The Messi transfer saga finally ended last Friday, and while the Barcelona community got the outcome they wanted the most —Messi #sequeda— the conclusion to this soap opera turned out rather bittersweet for all parties involved. The Barça board, led by Josep María Bartomeu, may have won this battle against the best player in their club’s history, but they have already lost the war. The board’s political capital is at their lowest point ever and it seems unlikely that they will remain in power after the next elections, so their “victory“ rings hollow.
An exhausted and disappointed Messi pointed more fingers at Bartomeu and company in an interview with Goal.com that gave us further insight into his thought process. Messi explained why he wanted to leave and why he will reluctantly stay at the club for another year because Bartomeu did not keep his promise to allow him to go at the end of the season.
Watching the Messi transfer saga, my mind kept going to how the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid was handled, what made it different, and what it tells us about both clubs. Mistakes and regrettable things were also said and done in that case too, but I found Ronaldo’s exit to be less dramatic than what happened with this Messi situation.
Many factors contributed to making one situation more dramatic than the other. Messi was raised as a footballer and as a person at Can Barça, so not only is he considered the best football player in the history of the club, he is also family. A larger percentage of the Real Madrid community, on the other hand, saw Cristiano as the “highest-performing employee“ but not as family. The community agreed he was the club’s strongest asset and needed to be kept happy, but it was definitely a more distant relationship than what the Barça community had with Messi. Thus, Cristiano’s departure generally seemed to have hurt less from an emotional perspective.
Messi’s threatened departure also hurt his club even more because it happened in the middle of a sporting crisis, with Barcelona not winning a title for the first time in 12 years (i.e. the first title-less season since the “Messi era” started in 2008). Ronaldo, on the other hand, left with an unprecedented Champions League triple in hand.
And it’s easy to blame Messi for wanting to “leave at the wrong moment“, but one can see why it’s hard for him to remain optimistic and motivated in the current Barcelona context (there are things not even his mammoth salary can buy...). Barcelona’s team planning over the last four years has been bizarre, and has created a power vacuum both on and off the pitch that has been filled essentially by Messi miracles. At this point, and in contrast to what happened between Real Madrid and Ronaldo, it truly feels like the player has become bigger than the club
In the post-Ronaldo era, Real Madrid still struggle to create in the final third, but Barcelona can’t even get the ball to the final third without Messi despite having ball progressors of the caliber of Frenkie de Jong and Sergio Busquets. In such a context, the prospect of Messi’s departure would have been devastating, since every mechanism of creativity and goal scoring in the team is centered around the Argentine.
This seems like healthy and sustainable team play. pic.twitter.com/XccUWCaFY2— John Muller (@johnspacemuller) July 10, 2020
Despite Barça’s big investments in the transfer market, the dependence on Messi might be stronger than ever because all that spending never really built a coherent squad. Real Madrid’s transfer strategy is not flawless, but Los Blancos certainly seem to have a more concrete plan than their rivals and a more sustainable transfer strategy. Florentino Pérez has emphasized for years now that he can’t see Real Madrid competing against the money of the Premier League or state-funded clubs like PSG and Manchester City, and so the club has focused instead on capturing talents with world-class potential during their teenage years. Even transfers that look like a perfect fit on paper might go wrong, and Real Madrid management realized that they couldn’t afford to constantly make 100M+ bets on the transfer market for more established talents. The last three years of Barça transfers (Ousmane Dembelé, Philippe Coutinho, Antoine Griezmann) are a great example of what happens when those big bets go wrong and the impact they can have on your finances.
Thus, Real decided to “spread out the transfer risk” by getting better at scouting and signing younger, less mature talents who have world-class potential. Not only does the club get to buy top talent for cheaper, but if the player is not ready for first team action, they can be loaned, and if the player ultimately wants to leave the club, they are still young and good enough to be sold at a profit (Achraf Hakimi or Mateo Kovacić come to mind).
Administrative and managerial leadership in both clubs also played a big role in the contrasting behaviours of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Whether you disagree or not with all his methods and decisions, Zidane has established himself as a figure who the entire Madridista community trusts, and most importantly, he is someone who gets the players to listen and buy into the game plan. Barça don’t have such a figure leading their dressing room at the moment. And it’s not just bad luck. Former club legends like Victor Valdés, Carles Puyol or Xavi either left or refused club positions in part because they didn’t feel confident enough that the current board supported them and their sporting goals.
Which finally takes us to the point of board leadership: Florentino Pérez and his board certainly enjoy more legitimacy than Bartomeu and his board do. When Ronaldo left and even with the poor results of the 2018-19 campaign, there were voices who opposed Pérez’s leadership but never a movement as strong as the one against Bartomeu, which has featured board members resigning, club legends refusing to work for the club, and players openly criticizing board leadership or subtweeting them.
And this doesn’t just apply to business inside the clubs. The differences in leadership also show in the way both institutions interact with other clubs. It’s hard not to look at controversial transfer cases like those of Griezmann or Malcom and think: “when’s the last time Pérez and company had a conflict like this with another club?“
We can summarize this legitimacy issue by saying that the Real Madrid board is perceived to be more in line with club values than Barcelona’s. The Blaugrana have often prided themselves in being a ‘philosophy club’, where victory is not the only thing that counts but also how that victory was achieved. The Barça community wants to win through dominant and proactive football, but how can their team dominate the current era of pressing and transitions with a front line that doesn’t press? They want to win with homegrown talent, but after that golden generation of La Masia who won everything (Piqué, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Messi, Pedro) which La Masia graduate managed to break into the first team and remain there long term? Only Sergi Roberto comes to mind.
Real Madrid might not place such stringent standards on how to achieve victory but, paraphrasing journalist Miguel Quintana, this club is willing to devour itself with the aim of winning the next trophy. I see this as the defining value of Real Madrid, and the main reason Florentino Pérez remains in power is that he has surrounded himself with competent people like Jose Ángel Sánchez, Juni Calafat, or Zidane who are getting those victories on the pitch.
However, this transition period for Real Madrid is far from over. Barcelona are in flames right now and it looks like they are handling their post-Messi transition more poorly than how Real managed the post-Ronaldo transition. But football moves quickly and the outlook could be very different in one or two years. And to boot, this is a cruel sport, where the low-scoring nature of the game makes results more random and hard to predict than in other sports. This means that even if you have the right process you can still get the wrong results. The moment Real Madrid strings a couple years without any trophies, the current board’s political capital will quickly disappear.