In those hectic hours at the end of April, before a clique of owners of the biggest clubs in Europe reveal his plan for a separatist super league Faced with an unsuspecting and unreceptive world, a schism arose in their ranks.
A faction led by Andrea Agnelli, president of Juventus and Florentino Pérez, president of Real Madrid, wanted to announce the plan as soon as possible. Agnelli, in particular, personally felt the pressure of actually acting as a double agent. Everything, they said, was ready. At least as smart as you could get.
Another camp, targeting the US ownership groups that control England’s traditional giants, advised caution. Plans still had to be polished. There was still, for example, a debate on how many places they would give to teams that qualified for the championship. They felt it was better to wait until summer.
If the first group had not prevailed – if the whole project had not exploded and collapsed into ignominy in 48 turbulent hours – this would have been the week, after the Olympics but before the start of the new season, in which they would have presented that elitist and selfish vision for the future of football.
That the Super League fell apart, of course, was a blessed relief. That this week, rather, has become a dystopian illustration of the exact place where football is located suggests that there is no greater possible solace in the failure of the Super League.
Manchester City broke Britain’s transfer record on Thursday, paying Aston Villa $ 138 million for Jack Grealish, in what might not be the last signing of the summer. The club is hoping to bring in Harry Kane, Tottenham talisman and England captain, for a fee that could go up to $ 200 million.
And then, of course, everything else was overshadowed when it was learned that Lionel Messi would leave, that he would have to leave, from FC Barcelona. According to La Liga rules, the club’s finances are in such a state that the best player of all time could not be registered physically or fiscally for next season. El Barca had no choice but to let him go. Messi had no choice but to leave.
Everything that has happened since then has been as surprising as it is surreal, but so predictable that it seems inevitable.
There was a tear-stained press conference, in which Messi revealed that he had offered to accept a 50 percent cut in his pay to stay at the club that has been his home since he was 13, the team for which he scored 672 goals. In 778 matches, in which he broke every record he had to break, won everything he could win and forged a legend that may never be equaled.
As soon as it was over, the first wisps of smoke appeared in Paris, suggesting that it might be Messi’s new home. Apparently the Paris St.-Germain was doing numbers on the calculator. Messi had been in contact with Neymar, an old friend, to talk. He had called the club’s manager, Mauricio Pochettino, to find out how it could be. PSG was in contact with Jorge, his father and agent.
On Tuesday it happened. Everything was agreed: a salary worth 41 million dollars a year, over two years and the option of a third. When his effigy from the Camp Nou retired to leave a hole between the billboards of Gerard Piqué and Antoine Griezmann, Messi and Antonela Roccuzzo, his wife, boarded a plane in Barcelona, with everything packed and ready to go.
Jorge Messi assured reporters at the airport that the deal was done. PSG joked with a tweet. Messi landed at Le Bourget airport, near the French capital, with that shy smile and a shirt that read: Ici, C’est Paris (This is Paris).
It was not the journey that many had imagined for him, ever. But he had no other choice. Or rather, the player for whom everything had always been possible, for once had only a limited pack of alternatives.
In that restricted election there is a portrait of modern football, and it is very clear. Lionel Messi, the greatest of all time, has no real control over where he will play his final years. Not even he could withstand the economic forces driving the game.
He could not stay where he wanted, in Barcelona, because the club has gone headlong into financial ruin. A mixture of incompetence of the executives and arrogance of the institution are largely responsible for that, but not totally.
Of course, the club has spent a lot and badly in recent years. He has squandered the legacy that Messi built with so much effort. But he did so in a context where he was asked and expected to compete with clubs backed not only by oligarchs and billionaires, but also by entire nation states, with their rampant ambitions and unfettered spending.
The coronavirus pandemic accelerated the calamity so Barcelona was no longer in a position to support a player who wanted to stay. When it was time for him to leave, he found a landscape in which only a handful of clubs – no more than nine – could offer him the chance to compete for another Champions League trophy. Everyone else had long been left behind, relegated to secondary status.
And of them, only three could be close to committing to giving him a salary as deservedly gigantic as his. He should not be criticized for wanting to earn what he is worth. It is the greatest exponent of his art in history. It would be rude to demand that you do it cheaply, as if it were your duty to entertain us. So it could only be Chelsea or Manchester City or Paris.
For some – and not only those who carry PSG close to their hearts – it will be an attractive possibility: the opportunity to see Messi reunited with Neymar and not only that, aligned for the first time with Kylian Mbappé, which many assume will be the one who stays with his crown at best, and also with his old enemy, Sergio Ramos.
That will be captivating, no doubt. And undoubtedly profitable: T-shirts will fly off the shelves; auspices will rain; TV ratings will go up and maybe they’ll take all of French football with them. He may also be successful on the field of play and there is no doubt that he will be a good show. But that is not a guarantee. The same thing happens with the sinking of a ship.
That the architects of the Super League arrived, in April, at the wrong answer is not in doubt. The vision of the future of football they presented was one that benefited them and left the rest, in fact, in ruin.
But the question they raised was correct. The vast majority of those dozen teams knew that the game was not sustainable in its current form. The costs too high, the risks too enormous. The arms race in which they were engaged only led to their destruction. They recognized the need to change, even if in their desperation and selfishness they could not identify the form that change should take.
They were concerned that they would not be able to compete with the might and fortune of the two or three clubs that weren’t bound by the same rules as everyone else. They felt that the field was no longer even. They believed that sooner or later the first players, and later the trophies, would merge around PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City.
It turned out sooner rather than later that PSG signed Messi. City could commit more than $ 300 million to just two players in a matter of weeks as the rest of the sport tries to rebound from the impact of the pandemic. Chelsea has also spent $ 140 million on a scorer. This is the week that all your fears, all your grim predictions, have passed.
Not that you have to have sympathy, of course. Those same clubs did not care at all about the competitive balance while the imbalances favored them. Nothing has hurt the chances of meaningful change as much as his abortive attempt to corner all possible wealth in football for his own ends.
But they are not the only ones to lose in this situation. In April, those stormy 48 hours felt as if soccer had managed to avoid the catastrophic vision of its future. When Messi landed in Paris on Tuesday, the surreal colliding with the inevitable, it was hard to ignore the feeling that he had only traded one future for the other.
Rory Smith is the Senior Soccer Correspondent, based in Manchester, England. It covers all aspects of European football and has reported three World Cups, the Olympics and numerous European tournaments. @RorySmith