The choices facing Lionel Messi are these. He can sign on for another year, maybe two, locked in what seems to be a loveless but lucrative marriage of convenience with Paris St.-Germain. The downside is that he must endure the occasional indignity of hearing his name whistled and jeered and taken in vain. The upside is the chance to continue to play in — but if we are honest, not win — the Champions League.
Option two: He could take the easy route, the smooth and seamless path that leads straight to the golden sunset. Al Hilal would very much like to pay him an eye-watering sum of money to turn the Saudi Premier League, in effect, into his and Cristiano Ronaldo’s very own Las Vegas residency. Cons: He would have to bid farewell to the (European) Champions League. Pros: $400 million a year.
A third path, to Major League Soccer — and more specifically, Inter Miami — can provide all of the same drawbacks and none of the same benefits. He would not earn nearly so much. He would still be absent from the club tournament he cherishes the most. He would have to be coached by Phil Neville. The pull of Miami, the lure of the United States and the prospect of the 2026 World Cup are appealing, but they may not be appealing enough.
All of which, of course, leaves the road down which Messi’s heart would surely guide him. He never really wanted to leave Barcelona. He certainly did not want to leave the way he did, rushed out of the door by stark economic reality. Messi had spent his career deciding his own fate, only to have the nature of the end of it decided for him.
The sense of unfinished business is mutual. “I have a thorn in my side that Leo could not stay at our club,” Rafa Yuste, Barcelona’s vice president, said last week. He wished, he said, that “all of the conditions could come together so that this mutual love story ends with Messi at Barça. When you are in love and you separate from someone, you always want to stay in love.”
As overblown as that might sound, it would be churlish to dispute Yuste’s sincerity. Barcelona almost certainly sees some sort of sporting logic in bringing back Messi, of course. Correctly or not, the club genuinely believes that success is more likely with him than without: both directly, as a result of his performances, and indirectly, thanks to the boost to the brand that his presence would provide.
But that does not mean the romantic impulse is not genuine. Barcelona has come to see Messi as a Platonic ideal of its principles, the ones he was reared in from his days as a shy, homesick teenager at La Masia. Through its own colossal mismanagement, the club to which he devoted his career was not able to give Messi the goodbye it wanted or he deserved. It feels a duty to right the wrong.
It would be naïve, though, to believe that is the only motivation. Barcelona’s apparent fixation on the return of its king is powered by a swirl of emotions. Affection might be one of them, but so too is nostalgia, in its purest sense, an attachment not to who Messi is but to what he represents.
Everything about the modern Barcelona screams that it has become a place obsessed by and addicted to reclaiming a past that still feels achingly real, overwhelmingly present. It is a club that could convincingly claim to be the biggest in the world barely a moment ago, the home of the finest side in history, and it is a club that continues to rage against its loss of status.
So much of what Barcelona has done in recent years has been inspired by a refusal to acknowledge the ticking of the clock, the changing of the seasons. The pursuit of the European Super League, the appointment of Xavi Hernández as manager, the mortgaging of its own future for immediate glory: This is the desperate, thrashing reflex of a club that assumed its primacy was the natural order of things, and does not understand why the world has been allowed to change. Restoring Messi to azulgrana would offer the opioid comfort of a step back in time.
And then, rather more tangibly, there is political necessity, the projection of power. Barcelona is not owned by an individual; it is a members’ organization, one that functions, at least in theory, as a democracy. Joan Laporta, the club’s current president, will soon enough have to seek another mandate from the team’s 143,000 socios.
Currently, he would have to stand for re-election as the president who lost Messi. He would much prefer, one would think, to be able to claim to be the man who returned him to where he belonged.
After all, possessing Messi is more than having arguably the greatest player of all time in your ranks. His move to P.S.G., two years ago, proved that he is as much symbol as star. Messi represents relevance and importance, glamour and appeal. He would be a sign that the lean days had come to an end, of Barcelona’s resurgent virility.
Most urgent of all, though, is the reputational benefit, not to Laporta as a president but to Barcelona as a club. Once as pristine a sporting brand as could be imagined, the sort of team that considered its jerseys so sacrosanct that it refused to despoil them with a sponsor, Barcelona has been wracked by scandal for years.
The Super League was — and is, given its ongoing refusal to abandon the project — a bad look. The allegations that the club’s former administration hired a public relations company to boost its own reputation and to tarnish a number of players, executives and critics were not much better.
Neither, though, was nearly as damaging as the charge, currently under investigation by both the Spanish judicial authorities and UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, that the club paid a former vice president of Spain’s refereeing committee some $7.6 million over the course of 17 years.
Barcelona, of course, has insisted it has done nothing wrong: The club has suggested the stipend it is accused of paying the official, José María Enriquez Negreira, between 2001 and 2018 was for perfectly ordinary “technical reports into refereeing.” It is, the club has intimated, the sort of thing everybody does. There is, we have been told, nothing to see here.
That line has not been universally accepted. Javier Tebas, the president of La Liga, has described the allegations as the “worst reputational crisis” Spanish soccer has ever seen. (Barcelona responded by calling on Tebas to resign.) Aleksander Ceferin, the president of UEFA, has called it “one of the most serious situations” he has seen in soccer. Regardless of any potential sporting penalty, the reputational blowback — should Barcelona’s staunch defense not hold — would be indelible.
It is hard to believe that it is a coincidence that Barcelona’s pursuit of Messi has become extremely public in that context. It is not just nation states, after all, that are in the business of using the game’s brightest stars to rehabilitate their reputations, to draw the eyes of the audience, to cast the unpalatable and the unpleasant firmly in deep shadow. Mere soccer teams can do it, too.
Barcelona’s love for Messi is deep and it is sincere. But its need for him — as a symbol of power, as a reminder of what it once was, as a source of quick and easy dopamine, as a way of drawing the eye away from what it would rather you did not see — is greater still.
He has four choices in front of him. They are, at heart, all the same. Barcelona wants to use him to clean its image just as surely as P.S.G. wants to use him to prove its primacy and Al Hilal wants to use him to burnish a nation’s reputation and Inter Miami wants to use him to grow a league. There is no romance at the heart of any them, none at all. It is business, just business, and nothing more.
Cold, Brutal and Entirely Irresistible
Gary O’Neil’s career as a Premier League manager began, unexpectedly, late last August. His predecessor at Bournemouth, Scott Parker, had talked himself out of a job a few days earlier, using the occasion of a 9-0 defeat at Liverpool to explain, in great detail, exactly how little chance the club had of avoiding relegation.
O’Neil was supposed to be what is now, by convention, called not a caretaker or a place-holder manager but an “interim,” a coach who will be replaced by a safer pair of hands as soon as one could be identified. But he did well, avoiding defeat in his first six games and slowly helping the team acclimatize to the Premier League. Quietly, perhaps a little reluctantly, Bournemouth made his appointment permanent during the World Cup.
Gary O’Neil is now the 10th longest-serving manager in the Premier League.
There was a point, not so long ago, when it seemed English soccer had finally learned the benefits of patience. Clubs seemed to have internalized the idea that reflexively firing a coach at the first sign of trouble was not ideal from a long-term planning perspective. Just as significant, they were putting more thought into their appointments in the first place.
That particular dam broke in the last two weeks of March. Crystal Palace firing Patrick Vieira, on the back of almost three months without a win, proved the decisive fissure. Between then and now, three more managers have gone. Leicester, now at grave risk of relegation, fired Brendan Rodgers. Antonio Conte committed dismissal-by-press-conference to get himself out of Tottenham. And, of course, Graham Potter met his inevitable, if accelerated, demise at Chelsea.
None of those decisions were especially flagrant examples of the caprice of Premier League owners, of course, but the failures of both Conte and Potter probably say more about the people who appointed them than they do about the coaches themselves.
Conte was handed a squad in need of a rebuild and tasked with winning immediately. Potter was placed in charge of a squad so large that the changing room at the training ground reportedly could not accommodate it — several players had to change on chairs brought in from elsewhere — and told to fashion a cogent team in only a few months.
The ability to choose the right job, of course, is an invaluable part of the armory of any elite coach; Potter, still in the early stages of his career, will doubtless heed that lesson when he selects his next opportunity. But his failure at Chelsea, like that of Conte at Tottenham, is not solely his fault. He should not be allowed to become a scapegoat for those who made it impossible for him to succeed in the first place.
After all, they are still in place. They are in charge, in fact, of choosing a replacement, with precious little evidence so far that they should be trusted to make the right selection.
England got a boost of confidence in its biggest game before this year’s World Cup by beating Brazil, 4-2 on penalties after a 1-1 tie, on Thursday in a meeting of the European and South American champions at Wembley. The victory, like England’s triumph in last year’s European Championship final in the same stadium, was delivered off the foot of Chloe Kelly.
A lingering sense of guilt has been gnawing at me for the best part of a week. On Sunday, you see, I arrived in Naples, eagerly anticipating seeing Napoli — you will have noted my enthusiasm for Napoli over the past few months — take another step toward a first Serie A title in more than 30 years by coolly dispatching A.C. Milan on home turf.
It did not quite work out like that. Milan picked Napoli apart, strolling to a 4-0 win against a team that, for the first time this season, looked bereft of both purpose and poise. And, on some level, it felt as if it were my fault. This is a superstitious place, after all. Maybe I had tempted fate. Maybe I had invoked hubris.
At times like these, it is important to remember that correlation is not causation. Which brings us, rather neatly, to Deborah Chuk’s email. Last week’s analysis of Liverpool’s assorted problems, she felt, missed out arguably the most significant. “Why does nobody mention the sale of Sadio Mané?” she wrote. “This was the glue that held the team together. They needed him badly.”
This argument — that the star of the show was Mané, not Mohamed Salah, all along — is not an uncommon one, nor is it unreasonable. Mané was, for years, a stellar performer for Liverpool. He did not, at times, get the credit he deserved. His departure and Liverpool’s demise do, without question, overlap perfectly.
And yet I’m not convinced. Mané’s form in his last couple of years in England had been patchy: spells in which he was as devastating as ever, and stretches in which he seemed a little faded. It felt like the right time to move him on. More relevant, I suspect, is that none of the players signed to replace him have had anything like his impact.
James Spink, too, wanted to discuss something of a leitmotif. “Chelsea’s women’s side is coached by a remarkably gifted manager who knows the game, is articulate and honest and a great ‘man manager.’ Wouldn’t it be interesting if an owner had the guts to hire Emma Hayes to shatter that glass ceiling?”
This one has a short answer: yes. It would, in fact, not just be interesting but wholly warranted. It won’t happen, though. Not when there are candidates with the glowing résumés of … Frank Lampard who can be hired instead.