the savior he claims to be when next year’s books are suddenly smelling like roses, but however you slice this, it’s a lot of money and the club is in very bad shape. The club announced in a release that revenue had been €631million while the projected revenue had been €828million, a lot of that disparity coming from the stadium closure and probably a fair few clawbacks from sponsors.
And then Laporta did what you might think even he wouldn’t: he gave an interview in which he suggested that the CVC deal could still be worthwhile. If you’ve been paying even the slightest bit of attention, that’s a bitter pill to swallow. Moving from this-is-will-ruin-the-club to this-is-possibly-fine is quite a swing, especially when that swing includes losing the greatest player of all time and replacing him with Luuk de Jong. It’s a monumental ballsing of the one thing you had to get right; it doesn’t matter how many Memphis Depays you convince to join your team or even how good Yusuf Demir might turn out to be if in the process you lose Lionel Messi.
My first thought about Messi’s departure was “Wow.” I’ve come around, too, like Laporta, and I’m just back at “Wow.” It’s probably not my final thought, though, as I imagine there are quite a few more twists in the road towards any sort of final resolution.