The Barca-Messi Divorce and the Way out of the Messy Middle
It was unimaginable and is heartbreaking, but it had to end like this.
No matter how hard I’ve tried, how stubbornly I’ve denied the facts or claimed indifference, I just couldn’t stop thinking about it over the past few days: Lionel Messi, the GOAT (greatest of all time) footballer, is leaving his lifelong club, FC Barcelona — Barca, as the fans, and I’m one of them, call it. It is the unfathomable, unhappy end of a fairy tale that wasn’t supposed to end that way, driving almost everyone with a heart for football, including Messi himself, to tears.
The reasons for the divorce are sound and sober: Barca’s finances simply didn’t add up any more. With Messi on the books, 110 percent of the club’s income was absorbed by players’ wages — an untenable situation by the Spanish league’s financial fair play rules, even though re-signing Messi (who is now most likely joining Qatari-cash-fueled Paris St. Germain as a free agent) would have brought the club significant additional revenue (there’s more complexity to it, as Sid Lowe explains in The Guardian).
Barca’s president, Joan Laporta, exclaimed, “not even the greatest player is bigger than the club,” and that he had to make the tough decision to let Messi go for the sake of the club’s future. The fans are understandably upset, even inconsolable, especially about the way this all went down, as a shocking final twist in the never-ending Messi-Barca saga. Some of them said on social media they are going to break up with their club for good.
Chaos is and will always be at the heart of the beautiful game
The true fans, however, once the dust has settled and the initial grief has ebbed, will realize that Messi’s departure is not just an economic necessity but also a philosophical opening: a new era where talent from Barca’s acclaimed academy can break through the ranks.
Given the circumstances, Laporta’s decision is an example of responsible and clear-sighted leadership — and at the same time an emotional escalation, a powerful act of irrationality. The predicament Barca’s president found himself in was the result of years of obscene mismanagement (expect a throng of case studies written about it) by his predecessor. The club overstayed in a bygone era, foolishly believing in nostalgia as a self-fulfilling prophecy. It over-spent and under-prepared for dire times, including COVID-19.
Undeniably, Messi’s departure is a huge loss for Barca, but it is also a cathartic act, a moment of clarity, and an opportunity for reinvention. Barca boasts that it is “more than a club,” and the Messi exit proves just that, not only because the club ultimately prioritized institution over the individual, but also because sport alone has never been the full story. Barca’s history is saddled with politics, cabal, excesses, drama, and tragedy. It is a spectacle on and off the pitch, and despite the best intentions to organize it, Barca remains a messy organization, virtually unmanageable and prone to eccentricity. But it’s exactly that messiness, that wild and utter chaos, that is and will always be at the heart of the beautiful game.
Messy means vital
Over the past decade, business interests and commercial agendas have vulgarized football and turned it into a machine with too many games and too many parties profiting from them. On and off the pitch, performances have become more athletic and science-based, brutally optimized and data-driven, but the Messi saga reminds us — ironically, as the result of financial manouvering — that the world of football still remains beautifully unpredictable. In every game, it is the error that advances the plot. Just like in life.
This messiness is worth celebrating. The writer Katie Roiphe, in her 2011 book In Praise of Messy Lives, observes our “cultural preoccupation with healthiness above all else.” These lines may sound tone-deaf in pandemic times, but her heralding unhealthiness as the source of vitality is still intriguing.
Take Barca. Financially and politically, the club is the epitome of an unhealthy club — it always has been. It will rip your heart out as a fan, and if you are a player, coach, or manager — even a once-in-a-century phenomenon like Messi — it will spit you out eventually because you cannot possibly deal with the mood of the club’s members, the socios, or are simply not excellent enough in your performance. For Barca, the expectation always has always been to produce success and beauty at once, and that is (mostly) an impossible if not tragic pursuit.
So it had to end that way, exactly.
There are many who project that Barca without Messi will descend into mediocrity, no longer able to compete for titles, forced to being an “also-ran” in the boring middle. But the truth is that with Messi the club has been stuck in the middle for many years now. It had long lost its edge, its ambition, inspiration, and character. It had been lacking a new vision, just like the middle-aged couple who want to breathe fresh life into their relationship with a special dinner on their anniversary and end up in the same neighborhood joint around the corner they always go to, struggling to open the play differently, just this one time.
As the Barca-Messi divorce has shown, there are only two ways out of the messy middle:
Embrace the messiness.
Or get out!
This article first appeared in the Journal of Beautiful Business.