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Lionel Messi’s Depressing Departure From F.C. Barcelona Marks the End of European Football’s Romantic Era

The greatest player ever, much like fans of the sport, was left with no good options.

A dejected Lionel Messi holds his head in his hands after a match.
Manu Fernandez/Pool/Getty Images

It is a bit strange to refer to the relationship between a soccer player and the club that pays him more than £150 million a year as “romantic.” It is stranger still when that player has spent much of the last few seasons glowering on and off the field, understandably upset with the team’s financial mismanagement, disastrous acquisitions, humiliating European defeats, and general incompetence—as well as its decision to allow his best friend to leave, for a pittance, to join a rival that would then win the league. And yet, by the standards of modern European soccer in the age of global finance, the relationship between Lionel Messi and F.C. Barcelona is romantic. In the year of the Super League, Messi’s departure from Barcelona—and his likely arrival to Paris Saint-Germain—only underscores the bleak, uninspiring financial realities of global soccer.

When a 12-year-old Lionel Messi—then so small he could practically fit in Johan Cruyff’s pocket—signed a napkin to join the club, Barcelona was arguably the most famous football club in the world: The team featured Romario, Kubala, and, of course, Cruyff, almost certainly the most influential person in the development of modern soccer. And yet, 21 years later, it is impossible to imagine Barcelona without Messi.

When news first broke that he was unable to resign with the club because of La Liga’s salary cap rules, I simply didn’t believe it. Surely, this was a ruse—a clever way of putting pressure on the league to change its laws so it could hold onto the best player in the world. Earlier on Sunday, after it was abundantly clear that Messi was signing with Paris Saint-Germain, I tried to imagine Barcelona’s starting lineup without him and simply drew a blank when trying to fill in the right wing or false nine. I could only chuckle at the thought of Antoine Griezmann or Memphis Depay—let alone Martin Braithwaite—slotting into the void left by Barca’s talisman.

Messi, it seems, also can’t imagine the club without him, even though he has clearly been thinking about leaving for at least two years. (You can see those wheels start to turn seconds after Divock Origi’s glorious second goal goes in during Barcelona’s disastrous 4–0 defeat to Liverpool in the 2019 Champions League semifinals.) At a Sunday press conference in which he bade goodbye to the club, the Argentine forward began crying before even saying a word. “I am really sad because I didn’t want to leave because this is the club I love,” he said. There was, as there has been more and more recently, a touch of defensiveness: “I didn’t expect this. I have never lied; I have always been honest and upfront. Last year I wanted to leave; this year I didn’t. That’s why I am so sad.”

At 34, Messi has adopted the air of the aging prodigy, there is more frustration and weight: He has not won a Champions League since 2015 and will have one last shot at bringing World Cup glory to Argentina next winter in Qatar. And yet he is still probably the best player in the world—his future teammates Neymar and Kylian Mbappe are, along with perennial rival Cristiano Ronaldo, his only real competition.

Messi’s departure from the Catalonian club he’s called his home for over two decades was always going to be tragic, but there is a remarkable joylessness about how this particular episode has unfolded. Messi heading to PSG makes LeBron James going to the Lakers look positively laudable. The fact that the French club now looks to be at least a head, if not a pair of shoulders, better than any other team in Europe is a big reason why. Over the last month, the Ligue 1 runner-up has added goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma—fresh off being named the best player in the European championships; legendary defender (and war criminal) Sergio Ramos, who is possibly the best center back ever; Achraf Hakimi, one of the best young fullbacks in the world; Swiss army knife midfielder Gini Wijnaldum; and, oh yeah, Messi. A front line of Neymar, Mbappe, and Messi is probably the best the world has ever seen: Someone may be stenciling “Paris Saint-Germain” on the European Cup as we speak.

But Messi’s departure isn’t just depressing because he’s joining a superteam—this is soccer in the twenty-first century, after all. It’s depressing because there are simply no good options left for him, and certainly no romantic ones. Messi was never going to join Leeds United—though it would be wonderful to see Marcelo Bielsa bark at him. But it’s hardly a good thing that Messi was left with these options, even if one was a real shot at titles and trophies.

He could have stayed at Barcelona, scowling his way through another (likely) lost season as the club attempts to fumble its way out of years of financial mismanagement. Messi and Barcelona are synonymous—symbiotic, even—and yet his last years playing at the Camp Nou have been deflating. The flaming wreckage left by former Barcelona chairman Josep Maria Bartomeu—whose spending was both profligate (£160 million for Phillipe Coutinho in 2018, £135.5 million for Ousmane Dembele in 2017, £120 million for Griezmann in 2019) and foolish (they have 55 goals between the three of them) transformed the club into an unquenchable fiscal tire fire.

Some have suggested one option—Messi returning to Barcelona but being paid nothing—as the “romantic” way to go. It’s actually repulsive in its cynicism: There is no reason for the world’s greatest player to lose a cent to help dig F.C. Barcelona out of the mess it’s in. (Taking no salary also wouldn’t help much. With Messi’s salary, the club was paying 110 percent of its revenue in salary; without it, it’s paying 95 percent. Austerity is coming to Barcelona.)

The other options are even more dispiriting. PSG is owned by Qatar, which uses the club to launder the country’s human rights abuses; the addition of Messi will work wonders with the 2022 World Cup less than 18 months away. Manchester City—the other club that Messi might have joined—is owned by the United Arab Emirates, which uses the club for the exact same purpose. Chelsea is owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. It is not an accident that these three clubs have spent lavishly over the last month, while others have tightened their belts, still squeezed from a year without fans. The financial imbalance of European soccer has grown so obscene that only clubs that are funded by petrostates or oil oligarchs can afford players at this level. Meanwhile, many of Europe’s biggest teams—particularly in Italy—are resorting to fire sales.

This is not sustainable or healthy, and the solution won’t come from giving the biggest teams more money and more power. This was the year of the Super League, the failed (but possibly still ongoing) attempt by Europe’s biggest clubs to erode what little remains of the continent’s competitive structure. That corrupt and poorly designed attempt to Americanize European soccer was a full-spectrum disaster. But the existing structures that remain have been rotten for a long, long time. The romantic notion of Messi at Barcelona was a fading glimmer of how an iconic player could arrive at a club, instill the passion of fans, and define an era. Messi’s brightest days are done, and with him go the possibility that such a relationship between athlete, club, and an entire sporting world might ever come again.