5th August 2021 was like any other Thursday. Unassuming and perhaps even boring. Filled with a tinge of hope and enthusiasm as the weekend drew closer. It was no different in Barcelona. Except, of course, at their football club. There was a sense of impending inevitability. Of loss, yearning and helplessness. Strangely yet quite possibly not for everyone. Not even perhaps their PR or media personnel knew of the fast-approaching storm. One which would leave a meteoric void. A Lionel Messi void. One that is difficult to engulf. And impossible to soothe.
"Leo Messi will not continue with FC Barcelona", is all the club said on Twitter and posted a link to their website. Something did not feel right about this. At multiple levels. How can a club announce the departure of their greatest player with a one-line tweet? Scratch their greatest player. Perhaps football's greatest player. Is this another saga of the Burofax ilk? What is this world without Messi in red and blue stripes? Does the sun still rise in the east and set in the west? Is water wet?
There was a strong belief that there would be more to this. Messi could not just leave Barcelona this suddenly. Not with one tweet. Pressure tactics by club President Laporta maybe? Just buying time maybe? Taking an internal discussion public to coerce La Liga into restructuring financial architecture? It just did not seem like a final chapter. There had to be a different ending to this tale surely. It is, after all, the greatest unscripted magnum opus of our time. Perhaps even of all time.
Lionel Messi - the last light of a broken Barcelona
It was perhaps denial. A shock that took everyone by such force that nobody could gauge, rationalize, accept or react. Not even people at the club. It took more than one hour for Barcelona to broadcast their next message. A collection of Messi's glorious visuals at the club since he joined. Over the next days, multiple posts carrying the emotion, hurt, achievements and jaw-dropping unrepeatables were showcased to the world.
Announcements of magnitude does not usually take that long to glamorize in this day and age. They are prepared, rehearsed, re-rehearsed, scheduled and approved by every rung of hierarchy before anything happens officially. This one - the biggest in the club's (recent) history - was as abrupt to those in the lower grades of hierarchy at the club as to its fans. And in an ironic way, it was representative of the club's current broken reality.
The best player in the world, arguably the greatest ever, leaving his home where he has stayed and played since childhood. And leaving because the club is in irremediable financial mess. Not even enough to register their most priced asset and loved child who agreed to stay with a 50% pay cut.
This is Barcelona we are talking about. Barcelona. They are not just another club. This is a legitimate European super elite. A club that had continental hegemony less than a decade ago. Even in 2015, they were European champions brandishing a bedazzlement of superiority with disdain. Enchanting, alluring or whatever other adjective one used to describe those Barcelona teams would serve no greater purpose than a platitude. They were that good.
And here they were. With a loss of €1.173 billion and beyond repair. It has been an unchecked and precipitous fall from grace for an institution that was once an inspiration.
Lionel Messi - empty here and euphoric there
"There have been hard moments, many defeats, but the next day you go to training and then there’s another game, another chance. Not this time; this time it’s not coming back.”
Messi's words echoed in the ears and found no cushioning as they smashed into the feels, pulling and eventually snapping the heartstrings. Reality dropped. This was it. It was over. Forget about in his own terms, he did not even get to do it on the ground. No lap of honour amidst a deafening crescendo "Messi! Messi" from the Blaugrana faithful. No guard of honour from worshiping colleagues on the hallowed turf he graced and made the breeding ground for football's greatest feats of spectacle. Not even a proper goodbye. Nothing at all. Only an excruciatingly painful emptiness. One which not even the approximately 30,000 returning spectators at the Camp Nou could fill. Neither did they want to.
Paris, meanwhile, was a different picture. As if the city needed anymore validation to their magnificence and romance, now they had football's greatest poet in their midst. Football's pièce de résistance himself. In their colours and with their brush kitting up to paint a masterpiece on their canvas. Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa, Vincent Van Gogh's paintings and now, Lionel Messi. Another transcendent art in the ethereal echelon of Parisian immortality.
And the city responded in kind to the arrival. Paraded as though he was the trophy himself. Followed as though he was the city's raison d'etre. Awaited for as though he was God himself. And as Messi, with "Ici C'est Paris" engraved on a white t-shirt, emerged from the balcony of his hotel, it seemed as though everyone had congregated to catch a glimpse of timelessness. The noise of drums and roars were so loud, you could be in any part of the world, watching in any state of mind and there would be goosebumps. Whether in disbelief or an extended state of shock, the adrenaline of Paris was palpable through the screens of your digital devices.
It was not your regular content consumption. This was different.
Lionel Messi - dreams and a new beginning in Paris
And Paris felt different as "Messi 30" sold out within minutes. The demand was such that the store at Champs-Élysées declared each person could only purchase one replica jersey at once. So three individuals who had flown in from Mexico just for the arrival of Messi, came back out of the store and queued up once again. And again. They did this nine times, spending €1500 in a supercharged consumerism binge.
Over at the Arc de Triomphe, only a ten-minute walk away, the scenes were no less jubilant and colourful than those of 15th July 2018. France had won the World Cup then. On 10th August 2021, global football had changed. Forever. It had perhaps already done so the day European Super League was conceptualized, let alone announced. But this was the definitive hammer on the head.
Messi was in Paris with a smile, yes. But, not even Messi could control his destiny. Not even with a pay cut. It was a reminder that for all the beauty on green grass, football's real powers lay no more in ball skill or the players on pitch. The power had shifted to economics and those who control that economics. It is a massive statement of intent by an ownership that will host the World Cup in a year. It is a massive acquisition for a league that had suffered in the face of the pandemic. And it is a massive power play by a football team that was smarting from domestic reversal, while aiming for European supremacy.
The transfer of Messi can be viewed from many nuanced angles. Perhaps the least complicated is from the eyes of Messi himself. That is simple really. And perhaps even romantic for the man himself. Messi, the greatest of our sport, can finally dream again. One that is not too far from reality. He can realistically compete in Europe and his team stands a great chance of winning the Champions League. He is no more tasked with carrying the club he plays for. This is the fitting farewell for a career that will live on forever in context-free video clips and stories that will sound like fables from powerful imagination.
There is of course a bit of tragedy in that this will not be at Barcelona. But which great romance transcended its time without tragedy? And perhaps fitting that it is happening in Paris.
Years from now, under the midnight sky, you could be walking by the Seine, sitting at Montmartre or just strolling through the bylanes of Promenade Plantée; and in the embrace of your loved ones, be at peace in the knowledge you are together in the city where the greatest artist performed his last dance.