Zinedine Zidane was the first one out, so early it feels like a lifetime ago. Then Sergio Ramos departed, the full-time whistle finally catching up with him. Now Lionel Messi has gone, flying back into Barcelona to find the contract he had come to sign was no longer there. Arguably the three most significant men in Spanish football over the past decade, along with Cristiano Ronaldo, all gone in a single summer. And Ronaldo had already left three years earlier.
This week, Ramos contacted Messi to say he could stay at his place if he liked. There was always respect there – well, not always – but it still feels a bit weird, after all those confrontations. Between them, they have played 1,449 games for the biggest clubs in Spain or anywhere, but no more. They have won 15 La Liga titles and eight Champions Leagues. No one has played more clásicos, 45 each. Symbols of the greatest rivalry of all, now they’re teammates. The captain of Real Madrid and the captain of Barcelona have both joined Paris Saint-Germain.
These are difficult days for La Liga. Raphaël Varane went too and Bryan Gil, the excitement surrounding a kid who is different ended early. Luka Modric is 35, Luis Suárez 34, and Karim Benzema 33. Sergio Agüero has arrived but he is 33, injured and still not registered. Eden Hazard is, well, no one is really sure what he is yet. It may be natural to look around at what’s left and ask: is that it? Worse, on the eve of the season and a fortnight from the close of the transfer window, Spanish fans could be forgiven for hoping that’s it. Don’t take anyone else, please.
Or, in Barcelona’s case: please do. It is not just that the captains of Madrid and Barcelona have gone to PSG, it is that they have gone for free. It is not just that they went, it is that they went even though they didn’t want to. And why it happened. Barcelona’s likely salary cap this year – the limit that led to their loss – will be set at a level below Premier League clubs, and not just the biggest ones. Their financial difficulties are a full-blown crisis, the president, Joan Laporta, talking about the risk to their viability, even Messi’s departure not enough. On Sunday their season starts: right now their signings Memphis Depay, Eric García and Agüero can’t play.
Barcelona’s case is extreme, their debt more than €1bn, and shouldn’t be seen as a measure of the health of the league. Yet it is true that the pandemic hit hard and the financial strain is felt across Spain, particularly at the big two, still clinging grimly to the Super League. Last summer, Real Madrid did not make any signings for the first time since 1980. This summer, only David Alaba has signed, and he came on a free to replace Ramos. Carlo Ancelotti rejoined partly because he understood and accepted the limitations.
One potential solution came last Thursday when the league voted to sell 10.95% of its commercial business over the next 50 years to the investment fund CVC in return for €2.7bn. That would provide interest-free loans for clubs now, and many need that.
The league promised that accepting it would have meant keeping Messi, probably thinking they had Laporta in a corner. But Madrid and Barcelona do not see it as a solution. Laporta described it as “mortgaging” the club, and Madrid insisted that the valuation was too low and have announced legal action to prevent it from going ahead.
Despite that heavyweight opposition, the majority of Spanish league clubs approved the deal on Thursday . The league confirmed 38 of the 42 clubs from the first and second divisions in Spain voted in favour of the deal. The league and CVC gave the four clubs who voted against the deal the option to opt out, meaning they would not benefit from the new funds and would not relinquish a percentage of their future revenues. Athletic Bilbao also opposed the agreement. The fourth club that voted against the deal was not disclosed.
There is a curious, almost amusing disconnect in the two clubs who championed the European Super League because football was dying claiming La Liga is not sufficiently valued and La Liga, which insisted it was in fine health, saying that those clubs are overvaluing its earning potential. More importantly, there is a bitter, open war for control of football whose consequences are uncertain. The Super League – a super league, at least – has not gone away. Plotting continues, an assault on power prepared. Barcelona, Madrid and Juventus met just as Barcelona backed out on Messi.
La Liga lost him too – a victim of its own rules on financial fair play, its greatest ever asset gone in the pursuit of a greater good, although right now it feels doubtful that such a thing exists. There was delirium in Paris and a hint of depression on the other side of the Pyrenees, two days before the new season.
It was left to Messi himself to offer some optimism. “In the end what matters is the teams: Barcelona and Madrid are still there, so are Sevilla, Valencia, Atlético, big clubs,” he told El País. “The club has always been there despite players going. La Liga is still a big, important competition. Players go but the clubs remain. Real Madrid and Barcelona are going to find it hard but the big stars are going to return to Spanish football.”
That may take a while, Messi suggested, but others remain. This week, Gerard Moreno hid inside the Villarreal mascot’s suit, pulling off his gigantic head to reveal that he had renewed his contract. Offers from elsewhere rejected, a couple of days later he produced another wonderful performance to take Chelsea to penalties in the European Super Cup final. Villarreal are Europa League holders, the seventh time in 10 seasons that a Spanish club has won the trophy, a reminder of the quality and reason for continued faith.
Still around, too, are Iago Aspas, Joaquín Sánchez (at 40, for goodness sake) and João Félix; Papu Gómez, Mikel Oyarzabal, Comandante José Luis Morales. Modric, Suárez and Benzema are veterans but far from finished, last season showed. Toni Kroos continues to carry around his own personal patch of pitch. Ansu Fati is returning to fitness, Gareth Bale is returning.
Rayo Vallecano, the team from barrio, are back. And Mallorca, who have Daniel Sturridge on trial. So are Espanyol, whose timing turned out well: relegated and promoted again during the pandemic, their fans hadn’t seen them play in the second division in 25 years and they still haven’t. And that’s the most important thing: the fans are returning, ground capacities ranging from 20% to 40% for now.
There’s plenty for the fans to see still, the emotional attachment, the identification, still deep. This weekend Pedri, the summer’s great revelation, may play despite only just returning from the Olympics. It would be his 74th game in less than 12 months. Hazard has another chance, hope still not extinguished. And then there’s Antoine Griezmann. Sometimes it seems that people forget how good he is. His sister warned him that if he went to Barcelona no matter what he did he would remain in Messi’s shadow. Could this be his moment, at last?
Look at Barcelona’s likely XI and it impresses. Time for some optimism amid the gloom perhaps, a structural and a sentimental dimension to consider: the pressure will be huge and some supporters blame the men who remain for the departure of the player they least wanted to see go, but could Griezmann and his teammates – Frenkie de Jong and Ousmane Dembélé particularly come to mind, maybe even Philippe Coutinho – finally have the balance of obligation and opportunity they need? Could the exposure be good for them, no place to hide, responsibility theirs? Some of them believe so: not all were so sorry to see Messi depart.
Standing before them and Madrid are Sevilla, perhaps offered a unique opportunity to fight for the title, and of course Atlético, seeking back-to-back titles for the first time in 70 years. Some consider them favourites, getting on with adding Rodrigo de Paul (and possibly Rafa Mir) to a settled squad with margin for improvement. Although others departed, Diego Simeone renewed for three more years. There wasn’t much noise but there should have been. When it comes to that opening statement, Spanish football’s most significant over the last decade, he is the one missing: Simeone has to be there, the ultimate competitor. And that, in the end, is the point of it all.
“We’re the champions,” Simeone told his players in training on Wednesday, “and they’re going to come and bite our arses.” All week, in the wake of Messi’s tearful departure, a question has floated in Spain: what now? Now, we play.