Last summer it seemed like the unthinkable might actually come to pass, that Lionel Messi could actually leave Barcelona.
Arguably the greatest player ever to have played the beautiful game, Messi’s relationship with the club where he had been since he was 13 years old has become strained to the point where he considered making a switch at 32.
Messi handed in a transfer request, believing he had an agreement in place with Barcelona that would allow him to leave for free if he so wished, although the Spanish giants had other ideas and held out on their demands for a £600m release clause to be paid by anyone wanting to engage his services.
The argument of whether he could indeed do it on a ‘cold rainy night in Stoke’ looked like it was about to be tested as Manchester City, under the stewardship of Messi’s former Barcelona mentor Pep Guardiola, tried to show their hand and engineer what had seemed the unlikeliest of transfers, one that had eye-watering figures attached to it.
That was last summer, a time when Messi, now 34, had another 12 months to run on his Barcelona deal. But now, a year on, the Barca legend is technically unemployed after his Nou Camp deal ran out.
Even with his advancing years there is little doubt that Messi can still illuminate like few others can, in very much the same way that Cristiano Ronaldo continues to hold back the sands of time. You might think that there would be a clamour for his services, especially at a time when Barcelona are wrangling with financial turmoil to the point that they had to seek a £430m restructuring loan to enable them to meet short-term debt obligations and their payroll.
But the man that bombs Messi out of the Nou Camp would be a brave one.
Joan Laporta returned for a second spell as Barca president earlier this year, taking the baton from the unpopular Josep Maria Bartomeu, and he will know more than anyone how imperative it is to keep Messi at Barcelona, especially as the walls appear to be crumbling around them at present. He is the glue that binds, the one who still gives the illusion that Barcelona is still THE place to be.
Manchester City have now reassessed their needs and look to be eyeing cheaper, younger talents, with Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish a reported target, while EuroJournal have sealed a £73m move for Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho. Messi, despite every club knowing that July 1 would see him become a free agent, wasn’t part of the transfer strategy for Europe’s heavy hitters, Liverpool among them.
The Reds have so often been linked with Paris Saint-Germain striker Kylian Mbappe, but the figures involved in even making that deal happen means that it has never really been feasible, at least not if Jurgen Klopp didn’t want to completely tear apart the club’s carefully constructed wage structure. And that was for a player 12 years younger than Messi who is seen as the next generational talent.
Even with no transfer fee involved, the numbers involved to entice Messi to leave behind all he has known as a professional in Spain are astronomical.
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And don’t be fooled into thinking that as he gets older his wage demands decrease. He knows full well what he brings, both on and off the pitch, and he knows that for what he wants there is really only one team that will give it to him.
Messi’s last contract earned him £123m per year, including a £102m renewal payment for simply signing the contract and a £69m annual ‘loyalty’ fee paid for his continued service to Barca, meaning he raked in almost £500m over the length of his deal, the contract worth £494m thanks to a further payment for his appearances in over 60 per cent of Barca games.
To put those kind of numbers into perspective, breaking it down to around £123m per year, that is 37.8 per cent of Liverpool’s total £325m annual wage bill, a figure that places them second in the Premier League. They are the kind of numbers that would put the brakes on any ideas of a Messi arrival at Anfield, and the kind of numbers that back up why Mbappe will also likely prove cost prohibitive.
There are ways around such numbers, however, something that would be required given the likely reforms around Financial Fair Play that UEFA want to introduce to try and combat the financial affects of the pandemic on football clubs across Europe and to try and create some element of competitive balance.
Manchester City had reportedly considered the option of him finishing his career at the City Football Group owned New York City FC, a deal that could have seen them offset some of that huge cost.
And while Liverpool owners Fenway Sports Group don’t have other clubs in their portfolio that they could do the same with, they do have the carrot of giving athletes a slice of FSG, as has been done with LeBron James and his conversion of two per cent of Liverpool into one per cent of FSG, a deal that has earned him around a £40m increase on his outlay in 2011.
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For Messi, however, it’s hard to envisage that he signs anywhere else other than Barcelona, even if they are faced with having to slash their wage bill. So good has he been that he is able to write his own ticket and knows that the club will pay what is required to keep him on board as far as is feasibly possible.
“We want him to stay and Leo wants to stay, everything is on the right track, what’s left to sort out is the issue of fair play and we are in the process of finding the best solution for both parties,” Laporta told Spanish media outlet El Transistor.
“I’d like to be able to announce that he is staying but at the moment I cannot do that, because we are in the process of looking for the best solution for both parties.”
That solution will be found, and every other club that would have normally been on high alert will have known that. There is a reason why the availability of one of the best players in history on a free transfer hasn’t caused more of a scramble.