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Why did Lionel Messi depart Barcelona? Explaining what occurred between Messi and La Liga membership

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Just when it seemed as if it was only a matter of days or even hours before there would be a long-awaited announcement of free agent Lionel Messi rejoining Barcelona on a new deal, the club announced just eight days before the start of a new league season that Messi would not be returning.

A short time after, the club distributed a Messi tribute video, transforming into reality the once-unthinkable scenario of Barcelona and Messi going their separate ways.

There was something of a warning when Barcelona-based Spanish daily Marca reported that there was a distinct scenario that signing Messi would not be doable. The club announcement came a couple hours later, and it pointed the finger straight at the Spanish league, La Liga.

Barcelona blames La Liga

Barcelona’s statement says, in no uncertain terms, that the club and player wanted to do a deal — reports in recent weeks stated that Messi was prepared to take a 50 percent reduction in salary to make it happen — but league regulations made it an impossibility.

“Despite FC Barcelona and Lionel Messi having reached an agreement and the clear intention of both parties to sign a new contract today, this cannot happen because of Spanish LaLiga regulations on player registration,” Barcelona’s statement read.

“As a result of this situation, Messi shall not be staying on at FC Barcelona. Both parties deeply regret that the wishes of the player and the club will ultimately not be fulfilled.”

Under La Liga rules that were introduced in 2013, there is a floating salary cap for all teams which limits player wages and acquisition costs to 70 percent of club revenues.

In order to meet that requirement after a drastic reduction in revenues due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, FC Barcelona entered this summer offseason needing to shed well over $200 million in salaries just to sign Messi. But the limited transfer activity across Europe meant that the Blaugrana were nowhere close to that figure, and on Aug. 5, the club and player came to the realization that the signing could not happen under the circumstances.

The announcement of a massive private equity investment into La Liga and its clubs only the day before was interpreted by many as helping Barcelona balance the season’s player budget in a way that virtually guaranteed the Messi deal materializing. Projections based on La Liga’s revenue-sharing formulas had Barcelona benefiting from a cash infusion of over $300 million, of which 15 percent would be used for player signings.

But interestingly, both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of the most heavily indebted La Liga clubs and both founding members of the failed breakaway European Super League, expressed their opposition to the private equity deal with CVC Capital Partners which is slated to be voted on by La Liga’s 42 clubs.

Observers say that accepting the deal would have amounted to the clubs financially attaching themselves to La Liga over the decades to come and thus forgoing their Super League ambitions. It’s the only way to explain why Barcelona, which is reportedly more than $1 billion in debt, would refuse that kind of investment, which would have been on par with the projected cash advance of the planned Super League.

Was the Barcelona-Messi talk all for show?

There’s one line of thinking that Barcelona knew all along it was never going to be in a position to sign Messi and fit his salary within its player budget limits for the upcoming season. Given the way the transfer season was shaping up, with no takers for its high-salaried players, there was no way that Barcelona could make room for Messi according to league rules.

Because Barca waited until a week before the season and put the fault squarely on La Liga and its onerous rules, some media are speculating that it was all a PR ploy to help management navigate the fan backlash of the club’s greatest hero being forced to leave in light of a dire financial situation. It diverts attention away from the years of mismanagement that have led to the massive debts that are now weighing down the club during the economic challenges presented by the pandemic.

Some have gone so far as to suspect that Messi was also well aware that he was never going to actually sign with Barcelona and that perhaps he wanted to move on from the club ahead of a likely rebuilding. The “La Liga regulations” are a convenient excuse to depart the club while still keeping his reputation with the fan base intact.

Meanwhile, since he’s out of contract and not obligated to be in camp, he’s still on vacation and out of sight of the media, with a good three weeks to work out a new club situation.

Could it be a bluff? Could Messi return?

Another group of cynics believe the Barcelona statement — which, interestingly, has yet to be followed up by a statement or a goodbye message from Messi’s camp — could be an attempt to somehow force La Liga to change the rules or carve out an exception for the club.

The thinking goes that La Liga as an enterprise cannot afford to lose Messi, especially when it just signed a TV rights deal with U.S. broadcaster ESPN worth $175 million per year deal over eight years ($1.4 billion). What value would La Liga have without Messi?

But La Liga president Javier Tebas has been steadfast in recent months that there would be no bending of the rules and no special treatment given to Messi or Barcelona. If Barcelona, with its back to the wall, is calling his bluff, then it’s likely to be disappointed, especially since Tebas’s position is buoyed by the private investment deal and rule changes a week before the season are highly unlikely.

How is this different from last summer’s Messi drama?

Last year, the scenario was very different. In the summer of 2020, with one year left on his four-year, $675 million Barcelona contract, Messi went public about his desire to leave. He said he had a verbal agreement with then-president Josep Bartomeu that he would be released from his contract with the club.

But when it became clear that Bartomeu was not about to let the Barcelona legend walk, Messi refused to take the club to court as a matter of principle and opted to stick around an extra season against his wishes.

Many believed that with Bartomeu leaving office and Joan Laporta taking his place earlier this year, there was a good chance that Laporta would find a way to keep Messi at Barcelona given his close relationship with him during his previous tenure as club president, when the club had the most successful run in its history.

But maybe Laporta, too, knew of the likely outcome all along despite campaigning for the presidency based on his ability to give the club its best chance to keep Messi. The financial situation Laporta (below) inherited is tenuous, and he knew it. We’re set to learn more about the story when he speaks to the media on Friday.

Getty Images

What happens now?

Laporta is scheduled to hold a press conference Friday morning in Spain to offer more details surrounding the Messi drama.

Observers will look for a public statement from Messi or any of his Barcelona teammates, especially as media members begin to descend upon the team and Camp Nou ahead of Sunday’s annual Joan Gamper Cup against Italian giant Juventus.

They’ll also keep an eye on the rumor mill, which already has French giant Paris Saint-German as the team most likely to make a move for the now-free agent Messi:

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