In those frantic, final hours of April, a split arose in their ranks before a gang of owners of Europe’s biggest clubs announced their plans for a breakaway super league to an unsuspecting and unwanted world.
A group led by Juventus president Andrea Agnelli and Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez wanted to go public as quickly as possible. Agnelli in particular felt the personal pressure to act as a double agent. They said everything was ready; or at least as ready as it should be.
Another group focusing on American ownership groups controlling Britain’s traditional giants advised caution. Plans still had to be subtle. For example, there was still debate about how many points could be awarded to teams that qualify for the competition. They felt better waiting until summer.
If the first group hadn’t won that day—if the entire project hadn’t exploded and collapsed in disgrace in 48 turbulent hours—this would have been the week after the Olympics, but before the new season began, when they put themselves on the line. -an elitist vision that serves the future of football.
The dissolution of the Super League was of course a blessed relief. Instead, the fact that this week is given a dystopian picture of exactly where the football stands show that there should be no great consolation in its failure.
On Thursday, Manchester City broke the England transfer record – paying Aston Villa $138 million for Jack Grealish – for what won’t be the last one this summer. The club is hopeful to sign Tottenham’s talisman and England captain Harry Kane for a fee of up to $200m.
And then, of course, overshadowing everything else, it turned out that Lionel Messi would leave FC Barcelona – he would have to leave. According to La Liga rules, the club’s financial situation will not be able to save the best player of all time for next season, both physically and financially. She had no choice but to leave him. He had no choice but to go.
Everything that has happened since has felt too shocking to be surreal, yet predictable enough to be inevitable.
There was a tear-stained press conference where Messi volunteered to accept a 50 percent pay cut to stay at the club he called home since the age of 13, scored 672 goals in 778 games and broke every point. He had a record to break, won everything to be won, and created a legend that could never be matched.
As soon as this was over, the first bits of smoke came from Paris suggesting the identity of Messi’s new home. Paris St.-Germain, apparently, was crushing the numbers. Messi was in touch with his old friend Neymar to talk things over. He had called manager Mauricio Pochettino to get an idea of how it might work. PSG was in contact with his manager and father, Jorge.
Then it happened on Tuesday. Everything was agreed upon: $41 million a year, basic, more than two years, one-third optional salary. When his image was removed from the Camp Nou, a hole appeared between the huge posters of Gerard Piqué and Antoine Griezmann, Messi and his wife Antonela Roccuzzo boarded a plane to Barcelona packed and ready to go.
Jorge Messi assured reporters at the airport that the deal was done. PSG mocked him in a tweet. With that shy smile and a T-shirt that reads “Ici, C’est Paris”, Messi landed at Le Bourget airport near Paris.
This was not the journey many envisioned taking. But he had no choice; or rather, the player for whom anything is always possible, for once had only a narrow set of options.
There is a portrait of modern football in this limited selection, and it’s very clear. The greatest of all time, Lionel Messi has no real agency for where he’s played in his last few years. Even he could not resist the economic forces driving the game.
He couldn’t stay where he wanted to stay, at Barcelona, because the club was adrift in financial ruin. A mixture of the incompetence of its managers and the arrogance of the institution is largely responsible for this, but not entirely.
Of course, the club has made huge and bad expenditures in recent years. He squandered the legacy that Messi had done so much to build. But it did so in a context where it was wanted and expected to compete with clubs supported not only by oligarchs and billionaires, but by entire nation-states, its ambitions unchecked and its spending unrestricted.
The coronavirus pandemic hastened the onset of the disaster, so Barcelona were no longer in a position to hold even a player who wanted to stay. When it was time to leave, he found a sight where only a few clubs—nine at the most—could offer him the prospect of letting them compete for another Champions League trophy. It’s long since they outlived everyone else, they demoted them to second class status.
And only three of them could come close to receiving a huge salary as rightfully as his. He should not yield to the desire to be paid for his worth. He is the best representative of his art in history. It would be rude to ask him to do it cheaply, as if his job was to entertain us. It could only have been Chelsea, Manchester City or Paris.
For some – and not just those who hold PSG close to their hearts – it will be an appetizing prospect: not just a chance to see Messi reunited with Neymar, but also a first-time reunion with Kylian Mbappé, which many thought he would eventually get chance. He was crowned the best and also with his old nemesis Sergio Ramos.
No doubt it will be fascinating. And it is undoubtedly profitable: Jerseys will fly off the shelves; sponsorships will come into play; TV ratings will also rise, perhaps removing all French football with it. Can be successful on the field; It will certainly be nice to watch. But this is not a measure. So does the sinking of a ship.
There is no doubt that the architects of the Super League came to the wrong answer in April. The vision of the future of football they put forward was a vision that benefited them and actually left everyone on fire.
But the question that prompted him was the right one. The vast majority of these dozen teams knew that the game was unsustainable in its current form. The costs were too high, the risks too great. The arms race in which they were locked up only led to destruction. They recognized the need for change, even if their desperation and self-interest meant they couldn’t determine how change should happen.
They worried that they wouldn’t be able to compete with the power and wealth of two or three clubs that weren’t subject to the same rules as everyone else. They felt that the playing field was no longer level. They believed that sooner or later, first the players, then the trophies, would unite around PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City.
It seems that it was earlier. PSG have added Messi to their roster. City could commit more than $300 million to just two players in a matter of weeks as the rest of the game has come to terms with the impact of the pandemic. Chelsea also spent $140 million on a striker. This is the week when all your fears, all your terrible predictions come true.
Certainly not sympathy. The same clubs did not care at all about the competitive balance, while the imbalances suited them. Nothing has hurt the chances of meaningful change more than their failed attempts to collect as much of the game’s wealth as possible for their own purposes.
But in this case, they are not the only ones losing. In April, in that 48-hour whirlwind, he felt eluded by a grim vision of the future of football. As Messi landed near Paris on Tuesday, with the surreal and inevitable colliding, it was hard to ignore the feeling that he was simply trading him for someone else.