When you’re the greatest player of your generation, having won everything there is to win with a club you’ve represented since the tender age of 13, every little tidbit you offer about your future will inevitably be dissected ad nauseam. Such was the case this week when Lionel Messi hinted there could be life beyond Barcelona sooner than many anticipated.
“At the moment, I am living in the present,” he told Argentine publication Ole. “I am thinking about having a great year and winning the trophies we want at Barcelona -- nothing else. Later, we will see. In football, things change all the time. Although I have always said I would like to stay there forever, sometimes everything does not always go as you want.”
A degree of panic immediately ensued in the Catalonian capital. Just how significant the comments were will only be truly known in the months and years ahead. Often such statements are orchestrated negotiating tactics, intended to ensure more money is forthcoming in the next contract. It was only six months ago that Messi signed a new deal with Barcelona that made him the highest-paid player in the world on a mammoth 50 million euros ($62.1 million) per year, 20 million euros ($24.8 million) after tax. But signing improved contracts has hardly been a rare occurrence for Messi in recent times. Indeed, his latest deal was his seventh in just nine years as a professional with Barcelona.
The chief reason for that recent regularity is Cristiano Ronaldo. The two have battled it out for the crown of the world’s best player for the past six years and done likewise in the salary stakes. As one earns a wage-hike, so the other follows. The Argentine and Portuguese stars have also competed for dollars off the pitch. Ronaldo edged the battle last year, taking in $24 million in endorsements, slightly ahead of Messi’s $23 million, according to Forbes. For Messi, that was still enough to put him fourth on the list of highest-paid sportsmen, just ahead of Kobe Bryant, with whom he recently starred in an advertising campaign for Turkish Airlines.
On the back of their previously unimaginable goal-scoring feats, Messi and Ronaldo earn considerably more than any other soccer player. Both have subtly and not so subtly let it been known how important it is that they feel valued by their employers at all times. When Messi signed his latest deal, there was the sense that he remained less than enamored with the Barcelona’s hierarchy. A recent enforced shift in power at the club, due to accusations of tax fraud over the signing of Brazilian star Neymar in the summer of 2013, have cast a dark cloud over a club whose very motto -- “more than a club” -- suggests being above the tawdriness of modern sport.
Could it be that player and club have fallen out of love?
Barcelona have unquestionably declined from their time as arguably the best team of all time. Were they to endure an extended trophy drought, amid disarray off the pitch, as happened in the early 2000s when their then star Luis Figo moved across enemy lines to Real Madrid, then it is not unimaginable that Messi would look for pastures new. At the same time, Messi has been involved in his own tax wrangles and faces a trial over allegedly defrauding the Spanish authorities of 4 million euros ($5 million), a factor that some have claimed could push Messi to leave Spain.
It’s not beyond the realm of possibility, either, that Barcelona might not be utterly opposed to the idea of cashing in on their star. There are signs on the pitch that Barcelona are moving away from the ultra-dependence on their all-time leading scorer. Along with the arrival of Neymar, Barcelona added another of the world’s superstar forwards this summer in Uruguayan Luis Suárez. As a result, Messi’s role in the team has been altered, and it is now possible to see life beyond him at the Camp Nou. Another driver for a move could be Adidas. The sportswear giant pays a reported 9 million euros per year to endorse Messi, all while he plays on a Barcelona team sponsored by rivals Nike. In reports last year, denied by Adidas, it was claimed that Adidas were prepared to pay half of Messi’s 250 million euros ($310 million) buy-out clause to take him to Adidas-backed Chelsea.
“Adidas would love to see Messi play for an Adidas sponsored club, the reason being that they can't show him in his club uniform currently in any advertising since he's wearing a Nike shirt,” Darren Marshall, executive vice president of consulting and research at global sports marketing and media agency rEvolution, said. “That means they have to show him wearing a generic Adidas shirt which isn't as impactful or authentic.”
Yet, other than taking him to Bayern Munich, in which Adidas owns 8.3 percent stake, Marshall does not believe Adidas would be able exert major influence on Messi’s future. “They're a major partner for other clubs and can obviously lend their support to the cause of signing him, but at the end of the day the transfer fee, player wages and the presence of any new club in the Champions League will be the critical factors versus a sponsor.”
The clear probability is that Messi will remain with Barcelona for the remainder of his peak years as a professional. The reasons start with the size of that release clause. Assuming that Messi, following Figo’s lead and joining Real Madrid, is a political no go, perhaps only three clubs could readily afford such a figure: Chelsea, bankrolled by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, along with fellow English Premier League side Manchester City and French champions Paris Saint-Germain, both of which have almost unlimited spending power thanks to respective owners the Abu Dhabi United Group and the Qatari Investment Authority. Yet each club has had to rein in their lavish investment of late thanks to new Financial Fair Play regulations limiting the losses a club can make. It means simply balancing the books after the hefty transfer fee, even without taking into account the further 250 million euros Messi would command in wages, were he to even maintain his current salary over a likely five-year deal, would be a huge hurdle.
“City are now under stringent wage and transfer fee restraints,” Daniel Geey, a football finance expert based in England, said. “Without selling some high profile players and subsequently reducing their wage bill, being able to afford Messi's transfer fee and wages would be challenging.
Not that signing Messi would be a pure indulgence.
The arrival of one of the most recognizable individuals on the planet would instantly provide a huge boost to the value of a club’s global brand. It would be especially beneficial to Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris-Saint Germain, which have all enjoyed significant rises in recent years but still trail the traditional elite clubs, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, in commercial revenue -- ignoring friendly sponsorship deals with firms connected to their owners. In just the first 10 months after Ronaldo joined Real Madrid from Manchester United in 2009, Madrid reported that they sold more than 1.2 million shirts and that sales of shirts and other Ronaldo-branded merchandise had eclipsed the then-record 80 million ($125 million) transfer fee they paid for his services.
Still, could a potential 500 million euros outlay be justified? At the age of 27, Messi is now in what is considered his prime years. However, having played almost non-stop since bursting onto the scene at the age of 17, Messi is already showing signs of having ever so slightly tipped the wrong side of the his physical peak. Thus, a significant gamble on the part of all three parties would be required to make the biggest transfer in soccer history a reality.