Lionel Messi’s tearful Barcelona exit is a football tragedy after financial absurdity

An emotional occasion as the genius bids farewell and prepares for an unexpected move elsewhere

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Sunday 08 August 2021 12:55 BST
Lionel Messi breaks down in tears as he says final goodbye to FC Barcelona

After so many answers – some of them very straight and stark – there’s still one arresting question. Has any player ever wanted to leave a club less?

Has any departure ever been less fitting, its nature summing up the absurdities of the modern game rather than the Barcelona career of perhaps its greatest ever player?

It goes without saying that Leo Messi’s departure from the club should have been in front of a packed Camp Nou, at the end of his time in Europe, and where the tears were genuinely moving rather than so sadly regrettable.

The departure instead took place in a sterile room, with a player who has done more than any to emotionally move people being asked about the details of a league’s administrative rules.

If Messi is football, as one of his former managers once declared, what was this?

And yet while that press conference was admittedly astonishing in parts, its most arresting aspect was a sight rather than anything that was actually said.

That was Messi first weeping before it began, then sobbing uncontrollably as a resounding round of applause continued. There was even an element of intruding on what should have been private grief.

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One comment did perfectly articulate the real sentiment behind those tears. It was all the more striking because Messi hasn't historically been the most expressive.

"This is the most difficult moment of my career. I have been through tough moments, defeats... but the next day you go back to training and you have another chance to avenge yourself. That isn't going to happen here, it's the end. Now another chapter starts.”

The next question was how it had come to this.

“I didn’t want to leave,” Messi said, before repeating one line in multiple different ways. “I did everything I could to stay.”

That comment did leave a lot unsaid.

Many have wondered why he didn’t just take a pay cut or, if he loves the club as much as his tears suggested, why he didn’t offer to play for free?

The first thing to say to that is: why should Messi offer to solve the problems of a board that have been the source of so much dysfunction? As literally any worker in any field would be able to testify, these situations are never just about the simple decision of staying or going, or the emotions of it. They’re about long-standing relationships, and existing power dynamics. It is Messi’s fair right not to have his emotions taken advantage of by one of the clubs with the biggest turnovers in world football, who have just continued spending. Many footballers would agree with him, going back to Roy Keane, John Giles in England and much further. It’s not about what you’re paid. It’s about what that represents in relation to the club’s approach.

Messi also confirmed, in responding to one question, that he actually offered to take a 50 per cent pay cut.

But even that was moot.

That is what many have missed, and why this is a football tragedy.

Even if Messi did offer to play for nothing, Barca could not have registered him. The problem was that, in letting the Argentine’s contract run out at the end of last season, he became a free agent. That meant that, in order to register Messi, Barca’s wage-to-turnover percentage has to be 70 per cent. It is currently 95 per cent without him, making their four big summer signings all the more questionable.

This is the fundamental to all this.

Messi is being forced out, evicted. That was the reason for the tears. That was the real reason it's so sad, so regrettable, so sensational. You might even call it another reductio ad absurdum in football, a point at which logic can’t go past.

The six-time Ballon d’Or winner cries during Sunday’s press conference at the Camp Nou
The six-time Ballon d’Or winner cries during Sunday’s press conference at the Camp Nou (AFP/Getty)

It does feel absolutely absurd that Messi, a player who inspires such emotion that fans would willingly pay more to watch him than anyone else, is being forced out by financial convolutions and fairly grotesque politics. That is not what football should be.

He has been caught in the middle of a stand-off between La Liga and Spain’s big two, not to mention ongoing plans to try and revive the European Super League. This is one of the problems of the modern game, the grotesque size of the biggest clubs, bloated and making self-indulgent decisions.

An irony is that there is some logic in letting a 34-year-old go, to try and create a leaner club. That is what is necessary in the modern game, but are Barca really doing that? Some of the signings suggest otherwise, and it could still have been achieved with Messi surrounded by a team of hard-pressing graduates.

The Messis aren’t without guilt in some of this, it should be stressed. He has required indulgences of his own at the club. But he is ultimately a victim of wider forces, and the sort of football finances that players like him have been more responsible for creating than any of those who actually benefit.

That's another reason it's so lamentable

That is also why Messi’s own mooted move to PSG – “it is one possibility” he confirmed, somewhat coyly – is so depressing and boring in its own way. The game is structured in such a way that a Qatari state project are among the handful of clubs he can go to.

Will Messi’s next destination be Paris and a link-up with Neymar (left) and Kylian Mbappe?
Will Messi’s next destination be Paris and a link-up with Neymar (left) and Kylian Mbappe? (AFP/Getty)

These are where there are fairer questions about Messi’s prospective wage demands. For a player who has such a purity to his play and inspires such a purity of emotion, it would feel more fitting if he went outside one of the wealthiest, if he went somewhere more romantic – if it wasn't just money going to money. That a second-tier club is considered romantic – in other words, a club who could have won the Champions League just over a decade ago in a Milan or Borussia Dortmund – is another indictment of where we are.

There is instead a grim inevitability about this transfer.

There should have been no inevitability about this end.

“At first it will be weird, but people will get used to it, as we always do.”

Barca may never see a player like Messi again, though. There will be other stars, of course, but can there be one who will be as deeply entrenched in the club as the Argentine and who rises to such heights? That is a rare combination. He was a rare player. He was, for so long, Barcelona.

Another standing ovation ensued. Thousands of fans could be heard chanting his name.

That should have been inside the stadium, not outside. It should have been a very different ending.

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