When Lionel Messi stepped off the sphere late Saturday night time after the ultimate of the Copa América, the Argentina captain — some of the celebrated athletes in historical past — was, in the end, a champion in his nationwide colours.
He was additionally, solely weeks after his 34th birthday, unemployed.
Messi’s expertise has by no means been in query. A six-time world participant of the yr, he’s among the many greatest gamers of his or any technology. His skilled future, although, and even his capacity to swimsuit up for F.C. Barcelona subsequent season, is immediately very a lot unsure.
Messi desires to keep at Barcelona, the one skilled dwelling he has ever recognized, and Barcelona desperately desires to maintain him. But the membership’s dire monetary straits and a collection of fateful selections by workforce administration — together with the doubtless disastrous one to let Messi’s contract expire on the finish of June — have imperiled what’s arguably probably the most profitable affiliation between a membership and a single participant in soccer historical past.
And the vise, within the type of Spanish soccer’s strict monetary guidelines, is tightening by the day.
Lionel Messi and his teammates acquired a hero’s welcome on their return to Argentina after profitable the Copa América.Credit…Juan Ignacio Roncoroni/EPA, through Shutterstock
Messi mentioned nothing about his contract state of affairs over the past month whereas main Argentina to victory within the Copa América in Brazil. And Barcelona’s new president, Joan Laporta, has tried to current a assured entrance. “Everything’s on track,” he instructed information crews camped outdoors his workplaces final week, when he and different Barcelona executives had huddled in the hunt for an answer.
But the issue is that Messi’s future could now not be within the participant’s palms, or his membership’s. Spanish league guidelines restrict every membership’s spending to solely a proportion of membership income, and league officers have mentioned repeatedly that they not will weaken their guidelines to accommodate Barcelona, which is way over that restrict.
In quick, if Barcelona can not minimize 200 million euros, or about $240 million, from its wage invoice this summer season — an nearly impossibly massive sum in a soccer financial system cratered by the pandemic — it is not going to be allowed to register any new gamers, together with Messi, for subsequent season. (Barcelona’s determination to enable Messi’s contract to expire final month means he now have to be registered as a brand new signing, as an alternative of a renewal, which could have been simpler.)
A rupture between Messi and Barcelona can be seismic for each side. Messi has been the point of interest of Barcelona for almost 20 years, the architect of a lot of its success on the sphere and the engine of its monetary may away from it.
But whereas Barcelona has collected cash at breathtaking velocity lately — in 2019 it grew to become the primary membership to surpass $1 billion in annual income — it additionally spent with much more alacrity, residing life on the monetary edge by way of impulsive administration, rash selections and imprudent contracts. Messi’s most up-to-date four-year deal alone, if he met each clause and situation, was value nearly $675 million, a sum so massive that it had an inflationary have an effect on on the salaries of all of his teammates, fueling a payroll that now eats up about three-fourths of Barcelona’s annual income.
Now, dealing with money owed of greater than 1 billion euros and losses within the lots of of tens of millions of , Barcelona is struggling to steadiness its books in a method that adheres to league guidelines.
It is partly due to Messi, in fact, that Barcelona finds itself on the brink. Its losses prior to now two years have surpassed greater than $500 million, a lot of that due to wealthy contracts just like the one Barcelona’s former administration gave Messi within the fall of 2017.
Details of the 30-page deal, which was leaked to a Spanish newspaper, are a testomony to Barcelona’s style for residing on the sting: A wage of about $1.four million per week. A signing bonus of $139 million. A “loyalty” bonus — to a participant it has employed since he was 13 — of $93 million.
A brand new contract, but to be accomplished, nearly actually would require Messi, one of many world’s most precious athletes, to settle for a considerable pay minimize.
Victor Font, one of many dropping candidates on this yr’s presidential election, mentioned he was shocked the workforce had but to make the monetary preparations required to maintain Messi. But like Laporta, he mentioned he was satisfied Messi would stay with the membership.
“The alternative would be so much of a disappointment that I cannot think there’s an alternative,” Font mentioned in a phone interview.
Messi’s contract with Barcelona expired final month. Signing him to a brand new one which doesn’t require a major pay minimize will probably be tough.Credit…Albert Gea/Reuters
The workforce shouldn’t be getting any sympathy, or preferential therapy, from the Spanish league. Javier Tebas, the league’s chief government, instructed reporters this week that Barcelona solely has itself to blame for its monetary disaster. Yes, he instructed reporters, the coronavirus pandemic had battered the workforce’s funds, however different groups — notably Barcelona’s archrival Real Madrid — have discovered methods to function throughout the league’s guidelines.
The concern, Tebas mentioned, was that Barcelona has no room to maneuver. The league calculates completely different limits for every workforce primarily based on every membership’s earnings statements, however caps spending at 70 % of revenues.
“It’s not normal for clubs to spend right up to the last euro of the salary limit,” Tebas mentioned.
It isn’t just Messi’s destiny that hangs within the steadiness, both. Barcelona has already introduced the signings of his good friend and Argentina teammate Sergio Agüero for subsequent season, in addition to these of the Netherlands ahead Memphis Depay and the Spanish nationwide workforce defender Eric García.
All three arrived as free brokers, that means Barcelona didn’t have to pay multimillion-dollar switch charges to their former golf equipment, however the league is not going to register any of them, or Messi, till the membership first makes deep cuts to its prices.
Barcelona’s new president, Joan Laporta, launched Sergio Agüero as a Barcelona participant in May. But the membership is at present not in a position to register him with the Spanish league.Credit…Joan Monfort/Associated Press
In an effort to create some monetary wiggle room, the membership has been furiously working to offload gamers, tearing up contracts with fringe abilities and negotiating the exits of a few of its different stars. But all of its greatest earners stay, and with the switch market deflated by the lingering results of the pandemic, it’s unlikely to obtain important affords from rivals for gamers these groups comprehend it wants to promote.
Instead, Barcelona could also be pushed to unload key gamers — the German goalkeeper Marc Andre ter Stegen, the Dutch playmaker Frenkie de Jong and even Pedri, the most recent domestically reared Barcelona starlet, would more than likely convey the very best returns — so as to make ends meet.
Font mentioned he anticipated that Barcelona would prioritize re-signing Messi, even when that meant a few of the workforce’s latest signings, or different key gamers at present underneath contract, would have to go.
“It’s a matter of trade offs,” Font mentioned. “You may not register other players, but you will not prioritize others over Messi.”
But if, as is probably going, Barcelona won’t be able to make the mandatory cuts, it should discover itself in one other bind. Under the Spanish league laws, a workforce can spend solely 1 / 4 of the cash it receives from participant gross sales on new contracts. That means even when it could possibly clear tens of tens of millions of off the books, it should have solely a fraction of that complete obtainable to signal Messi — or anybody else.
Could the unthinkable — Barcelona’s dropping Messi free of charge — be imminent? Perhaps. But La Liga mentioned as lately as final week that there can be no exceptions, no particular guidelines to maintain him in Spain.
“Of course we want Messi to stay,” mentioned Tebas, La Liga’s chief government. “But when you are running a league you cannot base decisions on individual players or clubs.”