It was the money that caused Lionel Messi’s Barcelona departure.
There was no doubting the love was there. His tearful farewell press conference made that clear:
„I’ve been here since I was 13. After 21 years I am leaving with my wife and three little Catalan-Argentine kids,” the emotional Argentine explained.
„I can tell you in a few years we want to come back because this is my home. I am just really grateful to my teammates and former teammates, everyone that has been by my side. There are so many people.”
But he’s leaving them all now, for a fresh start in France.
Messi’s departure to Paris Saint-Germain, completed yesterday, was a remarkable turnaround.
It came less than a month after widespread reports that he had agreed to re-sign for Barcelona, committing to a further five years and with a 50 per cent pay cut.
The trouble was, this agreement didn’t fit within the La Liga salary cap.
As time passed, it looked more and more like the deal was Barcelona’s attempt to play ‘chicken’ with the league, hoping they’d blink first and bend the rules to allow its biggest star to remain.
However, the always combustible La Liga president, Javier Tebas, was not for moving.
„No, I won’t [turn a blind eye] for Messi, it’s impossible. There are many workers [at La Liga] and in the economic control [department] as well,“ Tebas was quoted as saying.
„This is a right that the clubs have and we have to safeguard the integrity of La Liga.”
It was a bold stance, but an unsurprising one from a man who has made it his mission to tackle the financial instability in Spanish soccer and wants to force clubs to adopt a more sustainable approach.
You don’t get much more of a clear commitment to financial rules than prioritising them over one of the greatest players of all time.
Or to put it another way, playing host to ‘the Lionel Messi show’ was not considered a big enough financial gain to make an exception.
…Meanwhile, Ligue 1 rejoices
The reaction in Ligue 1, the division Messi is joining couldn’t be starker.
It was summed up in rather crude fashion by Brest manager Michel De Zakarian (pictured) who said:
„We say that we have a s**t league, but if we manage to bring in a player like that it would be exceptional.”
„I’m not going to be polite here, but he gives me a hard-on.”
De Zakarian may be enamoured with the prospect of one of the world’s best joining a team of established megastars, but the benefits for the other clubs is questionable.
The argument in favour of having just one superclub in a league is that it raises the revenue of all the other teams by association.
An element of this is certainly true, when the Harlem Globetrotter-Esque superstar XI of PSG come to Lorient or Metz the stadium will be sold out, prices can be tripled and television interest is higher than ever.
But there is little evidence that this dynamic produces a long-term financial benefit for these clubs.
Despite the plethora of stars donning the dark blue of PSG, Ligue 1 had been struggled to sell its domestic television rights before Messi signed.
After a deal with Mediapro collapsed four months in, Ligue 1 then fell out with Canal+ who’d stepped in to broadcast the games for less money.
Not that this has affected PSG too much, as I have previously explained, being a giant carp in a pond full of goldfish suits the Parisian giants. This is because most of its revenue is earned through commercial tie-ups.
The interest in the club is not reliant on them having a competitive match with St Etienne on a Tuesday night or an exciting title challenge from Nantes, it’s from having a cool Jordan-branded kit and the best team on the FIFA 22 video game.
That’s what generates interest in the club and creates value for sponsors.
Why Lille’s title win means little
Despite PSG’s huge advantages, sporting success is remarkably still not guaranteed.
Last season, Lille unseated the Parisians as Ligue 1 champions and five years ago Monaco did the same.
Compare that to the much-lauded German Bundesliga where Bayern Munich is on track to win its tenth successive title, having only relinquished its crown six times in 20 years.
Unfortunately, however, the other Ligue 1 team’s successes mean little in the long run.
The boost from winning a single league title is not enough for a club like Lille to build a brand to compete with PSG.
If they do manage to assemble a side of remarkable talent, as Monaco did five years back, the chances are the star players will be picked off before they can establish themselves.
Had Monaco kept Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar and Tiémoué Bakayoko they could have challenged PSG.
But all those players were sold within a year of them winning the league and the club went from Champions League Semi-Finalists to candidates for relegation.
La Liga at the crossroads
This brings us back to La Liga, a division that has made its name globally on the prominence of its two superpowers, Barcelona and Real Madrid, and the duel between the clubs’ two star players; Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Messi and Ronaldo’s battle to be known as the world’s best played out in La Liga every weekend, it was the hook, the selling-point and it is now totally over.
The question is; can something better emerge in Messi and Ronaldo’s absence? Perhaps a competition which is more unpredictable and exciting.
It is still likely to be one dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona, their revenues will always allow them to recruit a different level of talent to other clubs.
But a division where teams with rich histories and large fanbases like Valencia, Athletic Bilbao and Sevilla can compete at the top, that’s surely a better overall product.
In Spanish, there is a soccer-related expression ‚¡Hay Liga!’ The literal translation is ‘we have league’ and it is used to describe the shift from the title being a cakewalk for one club to a genuine competition between many.
Losing Messi might just be the price La Liga pays for ‚¡Hay Liga!