Lionel Messi’s move to Paris Saint-Germain and Cristiano Ronaldo’s move to Manchester United may have altered the landscape of European soccer, but if this summer’s transfer window has taught us anything, it’s that the true power in the sport is the same as it was last year. Manchester United may finally, after several years in the unfamiliar shadow of their crosstown rival, be equipped to challenge Manchester City at the top of the Premier League table, and PSG may finally win the Champions League title they’ve been trying to buy for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic is still the dominant force in soccer. Even now, with fans back in the stands and soccer presenting itself as an emblem of the world’s cautious return to normalcy, the virus is still writing the history of the game.
It’s no secret that many of the most storied clubs in the world were being mismanaged long before the coronavirus hit. “Mismanaged” is probably too kind a word. Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper’s new book—which details, among other things, the financial debacle that led to Messi’s exit from F.C. Barcelona, the club where he’d spent his whole career—has the modest title The Barcelona Complex; it could just as easily have been called The Barcelona House of Cards That Was Doused in Kerosene and Lit on Fire While Directly in the Path of a Tornado (That Was Also on Fire). Facing a massive and barely regulated influx of petrochemical wealth into clubs like Manchester City, Chelsea, and PSG, many old-guard clubs tried to stay competitive in a rapidly distorting market by buying players they couldn’t afford, banking on the idea that they could raise their future revenues to cover shortfalls. To raise future revenues, however, they had to keep winning (which meant buying more players they couldn’t afford) and increasing sponsorship and merchandising (which meant generating international excitement with new signings, which meant buying more players they couldn’t afford). Clubs that seemed unstoppable just a few years ago, giants of the game like Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Juventus, now found themselves wobbling on a high wire. If everything went to plan, they could just about stay afloat, but if one thing went wrong—a bad season, a down year—the whole edifice of optimism and debt could come crashing down.
Then last year happened. Gate receipts vanished as lockdowns banned fans from attending matches. Revenues plunged. Many clubs, including Barcelona, were reduced to negotiating wage decreases with their players. The inane and ill-fated European Super League project was widely mocked for the lack of forethought apparent in its bungled launch, but as it turned out, the clumsy rollout was the key to the whole charade. The clubs that proposed the idea didn’t have some diabolical master plan; most of them were just hoping for a quick payout from corporate investors to plug the leaks in their balance sheets. The clubs were not even particularly secretive about this: Florentino Pérez, the Real Madrid president who mounted the strongest public defense of the Super League, described it as a necessary step to prevent “a mutiny of teams as they go bankrupt.”
Soccer is a beautiful and lyrical game, but none of this was lyrical or beautiful. Under La Liga rules that cap the size of a club’s wage bill as a percentage of its revenue, Barcelona, which lost between €400 and 500 million last season, literally could not afford to register its players for Spanish league games and still pay Messi’s salary, which was reportedly somewhere south of €1 million per week. Messi agreed to an incredible 50 percent pay cut; the club still couldn’t make it work. Arguably the best player in the history of the game left the club that had signed him as a boy, not because he wanted to go, not because the club wanted to lose him, but because the pandemic crashed into the club’s financial incompetence and left everyone involved with no choice.
It’s the same story with Ronaldo—or rather, it’s a gentler version of the same story, since Juventus hasn’t been as badly run as Barcelona, and Ronaldo did, by all accounts, want to move. But the Italian giants were not foaming with eagerness to sell a historically great player who scored 101 goals in 134 games and won two scudetti in Turin. Juventus signed Ronaldo in 2018 with the expectation that the cash he generated would cover his enormous salary. One global health crisis and tens of millions of euros in lost revenue later, Juventus needed Ronaldo off its books. Ronaldo wanted to leave, but he was still under contract; in a previous era, the club would have had some say about whether to keep him. What gave Ronaldo the leverage to leave—what led directly to the week of frenzied gossip, the Jorge Mendes sightings in Turin, the reports that he was about to sign with Man City, the last-minute interventions from Alex Ferguson and Rio Ferdinand, and finally to the emotional return to his old club—was the financial fallout from COVID-19.
This has been a summer in which much of the world has seemingly willed itself to act as though everything is normal even though everything is not, and soccer’s been no exception. Fans are back in the stands, even as the delta variant is sweeping across multiple continents. National teams are traveling for World Cup qualifying games, even as Premier League clubs are refusing to release some players due to the U.K.’s stringent quarantine requirements. Outbreaks of the virus, like the one that took out four Arsenal players ahead of their league opener against Brentford two weeks ago, are being treated as unfortunate breaks of the game rather than as emergencies requiring special handling. (Last season, that Arsenal match would likely have been postponed; this season it went ahead, and Arsenal lost, 2-0.)
The Messi and Ronaldo moves, too, seem designed to sustain an illusory sense of normalcy within the uneasy new reality of the game. Barcelona and Juventus get to go on acting like big clubs with sustainable business models, avoiding a real reckoning with their choices. (I guess transferring out the world’s best players counts as a kind of reckoning, but it beats the alternative, especially for Barcelona.) Messi and Ronaldo, too, get to start exciting new chapters in their careers rather than spending their mid-to-late 30s yoked to sinking clubs that can’t compete for trophies while also paying their salaries. Even Manchester United, an enormously valuable and powerful club that’s been caught on the wrong side of the image-laundering-oil-state spending extravaganza, gets to roll back the clock while claiming a rare transfer coup over its crosstown rivals.
I’m just not sure where any of this leaves us. Fans, I mean. The transfer market has become a kind of demi–Super League of its own, one where only the very richest clubs—the state-sponsored ones like Manchester City and PSG, the billionaire vanity projects like Chelsea, and, occasionally, the global megabrands like Manchester United—can compete. It’s exciting to have Ronaldo back in the Premier League, and it’s at least semi-exciting to see Messi on the same squad as Neymar and (for now) Kylian Mbappé. But it‘s unsettling, at the very least, to feel the history of the game being shaped from underneath by a virus and a flock of overreaching men in suits—though the second group, granted, is not exactly a new arrival in soccer. What’s normal, for me, is not big clubs having balanced books, or the existing power structure sustaining itself for another generation, or ex-Barça president Josep Bartomeu avoiding comeuppance. What’s normal for me is Messi at Barcelona.
Meaning in sports is so often a function of associations. Cristiano Ronaldo has always wanted to play for all the big clubs, in all the big leagues, and that’s fine; Ronaldo is not so much a galáctico as a galaxy unto himself. But Messi was Barcelona. Messi, at PSG, does not seem like a PSG player; he seems like the institution of FC Barcelona, weirdly instantiated in human form and forced to compete against itself in France. Messi played in 520 league games for Barça. I don’t know how many of those I watched. Enough to have many layers of memories, and layers of feelings about those memories. I don’t want to suggest that soccer is of any great importance compared to many other things that are happening in the world; but it seems to me that one of the things sports can offer is a sense of stability, a small everyday mooring, amid so much instability elsewhere. And though it may seem irrelevant to say so, it seems to me that what would have been comforting, at this moment, would have been for the memories and feelings I have of Messi at Barcelona to be allowed to remain one of those moorings, and to develop in their own time. Any time I have to think about a sports team’s financial strategy, something has already gone wrong.
Ronaldo won’t play for Manchester United until after the next international break, meaning mid-September at the earliest, but Messi made his first appearance for PSG on Sunday against Stade de Reims. He came off the bench, as a substitute, in the 66th minute. As if to emphasize that the past is irrecoverable, he replaced Neymar, his friend and former Barcelona teammate. It was fun to see him playing soccer again, though he didn’t do all that much; both the goals in PSG’s 2-0 win were scored by Mbappé before Messi came on. There were a few intriguing moments. At one point, around the 77th minute, Messi went shimmying down the right flank, slouching a little the way he always does, then flicked the ball ahead to Mbappé in the area and cut inside, to his left. Mbappé, who’s 22, and not renowned for respecting his elders, turned and played a polite ball back to him, teeing the old man up. Nothing came of it, but I thought, well, I could watch these two play together.
For me, though, I think the indelible memory of the match will not be anything Messi did in the game. It will be the moment he came walking out of the tunnel, wearing the unfamiliar uniform, the first time we saw him enter a competitive arena for a club that wasn’t Barcelona. He came out slowly, in the middle of a group of players, looking unassuming as usual, almost slipping out of the camera’s gaze, though he must have known every eye in world soccer was watching him. (Ronaldo, I thought, will arrive for his first Manchester United match in a very different style.) Still, the camera managed to follow him. It was hard to see him at times, because the smoke the players have to run through was still blowing, and it was hard to guess what he was thinking, because his face was covered by a PSG-branded mask.