LIONEL Messi’s press conference portrayed a man struggling to keep his emotions in check, an inevitable consequence of the debacle around his contract and eventual departure from Barcelona. It looked very staged, almost false, and in truth, the Barca faithful deserved a better way to say farewell to their talismanic hero. Overall, it was a shabby end to a glorious saga.
But how often does this happen? In Messi’s case, it is an almost unprecedented situation, but over the years, the unsatisfactory end to a career is something we’ve seen on many occasions.
In the days before players announced the end of their international careers and sent love letters to fans via social media as they galloped off for a better deal, players would disappear from their clubs, noted by a small article announcing they had signed for a lesser club. Today, the departure of a player is an event, just as transfer deadline days are now a week-long tale of reporters standing outside training grounds for the slightest glimpse of action.
The idea that Messi is bigger than his employer is not an outrageous suggestion, but in the past, the club was certainly bigger than the player and if it ever got tested, the club would win. Players that felt they were so much part of the furniture they deserved certain privileges, invariably left with no small degree of bitterness. The word “servant” has been an inappropriate description of a long-serving player, but using that term today is frankly quite obscene, just as the concept of a testimonial for a multi-millionaire player is somewhat insulting, even if they signal all the virtues by using their benefit game as a way to attach themselves to a charity through ticket sales to fans.
Great players eventually pass into history as nobody can cheat Father Time for ever, not even Messi. Nobody wants to see a good clubman outstay his welcome and start to chip away at their well-earned reputation. Every club has such a player, even your local non-league outfit. The fact is, once the player has become less effective, the club will soon find a way to remove them from the front line, perhaps giving them a coaching role until the contract runs off.
There are some players that are so indelibly linked to a club that nobody can imagine that club without them. Messi is certainly one of those players, but it is surprising how quickly you become history.
When Bobby Moore left West Ham in 1974, it felt like the club had lost its right arm. Moore was in decline, but he was, after all, the captain of England’s World Cup team. He had been an international right up until 1973 but he wanted to leave West Ham. At 32, he was still highly-rated, but the Hammers would not let him leave on a free transfer and asked for a fee. Moore was unhappy about the club trying to make a bit of cash out of a player who was an icon and a man of his time.
Around the same time, Chelsea’s hero, Peter Osgood, was sold to Southampton. Osgood was – and remains to this day – a Chelsea hero and his departure was catastrophic for the club. Osgood and Alan Hudson effectively fell-out with manager Dave Sexton, and the club backed their coach rather than the players. There is a school of thought that Chelsea were willing to sell them because of the growing financial crisis at the club. How different from today – in such a situation, the manager would almost certainly be sacrificed. Both players did return in some shape or form, but the magic was gone and it is fair to say it took a decade for Chelsea to recover from that disastrous period.
George Best and Manchester United was another story that ended badly. Best, whose lifestyle was sub-optimal for a professional sportsman, walked out on the club in the 1972-73 season after two years of wayward behaviour. He quit the game, explaining to a group of journalists on a Spanish terrace that he had fallen out of love with football and later revealed he was drinking too much. Tommy Docherty persuaded him to come back, and depending whose story you believe, the reunion was doomed. Despite the way Best conducted himself between 1970 and 1972, he still felt as though he was badly treated at the end of his career.
As Messi joins Paris Saint-Germain, for arguably the most lucrative swansong in football history, it is clear the diminutive Argentinian is not bigger than Barcelona. Both parties wanted to continue their relationship, but Barca, in the end, had to show him the door, however much they might love Rosario’s favourite son.
And that’s how it should be, clubs are the employers, players the employees. Over the past couple of decades, player power and demands have really run football, with intermediaries adding to the cost. The more advisors, agents, fixers and hangers-on there are, the more cost ineffective it all becomes – everyone takes their cut. Barca’s financial mess will take time to solve, but they could no longer move heaven and earth to accommodate their prized asset. It must have been a hard decision to make, but they did the right thing.