Messi thought he could leave for free; Barca were adamant that his 700m release clause remained active. In the end, the club won, and La Liga breathed a sigh of relief.
La Liga’s statement backing the club was of no surprise and in reality had no real impact on the outcome. La Liga is a member’s organisation run by the clubs. For them to side with Barca in this case is expected, irrespective of the stakes involved.
The problem for La Liga wasn’t the legal issue, but rather the ramifications of their only true global superstar departing from a league that is, from an excitement (if not a technical) standpoint, on the decline.
We already know that, compared to other leagues such as the much-maligned Serie A, that less goals are being scored than the other top five leagues. A largely underwhelming Real Madrid side, with a crocked Eden Hazard and a disillusioned Gareth Bale, were able to win the title quite comfortably as Barcelona imploded on the run-in. They are among the most functional champions ever and functional football doesn’t sell global deals, particularly in a post-covid world.
The brutal fact is that Spanish football isn’t attracting players like it once did. The flagship signings that cost a significant amount have failed to ignite so far; Hazard barely played, Joao Felix seems stifled under Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid, while Antoine Griezmann was on the periphery of Barcelona’s team by the end of the season. That’s £350m worth of footballers who made little or no impact on proceedings.
Then the established, long-term talents have regressed or are gone altogether. Bale may as well not be there, given the lack of minutes he has been allowed. Ousmane Dembele may still come good but hasn’t done anything for well over 18 months. Neymar has been gone for three years now. Luis Suarez is ageing and likely leaving. And of course, there’s Cristiano Ronaldo.
The league is in a state of flux. It lacks the star power and it almost certainly lacks sufficient depth of interest further down. The likes of Atletico Madrid, Sevilla and Villarreal are shrewd units and can compete with anyone on their day but they just aren’t consistent enough to provide any legitimate challenge to the duopoly even with the big two arguably as weak as they have been in a long time.
A decade ago the big two finished 28 and 25 points clear respectively of a Valencia team that had David Silva, David Villa and Juan Mata in their ranks. The three of those have arguably more kudos than anyone in the league right now in terms of encouraging casual viewers to tune in. The league truly lacks those players, while Valencia as an institution are now a sorry shadow of their best.
And so Messi staying will have been a relief. La Liga, from a marketing, communications and innovation standpoint is probably better organised now than it ever has been. It’s a slick product and some of the broadcast tweaks help to elevate the product, with 360 degree camera angles and augmented reality. But it isn’t translating to box office on the pitch.
When Messi and Ronaldo finally retire, there will be an array of players ready to accept the mantle and most of them are linked with moving to England or are already there. Jadon Sancho, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner… they have either joined, or are only considering joining, the Premier League.
Messi is back and has partnered with @budfootball to kick off their partnership with a powerful film; Never Give Up On Greatness. 👑— LaLiga English (@LaLigaEN) September 7, 2020
Where will Messi lead his team to this season? Comment below! 👇#BeAKing pic.twitter.com/ltO3uFBhXc
And this can be seen in a further depth of transfers. James Rodriguez’s £22m deal to Everton is a benchmark, but one of many. Talent is leaving rather than arriving, and while La Liga’s sides are confident enough in their production lines to promote from within, as well as being shrewd in the market, there comes a point where the balance of power shifts too much.
Lionel Messi is still heading up all the promotional material for the coming season. Their official Twitter account is sharing brand videos featuring him. They have their box office man, happy or not. But with a different economic world now, La Liga should be more than a little concerned about the direction they are heading in.