By Harvey Stevens
Something didn’t feel quite right when looking at the photos of Lionel Messi holding his Paris Saint-Germain shirt. In truth, everything about the move has left a sour taste in the mouth.
From the financial mismanagement of Barcelona which led to the necessity of the Argentine’s exit, to his own ludicrous salary and the state funded Qatari indulgence of PSG, the saga is a microcosm of the state of elite football.
Since he made his debut in 2004, he has established himself as arguably the greatest ever player. History will remember him as the tricky wizard who made everyone who watched him rethink what was possible on the football pitch.
Football fans of this generation have been spoiled by the presence of two superstars coexisting. The tale of Cristiano Ronaldo vs Messi has been a thrilling competition in itself. Whether it be Champions League battles, El Classico’s, Ballon d’Or awards or just the age old question of ‘who is better?’, it has been the most dominant footballing story of the twenty-first century.
The juxtaposition of both athletes has made the competition even more dramatic. Ronaldo symbolised the ultimate athlete; powerful, strong and direct. His personality often cast him as a pantomime villain; controversial and carrying himself with a bursting sense of arrogance.
Messi was the opposite; naturally gifted and skilful, whilst keeping himself humble and out of controversy. The battle of the characters made the footballing competition so much more entertaining.
As he established himself on the world stage, he became synonymous with Barcelona. An ever present for over fifteen years, it was a love story between one of the world’s most famous and historic clubs and the sports new superstar. Players came and went, but Messi was always the talisman.
If you asked anyone just a couple of years ago if he would ever move on, there would have been few who predicted it. But as the club’s financial problems came to the fore, his exit became more of a possibility. Even then, the thought of Messi being separated from Barcelona just didn’t feel like it would become an eventuality.
Perhaps it’s naive to take the romantic view on football nowadays. Some have attempted to blame Messi for his own exit, but no player should be expected to play for free. A return to his boyhood club Newell’s Old Boys would have satisfied the dreamer, but his hunger for major European meant it was never an option.
The inevitability of the move is the most depressing aspect. When his exit became a reality, it was only a matter of time before he arrived in the French capital. Only the Parisians and Manchester City could have been a viable option for him, and City had already failed twice in their quest for the recent Copa America winner.
It illustrates the food chain of European superclubs. As one demises, the other pounces. PSG have now assembled one of the best teams on paper that football has ever seen. A front three of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and of course Lionel Messi is mouth watering to say the least.
It all comes at the cost of hundreds of millions. The irony makes it worse. His departure from Spain came about through crazy overspending by his old club; his arrival in France comes in the midst of a similar amount of expenditure. Some may question if it is only a matter of time before his new club is in a similar position.
And where is Financial Fair Play? The system was set up to stop clubs buying their way to trophies. Jose Fonte, who won the Ligue 1 title with Lille last season, has launched a scathing attack on PSG and FFP. His club has, despite winning the league, had to sell star players such as Mike Maignan, Luiz Araujo and Boubakare Soumare in order to stay within FFP regulations.
The move becomes even more stale when looking at where this money comes from. Since 2011, PSG has been owned by state-run Qatari Sports Investments (QSI). For the owners, football is secondary to how the state is perceived in the West.
With the World Cup taking place in Qatar next year, the Messi transfer doesn’t just transform the club on the pitch. Having the most talented footballer on the planet on board offers a marketing opportunity like no other.
In one simple transfer, Messi is now the symbol of everything that PSG represents. Whilst his own intentions to simply win more trophies may be honest, the consequences of the move are much more complicated.
Investment in sports from states in the middle-east is not a new issue. Boxing fights have been staged in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the World Cup is obviously based there in 2022, Newcastle United have been the subject of a Saudi Arabia-backed takeover and golf, tennis and horse-racing have all been invested in by these states. Trying to appear as western facing as possible, ‘sportswashing’ is a familiar issue.
With the squad that the Qataris have assembled in Paris, a tenth Ligue 1 title seems a forgone conclusion. It’s synthetic success; it’s unimaginative, it’s uncreative and it’s unentertaining.
Don’t get it wrong, Lionel Messi will always be remembered as one of the true greats. His love story with Barcelona will also go down in history. He was the star man for over fifteen years at the same club, winning everything there was to win. His career now will most likely finish with more trophies in Paris, but the story behind it just seems so uninspiring.
Image: Wongsaejaket via flickr