We all have our favorite Victorian engineering folly. Mine is the SS Great Eastern, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s super-ship powered by a hundred furnaces, a vessel so vast it could carry 10,000 passengers, so vast it became a symbol of grandiose, stovepipe-hatted ambition, and so vast that it turned out it couldn’t actually sail anywhere.
Completed in November 1857, the Great Eastern stayed moored at Millwall on the Thames for two months, unable to move because of its own mind-boggling size. Several times a launch was attempted and then abandoned. Eventually the Great Eastern left its dock with the help of an unusually powerful tide and from there set off on its ill-fated shortened lifespan.
Too huge to be any real use as a passenger vessel, Brunel’s mega-ship ended up seeing out its days as a floating funfair in Liverpool before being junked in 1889. One of its masts was salvaged by Everton Football Club and erected at their then-home Anfield, an emblem of human ambition and avarice, something too cumbersome to function, too costly and famous to be ignored. And yes, insert your own Wayne Rooney joke here.
The Great Eastern is a powerful metaphor for many things. Even, it turns out, for Lionel Messi, or at least the surrounding industrial machinery of Messi, at the end of a week when the greatest club footballer of the modern age produced another dreamy display of attacking craft at home to Olympiakos in the Champions League.
Messi started at inside-right at the Camp Nou. In the first half he made a chance for Luis Suárez by hurdling a challenge and hanging in mid-air, adjusting his feet – dancing off the beat – to nudge the perfect instant through pass into Suárez’s path. It looks just about plausible at full speed. Rewind a few times and you realize it is actually impossible.
Just past the hour Messi made the third Barcelona goal from a position by the goalline, not only dribbling past Leonardo Koutris but making him vanish, disappearing him with a shimmy and a skip. A few minutes earlier Messi had scored with a free-kick, his 50th goal of 2017. All things considered, it seems safe to say he’s still got it.
What Messi doesn’t have, though, despite the assurances of the club president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, is a new contract at Barcelona. This isn’t exactly news. The Messi non-renewal saga has already been endlessly dissected. One theory is Messi still wants to see how the season goes. Another says he doesn’t want to give Bartomeu the kudos of announcing his renewal and is willing to wait.
The final possibility, a more distant one, is that some part of him really does want to go. The fact remains – no matter how entrenched he might seem – that Messi will be free to negotiate with other clubs 10 weeks from now, sparking in the process the most overwhelmingly portentous, dizzyingly vast transfer in footballing history.
It is this side of the Messi non-renewal that has yet to be quantified, a place where ideas of stasis and scale start to loom, the notion of being too vast, too bound up in your own potential energy to move in the normal way. This isn’t tittle-tattle or transfer-mongering. It is simply a reminder that nothing quite like this has ever really happened in football.
In the past players of similar status – Johan Cruyff, Diego Maradona and Alfredo Di Stéfano – could simply move on, take a fat pay cheque, expand their horizons, thrill some other sporting public, moving still as individuals rather than the fountainhead of some mini-industry. But this is Big Football and this is Messi, a divine footballer whose talent has been weaponized by the machinery around him, an athlete who could transform a club, a league, a national leisure economy simply by lending his presence.
No footballer has ever been so publicly shared, consumed, connected, venerated, coveted and monetized. No other footballer has ever brought with him such commercial gravity and sweep. Thundering in its dock, hull scraping the gravel, The SS Messi looks around itself and ponders its maiden launch, which hopeful, lustful, doe-eyed continent to colonize and Messify.
The fact is wherever Messi goes it is automatically colored and loaded. There is too much power here, too much to covet. Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain would cut off their own arms, and more likely each other’s, to get hold of Messi right now. Qatar and the Emirates have been in a state of conflict, on and off, since the 1800s, a local spat that has now become a gaudy global PR assault. A move to either would put Messi on that spectrum of things beyond sport. Keep politics out of football.
On a sporting level Messi to PSG would also be horrendous, another state-funded move in the ongoing strangulation of elite football. This would be a footballing equivalent of the bit in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Veruca Salt’s dad tries to buy the oompa-loompas from Willy Wonka. Except in this version Wonka says yeah, fine, whatever, hands over the keys and shuts the factory in return for £150m and three years living inside a chinchilla fur-lined hotel suite.
Manchester City would make a bit more sense on a sporting level, with its Pep-reunion shtick. But signing Messi would also ruin the best bit of City, the fact Guardiola is still trying to build a reputation-staking team around three attackers under the age of 23 and Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph in the role of world-class barnstorming wing-back. For all the money spent this is still an act of team-building faith. Whereas signing Messi would be a victory. A Messi-led City would become interesting if they lost. Right now they’re still interesting when they win.
What else do we have? Manchester United have the money but this again would be a corporate power-play, with ideas of colony and expansion in mind. Imagine the graphs, the projections, the noodle partner uplift strategies. Imagine the terrible, terrible meetings.
Real Madrid could afford him but that would also mean having to end football immediately, for ever. Bayern Munich have never paid more than £38m for a player. This is Germany. They prefer a process. Otherwise you’re looking at some kind of Chinese escapade, which isn’t going to happen right now.
At the end of which Messi is in the bizarre position of holding all the power but also being bizarrely zugzwanged, a chess term where to move anywhere at all is to have negative consequences, to carry its own uncertainties. He is too big, too confusing, our own grand, energetically constructed folly. Wherever he ends up, even staying and extending his late-career prime into another Barcelona rebuild will be fascinating; but also violent, fraught with competing interests and unlike anything else that has preceded it.
The Guardian Sport