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What Messi's Departure From Barcelona Says About Soccer

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today in Paris, the Champs-Elysees was a party.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELEBRATION AMBIENCE)

KELLY: That is soccer fans celebrating the arrival of star player Lionel Messi to their team. Messi is considered one of the best soccer players in the world, maybe the best soccer player in the world. And for the past 18 years - his whole career - Messi had played only for a single team, FC Barcelona. So his departure for Paris is a big deal. Journalist Daniel Alarcon wrote about Messi's departure for "The New Yorker." He's here now.

Hey, Daniel.

DANIEL ALARCON: Hi, Mary Louise. How are you?

KELLY: I am all right. Before we get to the money, which I know is a big part of this story, can we just talk about the emotion? I mean, we just heard it there, those crowds. Speak to why this transfer is so emotional for soccer fans, whether they are celebrating or mourning, and also, I guess, for Messi himself.

ALARCON: Yeah. I mean, he has been identified with Barcelona since he moved there as a child, as a 13-year-old boy. And unlike a lot of players of his generation, he hasn't changed clubs. It's fairly common for players to switch clubs, and particularly the elite players move from league to league in Europe. And he stayed. His growth into, I think, undoubtedly the greatest player of his generation has coincided with the resurgence of Barcelona, making them once more one of the super clubs of the world. And it's just hard for fans to imagine him playing in a different jersey.

KELLY: Well, and he himself had said he planned to play for Barcelona for a few more years. So what happened? Why is he leaving?

ALARCON: Well, it's really a story of financial mismanagement on an epic scale. Barcelona in 2018 had more than a billion dollars in revenue. And a lot of that was due to Messi, a lot of that was due to the sale of Messi's teammate and friend, Neymar, to Paris. And then that money was just blown. They went around Europe trying to replace Neymar, and no other clubs were in the mood to cut them any bargains because they knew they had all that money. And they spent it and spent it very poorly.

And Barcelona is currently in the pretty preposterous position of having signed players that they can't afford to register under the Spanish League rules because of the salary cap. And Messi, no matter how creative the accountants got with trying to give him a new contract, there was just no way to make the numbers work.

KELLY: I gather the short list of soccer clubs that could afford Messi was really short, like basically two - Paris Saint-Germain, where he's landed, which is bankrolled by the ruling family of Qatar, and Manchester City, which is, ditto, bankrolled by the UAE. It sounds like this infusion of cash from other countries is totally reshaping European soccer. Is that fair?

ALARCON: Yeah. I mean, that's - the reshaping's already happened. There are absurd amounts of money. There are players moving for $100 million transfer fees with some regularity. It's a crazy market. And there are really only a few teams, like you said, that could afford a player like Messi.

KELLY: This can't be good for the game, surely, from just the pure love of soccer and wanting to watch a great game unfold, if the best players in the world can only go to, you know, a very short list of teams.

ALARCON: Oh, God, I could talk about this for a long time.

KELLY: (Laughter) Give us your best shot for a minute.

ALARCON: Look, my grandfather grew up going to the stadium in his hometown of Arequipa. My dad's first job was a soccer announcer in Arequipa in the same hometown in Peru. I grew up playing. I still play in every city that I go to, in every park. And the game is the game. It's collaborative and beautiful, and you meet people from all over the world, and you don't even have to know someone's last name or even their first name to have a connection. It's a beautiful thing.

You see these superstars who are doing what you do at a level of excellence that is almost incomprehensible. It is a spectacle. It's like going to the opera. You know, you sing in the shower. You go to the opera, everyone's singing, but it's not the same thing, you know?

KELLY: Right, you're playing entirely different games, yeah.

ALARCON: Yeah. But that's pro sports. That's capitalism.

KELLY: Yeah. Daniel Alarcon, writer, journalist and host of the NPR podcast Radio Ambulante.

ALARCON: Thank you, Mary Louise.

(SOUNDBITE OF DJANGO REINHARDT'S "NUITS DE SAINT-GERMAIN DES PRES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.