How far along are you in the process of Messi Fatigue? Watching the GOAT of Supercuts hairstyles on every single step of his journey from Barcelona to Paris has been exhausting. 533 miles separates the two cities, and Team Messi appear to have conjured some kind of photo op or video for each and every one: Messi and wife thumbs up on their private plane. A traumatized Barcelona left to pull down his giant image from the side of the Camp Nou. Messi giving a thumbs up and waving at the airport on arrival in Paris like the new pope. Sullenly doing keepie-uppies in that weird new PSG kit with the Chicago Bulls homage shorts. An announcement video that felt like one long Scorsese opening tracking shot (knowing PSG and their piles of cash, they prob did hire Scorsese himself to shoot it). A video that fittingly began with the drone speeding through the club shop. I don’t know about you, but I am so bloody tired, and we are all just just watching. Lord knows how the typically introverted Messi himself feels. Will nobody think about the strain on the great man’s thumbs from all that thumbs upping?
In truth, it is hard to find the words to describe the dissonance I experience watching Lionel Messi announced as a PSG player. And not just because he rejected the chance to take Neymar's number 10 shirt and is set to wear number 30 at PSG, the number he wore on his Barcelona debut in 2003. The whole scene was akin to watching Michael Jordan attempt to hit curveballs in a White Sox jersey, coupled with Gretzky’s first skate for the Kings, topped off by the stun and pain of seeing Van Halen when David Lee Roth left.
The shock of seeing Messi holding up the shirt before a throng of ecstatic PSG fans armed with their super-sized flags and flares goes below the surface. As Leo announced his intention to win the Champions League this season, we were witnessing the best football player in the world become the latest, most expensive bauble in a sovereign state’s “sportswashing” soft power exercise. Every dribble, goal, and victory will burnish the brand and reputation of Qatar with the 2022 World Cup there now on the horizon. (For more on Sportswashing, this excellent Simon Kuper Piece.)
It is that reality which has produced the staggering emotional arc of the past week. A human arc that could conjure whiplash. Messi’s tears at his Sunday farewell to Barcelona press conference were genuine and traumatizing. We were watching a human being leaving his childhood home and the place he became a man. Not just leaving it, but being exiled against his will. Within 48 hours, he had signed up to represent a sovereign state project. This, after a weekend in which Manchester City unveiled Jack Grealish as the most expensive British player of all time for $138 million, and England captain Harry Kane expected to arrive at some point for a fee projected at close to $200 million.
All of this is connected. Football’s version of a Fabergé egg-buying frenzy is an intentional by-product of an arms race instigated in large part by PSG, who, after signing Neymar and Mbappe, raised transfer fees and, more importantly, wages to such an extreme level that fewer and fewer clubs can compete. Indeed, as Lukaku moves closer to his Chelsea arrival, there may be only 3 teams left standing who can.
What does that mean? An examination of the squads of the Premier League teams on the eve of the new season will give you a clue. Look at the West Hams, Wolves, and Evertons, and the mediocre caliber of player they have been able to bring in. (A corollary of this is the amount of deadwood on the Big 4 Teams that they are unable to move out because no one else can afford them, which Rory Smith highlights here.)
Barcelona have become the cautionary tale of both of these factors. An imbalanced squad filled with fading big names on massive wages they cannot sell. Shorn of Messi, they are suddenly Art Garfunkel without Paul Simon. When I look at them, I am reminded of the myth of the Tower of London and its ravens: that if they ever fly away “the Crown will fall and Britain with it." So it feels with Leo and Barca. With him, they are a global brand and a revered powerhouse with history and emotional nostalgia. Without the man who led them last season in goals, assists and shots per game, they are essentially Arsenal or Tottenham with happier recent memories. Which sounds not so bad until you remember the old Dante adage: “There is no greater sorrow than to recall in misery the time when we were happy.”
The truth is this: The craven attempt to create a Super League may have been thwarted, but the gap between the thin top tier of truly wealthy clubs in Europe and the rest is now so glaring and seismic, the Premier League and the Champions League essentially carry a Super League League inside of them. Indeed, the composition of the Premier League is now this: one Super League and one very ordinary league (with a very desperate yet probably doomed league tacked on, playing every game of the season over the existential Moon Door of relegation). The gap between the first one and the rest has never been larger. We are cheering for Excel Balance Sheets.
One Last Note: Yesterday, I saw Davo for the first time in 502 long days. We were last together in March before the pandemic began. We have podded 862 times in that span. Savored several thousand football games, and shared 12 Million Stories. I have felt so close to him despite his physical absence. But my Lord. To raise a glass in person was humanly magnificent. A Big, Big Love.