The Messi state of football
How Messi’s exile from Barcelona and acquisition by Paris Saint-Germain both tell the story of football’s money problem
8th August 2021. That was the day that Lionel Messi – arguably one of the greatest to ever play football – announced officially that he would be leaving FC Barcelona. Understandably, the Argentine was a teary figure, having moved to the Spanish city 21 long years ago to pursue a footballing career. Even to those not regularly fans of football, the sight of the little magician donned in Barcelona’s kit is instantly recognisable, and the announcement of his departure caught the attention of a global audience.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Messi was retiring from football, bringing the curtain down as one of the all-time greats. Yet the reality is there is no retirement, but a complex financial situation that has highlighted that – this season, more than ever – football is under a cloud of money, where super-rich owners play political games with no regard for the history or backbone of the beautiful game they pretend to care about.
Just days after his emotional press conference, it was announced that Lionel Messi would be joining French club Paris Saint Germain – on a free transfer, no less: a bitter blow to Barcelona as a club, and their reputation. The reason that the club had to let their prized asset leave for nothing is rooted at the core of Spanish football and their financial laws. To stop clubs spending extravagant amounts of money on players, La Liga (Spain’s premier division) have in place an ‘Economic Cost Control’ measure which looks at a club’s spending over the previous three seasons to determine a sustainable budget for the next.
Barcelona’s financial troubles have been well documented, with club president Joan Laporta announcing €1.35 billion of debt, largely coming from the overpayment of players, managers and backroom staff over the past 15 years. Lionel Messi was the highest earner, on €71 million a year. Even without Messi, the club’s wage bill heading into the current season stands at €278 million: it is easy to see where debt has been accumulated.
Messi ended the previous season out of contract, but the footballing world expected – himself included – that he would agree a new mega-deal with the club to take him to the end of his career. The signings of other high-earning players, such as Memphis Depay from Lyon and Sergio Aguero from Manchester City, took Barcelona’s wage bill beyond 110% of club earnings, in contradiction of La Liga rules designed to protect the financial security of clubs.
Breaching the 110% rule presented the club with an ultimatum: either lower players’ wages, or not sign any new ones. Re-signing the out-of-contract Messi would have counted as a new player, and several players refused to take a pay cut. Just like that, Barcelona’s record goalscorer and appearance-maker had to leave his boyhood club.
In the broader footballing picture, Barcelona were key advocates for the proposed European Super League which would have operated outside the FIFA regulations would have made it entirely possible to keep Messi and sign new players.
Messi’s new club Paris SG were one of Europe’s big clubs to shun the proposed league, earning them praise and goodwill from UEFA. The club’s owners, Qatari Sports Investments, are subsidised and run by the Qatari ruling family. With controversy over Qatar’s football involvement already hanging like a cloud with the country being awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup, cynics have suggested that PSG refrained from signing up to the European Super League in an attempt to boost Qatari reputation with football’s ruling elite.
Certainly, the French club’s acquisition of Messi has raised eyebrows worldwide, given the sheer number of world-class talent already at their disposal and their already gargantuan wage bill. Whilst no transfer fee has been paid for the Argentine, he will reportedly cost €35 million per year in wages amongst other big-earners such as Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. In this summer transfer window alone, PSG have signed Lionel Messi, Sergio Ramos, Achraf Hakimi, Georgino Wijnaldum and Gianluigi Donnarumma, leading some to liken their spending to the actions of an excited child on a video game.
In a sporting sense, we can all appreciate the talent on display, but serious questions about financial fair play have to be asked. Despite revenue being made in shirt sales and match tickets, PSG have yet to offload any star names that would be needed to financially justify the additions to the squad.
At the end of the day, money talks. PSG’s owners have publicly stated that all their transfer business is in-line with any fair play rules in place, despite spending far more money than Barcelona who have been brutally punished.
Capping an already historical transfer window, the fact that the best player in the world has moved clubs on a free transfer seems ludicrous. Following a year without full revenue due to the COVID-enforced empty stadia, many clubs around Europe face financial hardship and even ruin. Questions have to be raised to football’s governing bodies about how strict they are on clubs with financial power to bulldoze their way to success.