The True Cost of Lionel Messi’s Declaration of Independence

The road snakes up and out of Castelldefels, away from the hubbub of the town center, away from the beach, into the hills. The houses grow larger with every turn. Basketball hoops are replaced by full-sized courts. Perfectly manicured gardens roll down the slopes. Blooms of bougainvillea pour over walls. Lionel Messi’s place is the last one on the left.

It is not his only property in Catalonia — Messi also owns the house in Gava Mar where his parents live, and he has an apartment in the city’s exclusive Pedralbes district, too — but Castelldefels has long been home. It is, he has said, the “ideal” place to live: the sea, the beach, the mountains, the peace and quiet of a pretty but unassuming resort town.

It is here that he and his wife, Antonella, have raised their three children. Friends live close by: He often carpools to training or to games with his neighbor, Luis Suárez. There are shops selling Argentine groceries. A handful of favored restaurants, down near the shore, know that when a certain friend calls, it means Messi is coming. They know to ask diners not to trouble him while he eats, but that he will be happy to pose for photos on his way out.

Barcelona is a broken place, and the sympathy is with Messi. No wonder he has had enough. Though it is difficult to imagine him in another jersey, another set of colors, and though there might be sorrow — not just felt in Barcelona — at the thought of player and club going their separate ways, he owes it to himself to look elsewhere, to find a club where he can have the golden autumn to his career that he deserves.

That could be Manchester City, most likely, for a reunion with Pep Guardiola, the player and coach who brought out the best in each other; or Paris St.-Germain, maybe, where he could play once again with Neymar; or even Inter Milan, the club that has, more than any other, positioned itself as his first reserve, his break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option. Those teams might be able to match his ambition, to deliver him the fifth Champions League crown he craves.

It is not to delegitimize that orthodoxy to suggest it is not an entirely comprehensive picture. More than one thing can be true at once. For instance: Barcelona has, quite clearly, been appallingly run for some time; its executives merit most, if not all, of the abuse being hurled in their direction.

And yet, for all that Messi has — with reason — demanded the squad around him be strengthened, it is not quite that easy. Barcelona has the most expensive salary bill in soccer. It has boasted of being closer than any team to reaching annual revenue of 1 billion euros, but almost all of that is consumed by the salaries it pays its stars.

Messi alone accounts for a remarkable portion of that, and has, it goes without saying, provided ample value to justify it. But to overhaul the team, to revolutionize it, players would have to leave. Not fringe players or youth players, but players like Suárez and Vidal and Ivan Rakitic.

There is a price to be paid for the privilege of experiencing greatness: Clubs fortunate enough to have an iconic manager always spend a period in the wilderness as they try to replace them. Teams that enjoy heady days with one generation of players generally struggle to identify their successors. That is written somewhere in soccer’s hidden coding. It is part of its algorithm.

Such is Messi’s greatness that the bill arrived not when he left, but while he remained, as the lines blurred between what was in Messi’s interests and what was in the team’s, as the club became so fixated on keeping him happy that it lost sight of what needed to be done to make him happy.

And so, this week, we came to the end. Messi has determined that he must leave, he must go elsewhere, that he can no longer carry this team, this club, on his shoulders. He may find, too, that there is a personal cost to greatness: that wherever he goes, he will never truly escape what came to be known as Messidependencia.

Any club he signs for will shape itself around him. Any team he joins will look to him, first and foremost, to solve problems. He felt Barcelona was no longer the “winning project” he craves. Wherever he goes, he will find that he is expected to do quite a lot of the winning himself. That is the price of being Lionel Messi.

What awaits Barcelona is more daunting still. He has made a choice to find out what he can be without Barcelona; had things been different, it is a question he might never have needed to answer. Barcelona, though, knew this day would come. Perhaps not now, perhaps not like this, but eventually. It must face up to the prospect of what it can be without Messi.

No player, of course, is bigger than a club, but Messi was close. For more than a decade, he has been the team. For more than a decade, he has been a symbol of what Barcelona is, what it stands for, what it means. It was the ideal place for him. It is not any more.

A few days before Messi’s announcement, the Manchester City chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, granted his annual interview to the club’s in-house media channel. It is an admirable initiative — one that several of his peers would do well to copy — but it is not what anyone would call a grilling.

One admission stood out: Mubarak said that, this summer, City would be prepared to break with its general policy of signing players to nurture, and would also look to recruit ready-made stars. (At the time, it was assumed that he meant Kalidou Koulibaly, the Napoli defender, but now it may well apply to Messi).

That is perfectly acceptable, of course; these recruitment policies should only ever be a guideline, a way of ensuring that you closely interrogate those decisions that do not fit the mold. But it is reminiscent of Manchester United’s decision to sign Robin van Persie ahead of what would prove to be Alex Ferguson’s final season as manager.

Manchester City appointed Guardiola to win the Champions League. It was the equivalent of signing Messi: with the finest coach of his generation and an array of (broadly) young, world-class players, City could not fail. After four years, Guardiola has not even reached a semifinal. And now neither club nor manager, it would seem, are prepared to take any more chances. That is the thing with projects and philosophies: They apply only for as long as you want them to.

It is always about records with Lyon’s women’s team. There’s the nine Champions League finals in 11 years (a record) and the five finals in a row (another record). There’s the chance for a seventh title over all, and a fifth in a row (extending records Lyon already holds).

Matt Noel, meanwhile, wishes to contest my “oft-repeated supposition” (guilty) that “soccer has no inherent meaning.” “The highest number of fans who ever watched me play was maybe 35,” Matt wrote. “For me, and I’m sure for so many who are passionate about playing soccer at whatever level they play, the game is rich with meaning and significance that has nothing to do with who happens to be watching.”

Matt is quite right, of course, and that would certainly have been a valid way of presenting the argument: that anyone who has played a sport knows it means something, even if it is played against a backdrop of complete silence. On one aspect, though, I should correct Matt: He wondered if my view was “the opinion of someone who doesn’t play.” I would take issue with that: I have played rather more soccer in my life than my knees and ankles would have liked. Now if you’d said “play well,” that would be a different matter.

Sahred From Source link Sports

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