News of Lionel Messi’s departure is a hammer blow for Barcelona, but it is also a disaster for the prestige of La Liga.
Not so long ago the very best players in the world played in Spain. Gradually, though, things have changed.
Neymar left Barcelona in 2017 for Paris Saint-Germain before Cristiano Ronaldo departed Real Madrid the following year.
Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta retired, and this summer has already seen Sergio Ramos end his 16-year association with Real by joining PSG.
Now Messi is apparently on his way too, with Barcelona unable to extend the contract of the 34-year-old Argentinian superstar, their dire economic predicament falling foul of La Liga’s financial fair play rules.
Almost 17 years after making his La Liga debut as a 17-year-old, Messi’s future now looks to lie away from Spain with PSG appearing favourites to lure him to France.
Analysts in Spain agree the news is dire not just for Barca, but for the league as a whole.
“It is a huge blow”, Placido Rodriguez Guerrero, professor of economics at the University of Oviedo, told AFP.
“There will be repercussions on all sides,” said Rodriguez Guerrero, who is also director of the Sports Economics Observatory (FOED) in Spain.
“There are the shirts that will no longer be sold, the goals that will not be scored, and there is the impact on sponsors too.”
Spain is hoping to revive its vital tourism sector after the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic but even that will be affected, according to the author Jimmy Burns.
“Brits come to Barcelona to see the Sagrada Familia (cathedral) and to see Messi,” says Burns, author of the book Barca, A People’s Passion.
– ‘A mistake we would all regret’ –
Between them, Barcelona and Real Madrid won five straight Champions League titles between 2014 and 2018 and eight in 13 years from 2006.
But now Spain’s giants are struggling to keep up with the most powerful clubs elsewhere in Europe, in particular Manchester City and PSG, two teams backed by the wealth of Gulf states.
“Messi was the last emblematic player remaining in La Liga and if he goes elsewhere the Spanish league will be even less attractive,” said Marc Ciria, a financier and informed observer of Barcelona, in a recent interview with sports daily Marca.
The days of hundreds of millions of television viewers worldwide tuning in to watch the ‘Clasico’ between Barca and Madrid, and Messi and Ronaldo, are starting to seem like a long time ago.
Even smaller Spanish clubs have called on those running the game to find a way to keep the Argentine.
“La Liga can’t afford to lose Messi,” admitted Angel Torres, the Getafe president who is also a ‘socio’ (member) of Real Madrid.
“We would be making a mistake that we would all regret. The best player in the world has to retire in Spain.”
Yet La Liga is proving inflexible on its rules that are stopping Barcelona from making new signings without eating into their colossal debts of almost 1.2 billion euros ($1.4 billion).
Joan Laporta based his successful campaign to return as Barcelona president in March on a promise to keep Messi, but he explained on Friday that league rules made it impossible.
“La Liga’s rules set limitations and we have no margin,” he said.
– Gains outweigh losses –
Messi’s departure may help in the short term, with Laporta revealing the club expects to register losses of almost 500 million euros for last season.
In January, the daily El Mundo reported that Messi’s previous contract was worth 555 million euros over four years. Even a substantially reduced deal would still have blown a further huge hole in the club’s finances.
Yet, in the medium term, losing Messi could actually cost the club.
According to estimations by a group of economists including Ciria, Messi cost Barcelona 383 million euros over the last three years of his contract, but generated some 620 million euros in revenue.
News of Messi’s departure came the day after the announcement that La Liga had agreed in principle to sell 10 percent of its business to private equity firm CVC Capital Partners for 2.7 billion euros.
That deal was condemned by Madrid and Barcelona, who continue to cling to the idea of a breakaway European Super League.
For them, and for La Liga, the future is more uncertain than ever.