Messi Signing Shakes Up Sports in Unseen Fashion
On Tuesday, European football fans felt the final aftershock of Lionel Messi’s earthquaking decision to leave F.C. Barcelona for the financially prosperous powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain F.C. On his way to the club headquarters yesterday, Messi was greeted by packs of Parisians before making his two-year agreement (with an option for a third) official. The six-time Ballon d’Or winner has a list of accomplishments as long as Mel Blanc’s IMDb page, so the public adoration was expected. For the past 18 years, Messi forced the world to marvel at his supernatural ability, skyrocketing into the top one percent of all-time athletes. While the signing does not guarantee PSG the Champions League crown, or even a Ligue 1 title, it is the most unique transition of talent that sports, foreign and domestic, have ever experienced.
A few factors played into the most famous footballer in the world joining a Monstars-like roster in PSG: First, Barcelona was burdened by roughly $1.4 billion of debt. Second, La Liga slashed the salary cap by one-quarter in response to financial losses from the pandemic. Third, Paris was one of only three teams able to take on his deserved salary. Through all of it, he did not want to leave. Despite reports last August saying he asked out of Camp Nou, Messi emotionally articulated the opposite during his most recent media conference. He stated he was willing to take a pay cut upwards of 50 percent to stay with Barcelona. Alas, his home club could not retain him. So, PSG now gives him the best chance to achieve his goal of winning another Champions League (he has not won since 2015). Now a front line of Messi, Neymar, and Mbappé — assuming he plays out his contract through 2022 — becomes the most star-studded (and expensive) trio in the 158-year history of European football. Naturally, Catalonia was not happy with Messi’s departure from Barcelona.
However, it is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that talent relocation has caused displeasure or changed a club’s fortune. Barcelona understands this better than most. The club went through a lull when Luis Figo left for rival Real Madrid in 2000. After winning back-to-back La Liga titles, Barcelona did not win again until 2004. Figo was famously rewarded with a pig head thrown at him during a return to Camp Nou. In 2017, PSG poached Neymar from Barcelona, albeit for a record-setting transfer fee. That loss did not set Barcelona back as much, but fast forward to 2021 and it may have turned out to be a deciding factor in where Messi ended up. Messi’s rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, heavily influenced the fortunes of both Manchester United and Real Madrid. He led The Red Devils to three straight Premier League titles and won four Champions Leagues with Real. While one can argue about who is a better player — the consensus leans towards Messi — Ronaldo never held allegiance to a single club the way Messi did with Barcelona. It is the separating factor in any equation.
Bringing things stateside, American sports also do not have a comparison. Every NBA fan is familiar with the two words: The Decision. LeBron James shifts the power ranking pendulum towards whichever organization has his services. Peyton Manning automatically made the Denver Broncos into contenders, and future Super Bowl champions, when he joined them in 2012. Randy Johnson turned the Arizona Diamondbacks from a fledgling expansion team into World Series winners two years after signing before the 1999 season. Yet, none of those examples are on par with what transpired this past week. Messi had been a part of Barcelona since he was 13 years old and is one of the best (if not the best) footballers in the sport. The closest comparison Americans have is Tom Brady and Wayne Gretzky. Brady left his only team in New England to join a better situation in Tampa Bay, flourishing in his first season. However, Brady fled Foxborough due to a souring relationship with his head coach and New England’s doubt in him after a down season at age 42. Neither of those factors was at play with Messi and Barcelona. Meanwhile, Gretzky was traded by the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings at the height of his powers in 1988. After winning four, the closest Gretzky got to another championship was a Stanley Cup finals loss in 1993. Messi was not traded, is past his prime, and is hoping for a different outcome.
The only way American sports could create an equivalent is in one of their young stars. Patrick Mahomes is probably the closest to checking all of the boxes. Of course, that requires him to rack up a few more championships and MVPs over the next decade. Then, Mahomes needs to be unwillingly forced out of Kansas City by Roger Goodell and join another immediate contender. Assuming he remained a top-tier quarterback, that combines a homegrown supernova with the colossal shift of dominance. Good luck with that. Although Messi has played for great teams, he remains a singular force as a player and a brand. That is why Barcelona paid him nearly $170 million annually for the past four years. For reference, that is more than the top three annual salaries of US athletes — Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Damian Lillard — combined.
The world has never seen a star with Messi’s resume, backstory, and now, final chapter. Last year, Messi scored 30 goals in his 17th season, showing he has plenty of gas left in the tank despite two decades of mileage. PSG may not be getting a Golden Shoe, but it gets a rare shot of competitive adrenaline. Fans get a chance to witness the end of an unmatchable career. Barcelona gets nothing, but cannot blame the player. Messi gets an opportunity to play with more talent and for higher stakes. A confluence of factors led to Messi leaving the longtime home that neither vilifies nor applauds him. Inject all of that into perhaps the biggest free-agent signing ever, you get a transaction that sets a new maximum on the Richter scale.