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Messi: King of football, just a pawn in a power game

Bob Holmes
Bob Holmes • 7 min read
Messi: King of football, just a pawn in a power game
Messi’s heart had been set on a return to his beloved Barcelona but the Catalan club’s perilous finances rule it out, having been why he left in the first place / Tim Bernhard via Unsplash
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It was a Hollywood ending that even Tinseltown may have felt was a bit OTT. The hero won the Fifa World Cup at 35, in his fifth and final attempt. He also won the Golden Ball; scored in every round and in the final and in the shootout. Yet there was just the right amount of jeopardy for the watching world to hold its breath.

But since that uber Oscar performance in Qatar, little has gone right for Lionel Messi. Like many athletes, even with life’s ambition box well and truly ticked, living in “happy-ever-after land” remains elusive. And he still doesn’t know where it will be.

Life has hit back as only life can — especially in his homeland. First there was that low-hanging street cable that nearly took his head off during an open-top bus parade in Buenos Aires. Then in his hometown of Rosario, came a terrifying “We’re waiting for you” message after a shooting at his in-laws’ supermarket.

Meanwhile, in Europe, he has managed to fall out with his club, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), which pays him EUR26.4 million ($38.4 million) a year. Thinking he would have free time following PSG’s previous game, Messi promised the Saudis he could put in a shift in his role as tourism ambassador for the kingdom.

Unfortunately for the Argentine, PSG not only suffered an unexpected loss to mid-table L’Orient, it would prove to be the final straw for both its long-suffering fans and Qatari owners. Fed up with underperforming, overpaid stars, thousands demonstrated and the club called time on the superstar-pampering culture that has made them a laughing stock.

But before manager Christophe Galtier had recalled the squad for extra training, Messi was on his way to Riyadh. He apologised later but the damage was done. He was suspended for two games and may have played his last for the club.

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Ordinarily, an unauthorised holiday would not have been deemed a hanging offence, but it was where Messi went that stuck in the Qatari craw. You don’t have to be a keen Middle East watcher to see it as another episode of the Qatar versus Saudi squabble, with Messi in the middle of it. PSG may be a soft touch on the field, but its owners know how to wield soft power.

They are now reassessing the project, although Messi himself has been far from a failure. He has not reached the stratosphere he did with Barce­lona, but he has delivered a decent return of 31 goals and 34 assists in 71 games. Not bad for someone past his prime and whose priority this season was his country.

But significantly, the fans did not give him a pass when they railed against “mercenaries” at the stadium as well as outside Neymar’s mansion. It wasn’t the storming of the Bastille and the Brazilian drew most of the flak, but it marked a point of no return for some, Messi included.

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The previous season, as he took time to find his feet, he was given marks of three out 10 for one game. France’s esteemed sports newspaper L’Equipe dubbed it “a worryingly limp performance”. Now he was being called a “son of a bitch” by his own fans, but it was the actions of the club that stung him.

Suspension was no way to treat a king and a third year in the French capital is now no longer an option. His heart had been set on a return to his beloved Barcelona but the Catalan club’s peri­lous finances rule it out, having been why he left in the first place.

With the Copa America to defend next year, the little maestro is desperate to stay competitive at the highest level, which means playing in Europe. But with a salary too much even for the elite English Premier League (EPL) clubs, he has nowhere to go. On the night of Argentina’s victory in Qatar, Messi took the World Cup to bed with him: When he looks back on events since then, he might wish he had stayed there.

His toes still twinkle with the ball but without it, he contributes precious little. Unable or unwilling to press opponents in high-intensity club football, he is Mozart at a rock concert. While nothing will tarnish his football legacy, his recent struggles prove sport’s immutable law — that stars find their glory days an impossible act to follow. And he hasn’t finished yet!

Alarm bells rang even before he got his hands on the solid gold trophy. As he stood, poised to receive the elusive prize from Fifa president Gianni Infantino, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, Emir of Qatar, draped him in traditional Arab dress for special occasions.

So, moments later when he lifted the trophy, he did so with the blue and white Argentine stripes cloaked in a black bisht. It was the picture that adorned the world’s front pages the next day.

Brushed off as a bit of a gimmick elsewhere, in the Arab world it was a time-honoured welcome for a guest of honour.

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Cynics, though, saw it as a pre-emptive strike of sartorial gamesmanship. The Qataris were reminding everyone that at that moment, Messi belonged to them: they had provided the stage for his ultimate triumph and, through PSG, paid his wages.

But now, Saudi Arabia is firing back in this proxy war and ominously upping the stakes. Saudi super league club Al Hilal has reportedly offered Messi £350 million for a season. This is more than double the already-insane £173 million a year that Cristiano Ronaldo is getting at rival outfit, Al Nassr.

Star players have often gone abroad for lucrative top-ups to their pensions: Pelé, George Best and Johann Cruyff were among a clutch who went to the US. More recently China tempted a few big names but this is akin to the whole pension fund. Inevitably, it raises the question of whether the headlong pursuit of such riches will tarnish their legacy.

According to financial magazine Barron’s, both Messi and Ronaldo became billionaires in March and might even double their wealth before hearing the final whistle. And both have already been found guilty of tax fraud in Spain with no apparent lasting damage to their reputations.

But associating with Gulf states brings with it more stubborn stains: treatment of women, ­LBGTQ+ people and migrant workers that even highly concentrated sportswashing cannot remove.

And with Saudi Arabia, Messi’s existing role in tourism is a valuable assist: as part of Vision 2030, in which the kingdom aims to become another Dubai — an unlikely playground for rich tourists.

Having seen the sights this month, Messi may have to weigh that up against playing Major League Soccer for Inter Miami; he already has a house in the city. But in the end, you feel he will return to his idyllic life on the Catalan coast — to him it’s as much a homeland as Argentina — and without the threats.

The wise money must be on him taking the money that would secure his future and maybe Barcelona’s as well. A helping hand would be the ultimate homage to Catalonia for what the club did for him. But first, he has to be a pawn in another power game.

Bob Holmes is a long-time sportswriter specialising in football

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