The Argentinian star’s departure from his boyhood club sounds like the death knell for the notion of a “one club man”.
It was news that I thought I would never see: Lionel Messi, the global football icon, would leave FC Barcelona. Widely considered the greatest of all time (GOAT), Messi is synonymous with the club. Since I started following football, I have known Messi’s name. He has been the figurehead during Barcelona’s most successful era. Since breaking into the first team in 2005, Messi played an instrumental role in securing 2 trebles, 10 league titles, 4 UEFA Champions Leagues, 7 Copa Del Rey, 8 Copa España, 3 UEFA Super Cups and 3 FIFA Club World Cups. Along the way, he has collected numerous individual accolades; a record 6 Ballon d’Ors, 6 European Golden Shoes and a place in the World Soccer Greatest XI of All Time.
This list is only a snapshot of what Messi has achieved. It is impossible to put into words what the “Little Maestro” has done during his time at the top of the game. What makes it all the more remarkable is that he has done it all at one club. His great rival Cristiano Ronaldo began his career at Sporting Lisbon before moving to Manchester United, Real Madrid and most recently Juventus. Messi has only ever donned a Barcelona shirt in domestic football.
That can no longer be said. In a development that shook the football and sporting world to its core, Barcelona announced that it could no longer afford to offer Messi a new contract. When the news broke, it was unbelievable. The mere idea of Messi in a different shirt is inconceivable, but it has happened. On August 10, 2021, Messi signed for Paris Saint Germain on a two-year contract. He will form a super team with fellow stars of the global game, Neymar and presumptive heir to Messi’s throne, Kylian Mbappé.
As mouthwatering as the prospect of seeing this front three in action is, Messi’s departure seems to have dealt another blow to the idea of a superstar spending his entire career at one club. Across the sporting world, fewer and fewer stars remain with one club or franchise for their entire career.
It is hard to determine who was the first star to leave their original team. An early example is Joe Montana, quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers from 1979 to 1992, who was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs ahead of the 1993 NFL season. With the figure of Steve Young lurking behind him, Montana requested a trade, spelling the end for his time in the Bay Area.
In the 21st century, stars across all sports have left their teams for greener pastures. Take, for example, LeBron James, the hometown hero of the long-suffering Cleveland Cavaliers, who famously declared that he was going to “take his talents to South Beach and join the Miami Heat” in 2010. Following his announcement, James was a reviled figure in Cleveland, with fans burning his jerseys.
James ultimately returned in 2014 to bring Cleveland its first major sporting trophy since 1964, before leaving again in 2018 for the Los Angeles Lakers. Yet, James was a prominent example of a superstar who decided that he needed to further his career by playing elsewhere.
In the US, the team that drafts a player holds his rights. With football (or soccer for American readers), young players join youth academies. The academy will develop them, but there is no guarantee that players will graduate to the first team. Consider the example of the vastly talented Jadon Sancho. He began his youth career at Watford before moving to Manchester City in 2015. By 2017, Sancho was plying his trade in Germany with Borussia Dortmund after failing to crack the first team. Fast forward four years, Sancho is playing for cross-town rivals Manchester United following a £73 million transfer. Unhappy with his playing time, Sancho was proactive and engineered a move to further his career. It worked out.
Comparing Messi’s career with that of James has its limitations. They play very different sports on different continents and in leagues with different ethea. The better comparison is perhaps Tom Brady, the long-term quarterback of the New England Patriots. Brady was drafted by the Patriots in 2000 and led them to 6 Super Bowl titles. Then, Brady left New England for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2020. Like Messi, Brady was synonymous with the Patriots. His departure shocked the NFL. Like many, I thought Brady would remain and retire a Patriot.
Sports stars staying with a team is rare, no matter the sport or the league. Yet, this is part of what makes the Messi situation so remarkable. He arrived in Catalonia at 13 and worked his way through the various youth teams before making his senior debut. He is a global icon. It was impossible to think of Messi without thinking of FC Barcelona and vice versa.
It was always likely that Messi would finish his career elsewhere. The MLS is thought to be the place where he will play out his final years. Somehow though, Messi departing for America in his late 30s has a different feel. Although 34, the Argentine is still the best player in the world. He appeared destined to enjoy the best years of his career at Barcelona before finances got in the way.
Messi wanted to be a one-club man. Barcelona wanted it too. The contract reportedly offered to Messi would likely see Messi transition to an ambassadorial role. However, the club’s incompetency robbed everyone of a dying breed. It is perhaps romantic to think that a player will spend their glory years with one team. It probably is. That said, Messi wanted to do it, and most wanted that too.
When he was announced as a PSG player on Wednesday, the sight of Messi in another shirt was just wrong. Am I looking forward to seeing him as part of that menacing front three? Naturally, I am. Any football would be. However, I, along with many others, wanted him to remain with the Blaugrana. The roar for the Camp Nou when he scores is unparalleled. When he scored his sublime freekick against Liverpool in the 2019 Champions League semifinal, the sound was incredible even on television. To this day it still gives me goosebumps. I am sure the Parc des Princes will do an admiral job at worshipping Messi, but it just will not be the same.
It sounds petty to complain about a normal event in football, but this is no normal player. Messi is a phenomenon, the best I have ever seen and likely the best I will ever see. Now, I have to accept that the fairytale is over. His career had a romantic to feel. It deserved to continue that way and end on his terms.
Written by James Hingley
James Hingley is a columnist at DecipherGrey.