Lionel Messi’s Barcelona exit is about much more than Lionel Messi

Barca have made their position clear – it is not just about choosing their finances over their star forward

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 06 August 2021 18:46
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Lionel Messi in profile

On the surface, Joan Laporta’s press conference relays a stark acceptance that Barcelona just can’t afford the greatest player in their history. There is even a fair argument that this was an essential decision to come to… and a logical one.

If you go a little deeper, though, Lionel Messi may yet end up a bit-part in his own story. That doesn’t refer to his place at Paris Saint-Germain, or wherever he ends up. It is about something much bigger and what many believe is the true political intrigue behind these developments.

Barcelona and Real Madrid aren’t just refusing to give up on the Super League idea. Several sources say they are actively reviving it, to the point that figures within Uefa and the European Club Association are getting worried.

If so, you can probably extend that to La Liga.

The thinking had been that the Messi situation was all posturing by Barcelona and an attempt to pressure the Spanish league into easing economic restrictions so that exceptions can be made again for big clubs. The fact they have confirmed his departure – to a literal point of no return – indicates that isn’t the case.

It isn’t quite as simple as Barca’s financial issues, either, although that is the source of so much.

The prevailing school of thought is that this is just a proxy battle because La Liga are trying to get Spain’s big two to sign off on this new financial deal, in which 10 per cent of the competition is sold off to CVC, which would effectively kill off the Super League plans.

This could be inferred in one conspicuous comment by Laporta: “The only way to have margin on our salary scale and register Leo passed is through accepting something which we see as not good at all for Barca. We did not want to mortgage the future of the club.

“La Liga said they would have accepted Messi within their rules if we accepted the operation they are doing. But we could not give up a part of our broadcast rights over a long period. The club has to be above players, presidents, everyone.”

President of La Liga, Javier Tebas, for his part, immediately rejected this on his social media: “Joan Laporta, you know that the CVC operation does not mortgage the TV rights of Barcelona for 50 years, what it does is allow more value for all the clubs and so you can MORTGAGE your BANKS and solve your great debt. That’s what you were told hours ago.”

Laporta himself rejected this, arguing, “the sum that CVC are bringing to the operation is a lot less than we think 10 per cent of La Liga is worth”.

Joan Laporta, President of FC Barcelona, explains Lionel Messi’s exit on Friday

The feeling elsewhere is that Barca and Madrid want to pursue their own avenues, to maximise their own worth. They want to be above the rest of the game.

The two clubs haven’t just remained committed to the idea of a Super League – constantly releasing press conferences – out of belligerence or obstinacy. They still see it as the future. Maybe the near future.

They will want to do their own deals with private equity.

The Independent has been told by sources on the political side that some of the figures involved in financially backing the original Super League plan were in London over the summer, as part of talks to restart the project.

There is complete confidence that Real Madrid will win their legal case. A court in the Spanish capital has asked the European Court of Justice to consider whether Uefa breached EU competition law by blocking the project in April. It was conspicuous that the Super League attempted to expedite the process.

Time is a factor here, which is why the Messi story comes at such a crucial point. He is ultimately a free agent because Barcelona couldn’t get enough players off their wages bill prior to the new season, meaning they couldn’t register his new contract.

Laporta, meanwhile, confirmed that Messi’s agreement would have been two years of play but paid over five years as a way of getting around the financial restrictions for 2021-22.

That is actually staggering in itself.

There are fair arguments about the insanity of investing so much in a 34-year-old, no matter how legendary he has been. Getting rid of Messi at this point is probably even the right move, unpalatable as the nature of it may be.

Laporta said Messi is “sad” about that. The Argentinian could, equally, have accepted less – although the figures indicate even that might have been impossible. “Without Messi, the salaries are at about 95 per cent of the revenues of the club,” says Laporta.

Lionel Messi has ‘left so much joy, excitement, tremendous successes…’

The story, again, exposes how financially overstretched some of Europe’s biggest clubs are.

“To be able to find €25m (£21m) we need to free up €100m,” Laporta said. “We have been working fast on that, we have reached a series of agreements. But with other players it is not easy, players have already reduced salaries or restructured their deals previously. It is not easy.”

It may be even more complex than that. It is about so much more than Messi or the circumstances that force him out.

Laporta went on to sensationally reveal Barca are expecting losses of €487m for last season.

The situation has ratcheted up to such a degree that there is so much at stake, not least the commercial future of these teams.

There has already been a lot of tension about the financial power of the Premier League and fears of a split at the top of European football where it is basically dominated by the English clubs and Paris Saint-Germain.

Many prominent figures want reform.

It just wouldn’t be the revolution that the game really needs to revitalise competitive balance. It would be the opposite, with more going to the biggest clubs, as powerbrokers such as Florentino Perez attempt to use trickle-down economics to justify all of this.

That could be seen in Laporta’s pointed reference as to how, “Financial Fair Play is also blocking us”.

“I can’t make a decision that would destroy the club.”

Barca president Joan Laporta with Lionel Messi

The big clubs, instead, just want to up-end European football.

It is why the thinking, for a while, has been that the revived Super League may not quite come as crudely as a fully formed competition. The belief is that it would, instead, be a direct challenge to Uefa’s governance rather than as a league – but that would still just be “a Trojan horse” for the overall concept.

The Independent has repeatedly been told of overtures to so-called “second-tier” clubs to try to get them on board.

There is growing confidence that it will happen.

Laporta, meanwhile, ended any hope that Messi would stay.

He said: “I don’t want to generate false hopes. It is true that the player also has other offers, we heard that during the negotiations. There is also a deadline for us, La Liga is starting soon. The FFP is also clear and the player cannot stay in this situation.

“There is a before and after with Leo – just like other players in the club’s history – [Josep] Samitier, [Ladislao] Kubala, Johan [Cruyff]. Leo Messi has left so much joy, excitement, tremendous successes, many images for history… we are eternally grateful at this club to Leo Messi.”

There may yet be a before and after in European football.

Barca have made their position clear. It is not just about choosing their finances over Messi. It is about future plans that go beyond the immediacy of the team. There is so much beneath the surface here.

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