Miami advice: Don’t sign Messi

IN CASE you didn’t know it, let’s just confirm that Lionel Messi is bigger than French champions Paris Saint-Germain. He’s also substantially bigger than Al-Hilal in the Saudi Pension Fund League and he’s richer than almost every club in the world. He’s certainly more prominent than Inter Miami of America’s Major League Soccer. 

Should Inter Miami succeed in luring Messi to the US, it would certainly be good for brand Beckham, but would it actually add to the credibility of MLS? The marketing guys would certainly pitch it as a sign of the league’s power, but they would be kidding themselves because the attraction wouldn’t be the league, the club or the chance to rub shoulders with Leytonstone’s biggest export. It would be, purely and simply, about money, which we know is a key element in any relationship with someone like Messi. Signing a 35 year-old who could, if we’re honest be sidelined at any moment, is a risky business, particularly if you give him a three-year deal. If he was 25 or even 30, it would be impressive, but he’s not and it isn’t really.

Inter Miami’s owners are keen to make their club into a credible force, but they made a big mistake in hiring Beckham buddy Phil Neville. This was the sort of appointment that a lower league club would make, the misguided belief that a successful playing career equates to an equally glittering managerial career. Neville’s record as coach of England’s women team was unimpressive – a win rate of 54.29% for a side that is ranked among the top teams in their field. His win rate at Inter Miami was just 38.89% as they sunk to the bottom. Beckham claimed it was a tough decision to sack him – doesn’t every club say that? – but if his original appointment wasn’t a case of “jobs for the boys”, why was it so daunting?

Messi at PSG didn’t work because of who he is and what the club represents. It’s a squad full of big money signings that is rarely tested on a weekly basis. They underperform when the competition gets harder and because of their resources, they are able to sign any ego they like. Messi was upstaged by Mbappé to a certain degree and, as we saw when he decided to jet off to Saudi, Messi does what he pleases. If a club is trying to generate a team ethic, this simply doesn’t work.

Imagine someone like Messi rolling up at Inter Miami with a loop-hole contract that finds a way to work round the MLS salary cap and includes corporate tie-ins with major brands. While his team-mates might say that playing with a legend – isn’t everyone a legend these days? – is the greatest thrill of their careers, it would be in the knowledge that his contract had blown open the MLS ethos of democracy and realistic wage bills for the roster.

It would, on a broader scale, damage the image of MLS and portray it, to some extent, as a resting ground for ageing stars. Messi’s arrival might trigger a wave of yesterday’s men arriving in the US just as they did in the 1970s in the old NASL days. Admittedly, Messi is an extraordinary talent, but there is a danger that US football might repeat its mistakes of the past, at a time when MLS is growing in stature, quality and economic power. But just how many players are there that have genuine cachet in their late 30s?

Of course, Messi may decide to move to Saudi Arabia and renew his rivalry with that other fantastic beast, Cristiano Ronaldo. CR7 has been trying to convince the world that Saudi Arabia could become a top five league in the coming years, but few are buying into that. And if all else fails, he could go “home” to Barcelona, but the club’s financial problems and their team-building plans may not accommodate him. The Catalans are, for all their current issues, a bigger football entity than Messi.

There is another side to the entry of Saudi Arabia into the heritage player market. If the league suddenly becomes a place where veterans go to squeeze the last drops of juice out of their careers, isn’t it just feeding the current trend of rich oil-states buying up football’s prized assets? As for clubs such as Inter Miami, hiring Messi would make headlines for a while, but it would do very little for the long term development of the club. Think longer term, guys. 

Newcastle loss underlines change of status

ONE OF the big criticisms of former Newcastle United owner Mike Ashley was his apparent unwillingness to continue investing in the club. Between 2013 and 2021, Newcastle made a loss just three times, the combined pre-tax losses amounting to £ 86 million. Newcastle’s revenues became lack lustre, notably around commercial activity, and the club was unable to compete at the top of the Premier table. 

Now under the ownership of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, Newcastle have just announced a £ 72.9 million pre-tax loss for 2021-22, a deficit increase of £ 59 million on 2020-21.

This may seem a big figure, but with the sort of backing the club now has, nobody is going to worry too much about a loss of this size. If it becomes a regular feature of the club’s accounts, profitability and sustainability rules will have to be carefully monitored, but for the time being, the loss shows that Newcastle have become a club with very wealthy owner. The last time they posted a profit was in 2019.

They say you have to speculate to accumulate and Newcastle’s spending, while not in the same category as Chelsea’s when Roman Abramovich took the club over in 2003, suggests the club is trying to build a platform to move forward in a much bolder way. Like Chelsea did with Mourinho, Newcastle have hired a top manager who has time on his side and the arrival of Eddie Howe could well be the best signing they have made. The players bought so far demonstrates they are not going overboard in constructing the all-stars, but they are gradually putting together a squad that can make a challenge for the top four. They may well do it this season.

The club’s wage bill reflects the £ 90 million influx of new players in mid-season – £ 170.2 million versus £ 106 million in 2020-21. The wage-to-income ratio for 2021-22 was 94.6%, resulting in a dramatic rise over five years from 53% to 95%.

Newcastle’s matchday income totalled £ 27.5 million from an average gate of 51,443 – the seventh highest in the Premier League – and attendances have risen in 2022-23 to over 52,000. This income stream recovered in 2021-22 after the pandemic-restricted 2020-21 season. Commercial revenues were also up by more than £ 7 million to £ 28.3 million, but there is significant upside to be leveraged. Broadcasting earnings were also up by just under £ 5 million to £ 124.1 million. The return of European football would boost this avenue of Newcastle’s income substantially, especially if it happens to be in the UEFA Champions League. Their last European campaign was in the Europa League in 2012-13.

Player trading has rarely been very profitable for Newcastle and in 2020-21 this dropped to £ 1.7 million. In 2021-22, the profit from player sales was £ 5.8 million, an improvement but still way behind many clubs. How this develops depends on how Newcastle decide to continue enhancing their squad and whether player trading becomes a priority. The biggest profit they’ve made since 2013 was £ 42 million in 2017.

Newcastle should achieve their best placing in a decade this season, they have not finished above 10th place in the past 10 years. They did reach the EFL Cup final earlier this year, which was a distinct sign of progress, but the club’s owners will be expecting occasions like a Wembley visit to be a regular part of life at St. James’ Park in the future. The next stage is to win a major prize, something that hasn’t been achieved since 1969.