“I did everything possible [to stay],” wavered Lionel Messi to a press conference, as he tried to assimilate the news that he was leaving Barcelona.
Along with the rest of us, the implication of that statement was that he had been let down by others. A not altogether unfamiliar feeling for the best player in the world.
It was that sour taste of disappointment which drove him to the brink of an exit last year. Stepping down from the ledge, good things seemed to be happening again with the emergence of Pedri and the removal of former president Josep Maria Bartomeu. Messi wanted a competitive team and a president he could trust. But once again, as at Anfield and in countless other scenarios, he was let down.
Perhaps while Messi was reviewing the situation, after giving so much to the club and the league, for a brief moment he may have thought to himself: ‘their loss’. And it is. Everyone in Spain loses. LaLiga will never be the same again – no league would be without him.
How to quantify that loss? If Pep Guardiola ran out of adjectives to describe him in 2010, it seems futile to try and translate Messi’s contribution into words. Guardiola’s comments came with seven league titles, six Copa del Reys, two Champions Leagues and five Ballon D’Ors still in the post.
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Everything was enhanced by Messi; winning, losing, tackling, outrunning, outmuscling, it all took on an extra prestige when the Argentinian was involved. Every detail was a story for the grandchildren. Some will talk of ‘the product’ being weakened, which is a terribly cold term for something as intense and feverish as top-flight football in Spain. It’s the very experience itself that loses a little of the adrenaline which Messi generates.
Nobody loses more than Barcelona, of course. Quantify this in money if you will, in football if you can, but it’s a calamity that permeates through all of the widening cracks in Camp Nou. The manner in which this drama unfolded explains the traumatic reaction. The day of Messi’s departure was at most two years down the line in any case, but it was supposed be done with deliberate and soft anticipation, with maximum fanfare. It was supposed to be his last throw of the dice at the Champions League before riding off across the Atlantic.
Instead he landed at Paris Saint-Germain, the embodiment of what the traditional powers see as the threat. It happened in a matter of five days, with not a single fan having seen him in a stadium since March 2020, their fears of being financially overpowered realised in the most emblematic way, losing the league’s most prized asset.
For the Blaugrana, it’s a predicament that necessitates regression; not only in terms of competitiveness, they must return to the things that brought about all this decadence. Back to a way of doing things based on a trademark style and propagated through their famed La Masia academy. Formerly it was a choice for the president between that and the celebrity recruitment seen in Paris; now it’s a requirement asserted by the accountants. It’s easy to forget that nearly nine years ago Barcelona played the majority of a match against Levante with 11 youth products – they won the title that year too.
Their issues are tied, like a vast sinking anchor, to the fortunes of their arch-rivals and closest conspirators, Real Madrid. Although they planned ahead better, Los Blancos have also been dizzied by the speed of the rat race they entered into with the Premier League and PSG.
Both Barcelona and Real Madrid will continue challenging for major honours in Spain. Even with their mix of misfortune and poor management, the remaining talent will now be given some of the limelight that Messi always steals from everyone else.
In Antoine Griezmann, Karim Benzema, Eden Hazard and Philippe Coutinho, there are figures who, to varying degrees, have lost their lustre – the glass slipper is there for any of them. On the other hand, with Pedri and Ansu Fati, Antonio Blanco and Miguel Gutiérrez, there will be no sudden drop-off in quality to the next generation.
After austerity, they will likely move closer to the elite teams of Europe. Yet it could be a while before they’re completely ready to slug it out for the Champions League again. Their burning desire to continue as the biggest bullies is under serious threat. No solution has been found to reduce the financial gap to the Premier League sides, the fear of which has brought them perilously close to their own mortality. It’s a problem which hangs over them and haunts them in every transfer deal. Florentino Pérez and Joan Laporta seem convinced that the Super League is the only recourse, and their refusal to let go of it muddies the future.
What feels significant for the enemies in arms does not represent the rest of La Liga, however, and it never really has. Naturally, the pandemic has hit club coffers across Spain but the rest are (unusually) continuing in relatively good health.
The Clásico duo may be unnerved by the prospect of the Premier League’s wealth, but the ‘18 others’ have been competing against severe imbalance for decades. Both domestically and in Europe, it’s a survival technique that has been perfected in recent years, not to mention that television revenue in La Liga is more even now than it has ever been. The only change is that those raiding their squads come from abroad more often.
As Villarreal and Sevilla have demonstrated of late, in order to escape the giant’s lair and back down the beanstalk with some silver intact, one must simply outwit those with greater resources. The management of both, in particular by esteemed Sevilla sporting director Monchi, lights the way for other Spanish clubs to follow. It was a path Granada ran down last year on their way to the Europa League quarter-finals.
La Liga undoubtedly loses a little shine without Messi, as would have been the case whenever the great Argentine left. Entirely unique, his presence brings with it an importance to every moment. There is no greater challenge as an opposition, no greater pleasure as a partisan and no greater thrill as a fan.
Beyond that, the symbolism of this moment concerns Real Madrid and Barcelona. Finally, they might have to pay a little more attention to what the ‘other 18’ are already doing so well.