You may want to go ahead and tear those tickets up. Or not, because as with anything concerning Barcelona, Lionel Messi, and La Liga, nothing is ever quite as it seems.
At the moment, Twitter and soccer circles are rocking as Barcelona themselves have announced that Lionel Messi will not be rejoining the club. He’s been something of a free agent, though never really offering himself up to anyone else, after last season ended. This may sound familiar, as Messi tried to claim he was a free agent after the 2019-2020 season due to a clause in his contract that sort of got lost in the midst of the pandemic. Barca wouldn’t let him go, he didn’t really want to force his way out, no one wanted to pony up $700 million or so to free him, so they stuck together for another year when his contract did run out.
And reports about a month ago suggested they had agreed to a new deal. There was one issue, Barca couldn’t register him or any of their free transfer signings — Memphis Depay, Sergio Aguero, Eric Garcia — due to La Liga’s financial rules. In a nutshell, La Liga assigns a salary cap to each team based on their revenues. For the longest time, both Madrid and Barca were allowed to have astronomical payrolls because they made astronomical money.
But the pandemic curtailed that, and Barca just lost out on a season and a quarter or so of ticket sales, tours of their museum, and all related revenues from that. Reports have Barca’s spending limit capped down to about $190 million for this season. For comparison’s sake, their limit just two years ago, pre-pandemic, was $794 million. You can see the problem.
Barca have spent all summer trying to either get players to leave, or take pay cuts, or find some genie to make them disappear into thin air. What they’ve found is that teams aren’t particularly interested in their deadweight any more than they’re interested in any other teams’ deadweight. Players like Philippe Coutinho or Samuel Umitit are pretty much concrete shoes for Barca right now, but they can’t find any takers. They’ve been desperately trying to stuff Antoine Griezmann and his galactic salary (reportedly $53 million per year) in a box marked for Atletico Madrid, but haven’t been able to close that either. And the season starts in just over a week.
Which means that all their free-agent signings, including Messi, have not been officially registered, even though they didn’t involve a transfer fee. Just their salaries put Barca over that limit set by the league.
Does this mean Messi will not actually run out at the Nou Camp for the Blaugrana this season? Well, not exactly, only possibly. These things have a funny way of working out, and a funny way of bending rules to see that they do. Just this week, La Liga sold 10 percent of itself to CVC Capital Partners for a cool $3 billion, 10 percent of which goes to Barcelona alone. There are some pretty heavy restrictions as to what that money can be used for and what it counts toward, but these are the kinds of things that get muddled when clubs like Barcelona are involved.
Secondly, as much as La Liga has talked tough about not letting Barcelona out of money jail, it’s hard to picture that they’re just fine with the world’s biggest star skipping the country to another league. Did we mention ESPN started forking over some $175 million a year for the US broadcast rights to La Liga? What do we think their feelings are at the moment? Imagine there are a couple of phones ringing in La Liga offices right now from Connecticut.
It would not be beyond Barca to use this as some sort of posturing to get special treatment or some sort of exception to keep Messi around. Whether this game of chicken will work, if indeed that’s what it is, is another question. The statement from the club itself on their website definitely pins the blame on La Liga and not an ability to come to terms with Messi. You can see what they’re getting at pretty easily.
If he is indeed leaving, the soccer world may be on high alert but there are only a couple of destinations that could even consider bringing him in. One is PSG to reunite with Neymar, and another is Manchester City to reunite with Pep Guardiola. However, City just yesterday closed a deal of $160 million for Jack Grealish, and are still singing sonnets to Harry Kane on Tottenham’s balcony for what could be $200 million or more. Yes, their money pit is endless, but even this is pushing it for them.
Juventus will like to hear their name mentioned, but considering their caterwauling about their finances after the pandemic, they’re a longshot. While certain MLS clubs will have their ears up at today’s news (hi there, Inter Miami), Messi is almost certainly not ready to take that step down just yet, even if he has said he’d like to play on these shores one day.
As for what Barca would look like without Messi and possibly any of the free-agent signings they’re trying to get in the door, there’s a saying my father liked to trot out regularly. “Completely fucked without any of the customary fun.”
There are still a couple of twists coming to this. Maybe Messi doesn’t join the Barca team until January. Maybe La Liga relents. Maybe Barca and the league come up with some sort of creative solution (selling a training ground has worked for a team in similar straits before). This isn’t over yet.