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Lionel Messi Made Barcelona One of the Most Successful Soccer Teams in History. Now He Might Destroy It

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Kuper is a journalist who writes for the Financial Times and publishes in newspapers and magazines around the world. He is one of the world’s leading writers on soccer. His latest book, The Barcelona Complex: Lionel Messi and the Making—and Unmaking—of the World’s Greatest Soccer Club is out this November from Penguin Press.

When Lionel Messi’s private jet touched down in Paris on Tuesday afternoon, it meant an abrupt end to his 20 years with FC Barcelona—the most productive player-club relationship in soccer history. The world’s best player joined Qatari-funded Paris St Germain days after Barcelona’s president Joan Laporta had admitted that the Catalan club couldn’t afford to keep him. Barça’s debt of $1.4 billion, and the Spanish league’s strict rules against overspending, prevented Laporta from offering Messi a new contract.

The Argentinian wept at the press conference announcing his departure. “I just don’t want to leave,” he said. “My family and I were convinced we would stay, because this is our home. I’ve done everything I can to stay, but it’s just not possible.” The audience—which included many of his teammates, past and present—gave him a minutes-long standing ovation. Messi’s tears were undoubtedly genuine. Yet Barça’s financial meltdown and his departure are also his own fault—and that of his father-cum-agent, Jorge.

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The story starts one day in 2000, when Barcelona granted a trial training session to a 13-year-old Argentinian who was the size of the average nine-year-old. Within five minutes, Barça’s technical director Charly Rexach was exclaiming, “Who’s that?”, and then, “Christ, we need to sign him right now.’ When someone remarked that the child looked like a table-soccer player, Rexach said, ‘Then bring me all the table-soccer players because I want them in my team.”

The club agreed to fund Messi’s growth-hormone treatments, import his parents and siblings with him from Argentina, and pay the family a wage of €120,000 a year. Today, aged 34, Messi has won three European Champions Leagues with Barcelona, ten Spanish titles, scored a record 672 goals for the club in 778 games, and has been awarded the Golden Ball (essentially, global soccer’s MVP title) a record six times.

He is soccer’s Platonic ideal: a great individualist in the Argentino-Brazilian tradition, turned into a collectivist European player at Barça. Better, his genius is so reliable as to be almost mechanical. Every few days, he would commute down the highway from his sleepy coastal town of Castelldefels, set Europe’s biggest stadium alight, then drive home to his wife and three sons.

Gradually, like Michael Jordan at the Chicago Bulls, Messi became a power center inside his club. Researching my new book The Barcelona Complex, I found that Barça’s decision-makers took his wishes into account for every player signing, major tactical choice and coaching appointment. Often those wishes were made very clear. Messi has never bothered projecting his personality outside the club, but he did inside. Sandro Rosell, Barça’s president from 2010 to 2014, told me, “He doesn’t need to speak. His body language is the strongest I’ve seen in my life. I’ve seen him with a look in the locker room that everyone knows whether he agrees or not with a suggestion. And that’s it. He is much more clever than people think—or what he transmits.”

“And what does he want?” I asked.

“He wants football,” replied Rosell, meaning that Messi wanted Barça to play exactly the way he wanted it to.

The club kept giving in to his father’s almost incessant demands for wage increases. From 2017 through this summer, Barça paid Messi more than €555 million ($674 million) in total, according to highlights from his 30-page contract published in Spain’s El Mundo newspaper and not denied by player or club. He earned about as much as an entire top-class team. The Messis bled Barcelona dry. Some accused him this week of weeping crocodile tears, given that his money-grubbing fuelled the club’s crisis. Yet it’s doubtful how much he knew about his own financial demands. Within Messi’s family, as in so many athletic families, the player’s job is to play, and the entourage takes care of everything else.

Meanwhile, Barça kept signing the wrong players: from 2014 to 2019 it spent well over $1 billion on transfer fees, more than any other club in soccer, yet ended up with an ageing squad with little resale value. Then the pandemic emptied stadiums. This hit Barcelona especially hard, as the club depends heavily on tourism: at some pre-pandemic games about 30,000 seats, or nearly a third of stadium capacity, were bought by foreign visitors, who also spent at the club museum and the megastore.

After Bayern Munich thrashed an old Barça team 8-2 last August, Messi decided to leave. But he submitted his request after the agreed deadline, and the club kept him to his contract. Last season, the ageing little man carried a mediocre Barcelona team to third place in the Spanish league and within sight of the title. From the start of January through his last game for Barcelona in May, he accounted for an almost unheard-of 55 per cent of the team’s league goals and assists, despite missing three matches in the period.

This summer he and Barcelona agreed a new five-year contract that would halve his wages, while still probably leaving him soccer’s best-paid player. However, La Liga, the Spanish league, refused to register it. Barça had smashed through league rules by spending more than its entire income on players. The club must now reduce that spend from about €671 million in the 2019/20 season to around €200 million this coming season. Some argue that given Messi’s professions of love for the club, he should have agreed to play for Barcelona for nothing. But even jettisoning his salary wouldn’t have got the club out of its present hole: after his departure, Barcelona’s ratio of player costs to revenues is still about 95 per cent, far above the Liga’s limits. Nor did he want to spend his final seasons at a club that can no longer afford teammates worthy of him. “I want to keep playing for prizes,” he said. “That is my mentality: I always want to win.” He can do that in Paris, where he, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé are about to combine into the world’s most glamorous forward line.

Messi gave Barcelona everything, but he ended up eating the club.

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