The first Barcelona shirt Lionel Messi wore bore no sponsor at all. It was 16 years ago and so predates the term “virtue signalling” by half a decade, even though it remains quite possibly the single clearest example of the practice.
There was no easier or more certain way for Barcelona to advertise their own belief in their moral superiority to the world than to advertise nothing at all. The corporate greed, the commercialisation, that was for the rest. Not for the club that was Mes Que Un Club.
But in the end, all goats must be branded, even The King Goat, The Goat of the Goats, and the evolution of the marks which Messi wore tell their own story. No name at all gave way to Unicef, the United Nations children’s charity whose name and logo Barcelona wore for free. Next another charitable foundation, how noble, even if it was the Qatar Foundation this time. Then – what do you know? – Qatar Airways.
It reads like a children’s word ladder game down which Barcelona descended into the grubby realm of the rest, where, of course, they always were to begin with. These days, all pretence is over. They just wear the name of the sports TV streaming service Rakuten – the evolution is complete.
It means that the narrative is more muddled than it might immediately seem. Messi’s move to the Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain is indeed a seismic moment, but as with all seismic moments, the ground had been slipping for a while.
Lionel Messi made his debut for Barcelona the year after Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea. No one would have suspected then that a Russian billionaire would find himself priced out of football’s very highest, smallest tier by the wealth of actual nations, albeit small ones.
But it is not so simple that his move from fabled, historic Barcelona to the Paris oil men marks the transfer of old money to new. New money had its blood funnelled in everywhere already. The point, though, is that that is what it feels like. And in sport, how things feel matters. Feelings, raw emotions, are the base currency that draws first the ordinary man in, for the money man to surely follow.
For a very long time, a decade at least, the supreme talent of Messi, and the second greatest player of all time, Ronaldo, were the edifice the oil men couldn’t pull down. They were just too good. The era had been coming to an end regardless. When Manchester City played Paris Saint-Germain in last season’s Champions League semi-final, and Chelsea breezed past Real Madrid in the other, it already felt like a new era had come.
What is curious, and indeed depressing, about Messi’s Qatari swansong is that it will mark a personal handing over of the baton. For years, his brilliance relegated all other storylines to a sub plot. Now, the depressing, football-as-Gulf-state-proxy-war era is the main event.
It’s not his fault. It is also a failure of epic proportions that a football club who acquired not merely his services but also those of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Puyol and Gerard Pique with almost no transfer outlay at all should now find themselves close to bankruptcy, after conducting the worst transfer business in football history, for several seasons in a row. But even had it not done so, it would not have delayed the inevitable. Even if he had stayed and played for free, as many have absurdly suggested he should, Barcelona would be barely any shallower in the mud.
It used to be a rare thing, now increasingly common, to look upon the future with a sense of certainty that it will be worse than the past. The Messi/Ronaldo years will surely not come again. And even if they do, at least in the foreseeable future, they will now surely be bound up in the game’s new front line, as opposed to seeming to stand as a bulwark against it.
There also feels a certain symmetry in the air, that the game’s most prized asset should be bought up by Qatari oil money should be overshadowed by the truly appalling climate crisis predictions. It is hard to predict, in the short and medium term, how many people will care that the men who burnt the world have bought the game. What is also harder to predict is whether or not it will turn out that they’ve paid too much for it.
Messi, to a certain extent, was inflated out of Barcelona by a market the Qataris and the Emiratis deliberately blew up. He will go pop in the end. He’s only human after all. And when he does, there might be a lot less value lying around than they banked on. Because the show they’ve built just isn’t going to be the same.
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