Messi is gone, but LaLiga remains must-watch


There has never, in the chequered history of Spanish football, been a prologue to a season like this one. Whether the next nine months of LaLigawatch LIVE all season long on ESPN+ (U.S. only) — can produce drama that lives up to the last handful of weeks, I swear I don’t know.

It’s not just that Lionel Messi is leaving in floods of tears; the unpalatable fact is that FC Barcelona have made a historic dog’s breakfast of how to retain the services of their greatest-ever player, and one of the best of all-time. If there were awards for monumentally insensitive incompetence they’d be unchallenged on the podium.

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– Marcotti: Explaining how Messi, Barcelona split

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There has been double dealing and treachery, but by whom to whom, and to what degree, has still to fully emerge.

The size and scale of their debt (€1.2 billion) has fully emerged, but the destructive impact hasn’t. How far President Joan Laporta will go in his embarrassing, and deeply injudicious, Super League “pact” with Florentino Perez — and Juve’s Andrea Agnelli, with whom the two Spaniards had lunch in Barcelona at the weekend — will be the perfect barometer as to the real depth of Barca’s problems.

That FC Barcelona are mired in financial catastrophe and have humiliatingly surrendered their greatest-ever footballer to a direct European rival — precisely as a private equity firm, CVC, are queuing up to inject €2.7bn into Spanish football (apparently like manna from heaven) — feels like it could only happen in this country.

It’s dark, dark comedy.

Whether the merits of the CVC deal prove to be sufficient, and whether the rest of the clubs out-vote Madrid and Barcelona, two teams that have declared their fear and loathing for the offer, and back La Liga’s President Javier Tebas remains to be seen. If the rest of La Liga want the money and accept the consequences, but the big two don’t — particularly given that Madrid and Barcelona (plus, initially, Atletico) so recently tried to betray the rest of La Liga and slither off to a breakaway European league — then a total rupture is a realistic threat.

At the time of writing, there weren’t angry villagers with pitchforks and torches outside the Camp Nou yelling for revolution, but anger is in the air.

You can understand why.

Messi is far from being the first all-time legend at either Barcelona or Real Madrid to be sucker-punched with a bitter, unhappy and unworthy ending to his career there, but these circumstances are special. I think it’s arguable that he’s the best footballer the sport has ever produced. He is not — I repeat NOT — to be defined by his astronomical wages, his famous “burofax” stating he wanted to leave a year ago, nor his stats, nor even his trophies and certainly not by any false rumour that the upper regions of the club has danced to his tune in recent seasons.

We’ve been watching joy in boots. We’ve been gifted 16 beautiful years with a guy who can make our working day — heck, our working week — seem bearable. Someone who can make us smile, swear in astonishment and shuck off our cares and woes. (Temporarily, at least.)

I don’t remember another guy, in our lifetimes, who’s so unified people, fans of other clubs included, in the expression “I must see that guy play… I have to watch him” whether on TV, in documentaries, in the middle of the night, in person or at great cost. Messi has inspired global adoration, and now he’s been betrayed. Betrayed by years of financial and football incompetence (since 2015 at very least), betrayed by this pandemic that, as he explained, meant that his final months with Barca have been in a silent Camp Nou, and betrayed by the club’s current caretakers who either misled him for months or unnecessarily lost their nerve at the last minute.

ESPN+ viewers’ guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more (U.S.)

If you love football and you didn’t feel for him as he was overcome with emotion on Sunday, after the abundant genius he’s shared with us, then you should perhaps choose a new sport to follow.



Steve Nicol says he can’t see any way that Messi on the front three with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe doesn’t work.

Notwithstanding President Laporta’s nimble discourse last week if it emerges that he not only agreed a new contract with Messi, but also struck a deal with Javier Tebas via which Messi’s new contract could be registered with La Liga — and it involved Barca accepting the CVC investment — but the Catalan then reneged on both deals at the last minute after conferring with his new “bestie” Florentino Perez, then there will be a bill to pay down the line. Count on it.

How on earth do you sell those facts to the tens of thousands of disappointed, fee-paying FC Barcelona “socios,” especially if Messi is tearing up European football in a front-line with Neymar and Kylian Mbappe?

As for Real Madrid, the club’s most successful coach ever, Zinedine Zidane, has quit. Again. That’s the second time in three years.

You might honestly begin to suspect that all is not well there either; it certainly appears to be something about which Zidane, better placed than most of us, is convinced.

He’s been replaced by a wonderful man and a successful coach in Carlo Ancelotti, the same guy Madrid’s President sacked in 2015 after four trophies in two seasons (including their first Champions League for 12 years) while stating that it was because Los Blancos needed “new impetus.”

In his subsequent book, Quiet Leadership, Ancelotti revealed: “The President [Florentino Perez]… said that we were not doing enough. I wanted to explain to him that what was important was not the length of the training session, but its intensity… he didn’t listen. The club had more faith in the numbers than in me.”

In that same book, Cristiano Ronaldo added: “If the atmosphere under Ancelotti was so good, it was because, among other things, he protected the dressing room from the President.” And so it’s strange that Ancelotti is now the “right” man for Madrid. You wish him luck, he’s exceptionally gifted and a serial winner, but…



The ESPN FC crew look at all the factors that will affect how Raphaël Varane meshes with the Manchester United defense.

Not only is Perez clinging on to his massively selfish Super League dream (perhaps better described as a nightmare) and threatening legal action against the previously mentioned CVC investment, but he’s having to fight a hidden enemy too. The past few weeks have seen sequential releases of audio recordings, from 2006, during which Florentino not only savages club legends like Iker Casillas and Raul (both of whom are currently employed by the club) plus Guti, Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo (whom he calls an imbecile), Mourinho and Vicente Del Bosque, but also makes clear the degree to which he believes the national media should either be slavishly devoted to his club or face his wrathful manipulation.

So much has been made clear about his private fury, and the appalling terms in which he expresses it, that had these recorded revelations been about almost anyone else in Spanish football, their position would have been untenable.

In football terms, perhaps the worst of the audio was hearing the current President furious that back then, he was locked in a hypothetical battle about “whose club” Real Madrid truly was — “his” or “Raul’s” — all those years ago. “He believes Real Madrid belongs to him… he’s a negative guy… he’s destroying the club” — Florentino Perez is quoted as saying about the striker and club captain on the recorded audio. In fact, Florentino attributes Raul’s behaviour as being a partial reason for him standing down as President in February 2006.

That audio carried a sting because, 14 years later, it’s the identical hand-to-hand combat he’s been fighting with another captain, Sergio Ramos, over the past few months leading to, unnecessarily, losing one of the greatest footballers or leaders the club has ever seen, too.

This season, Ramos will also be reinforcing PSG instead of trying to win LaLiga and drawing the global gaze to Spanish football.

Some Presidents, it seems, never learn.

It prompts the question: who is releasing the audio information in a clear attempt to damage Florentino, and why? The preseason plot thickens. And this is the point, to (mis)-quote Oscar Wilde: “To lose one centre-half may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

With Ramos leaving, keeping Raphael Varane should have been treated with transcendental importance. Instead, the Frenchman has already gone and will strengthen Manchester United instead. It’s a grave error to have lost both of these leader-warriors from Madrid’s central defence at the same time.



Gemma Soler details Atletico Madrid’s chances to defend their La Liga title in 2021-22.

On the positive side, remarkable images of the renovated Santiago Bernabeu continue to emerge, and the sensational new Real Madrid stadium should hopefully be hosting LaLiga action by September — perhaps for the early season test against Celta Vigo. Not only is it going to become an absolute palace in which to watch and play football, but its revised designation as an arena for conferences, rallies, expositions and rock concerts will bring Los Blancos a lot of much-needed new income.

No question that it’s a Florentino Perez masterstroke, albeit that the plans to hide the moveable pitch deep underground — in fact, it’ll be stored under Madrid’s major traffic artery, the Paseo Castellana — in a kind of “laboratory” so that the stadium becomes a cash cow outside of matchdays owe a lot to the now-departed head groundsman Paul Burgess. This of course comes at a time when their most bitter rivals, Barcelona, aren’t within several hundred light years of beginning the Camp Nou renovation, which is already several seasons behind schedule.

Score another one for Florentino.

The shenanigans at Spain‘s top two clubs are so dramatic, and so turbulent, during the build-up to 2021-22 (and yes, I know that Atleti are the reigning champions) that they need to be set against some context. It’s actually a very healthy picture. At a time when there could be a moribund spin put on the departures of Messi, Ramos and Varane from LaLiga, the fact is that Spanish football has enjoyed a summer of robust health.



Luis Garcia says he never imagined seeing Lionel Messi leaving FC Barcelona the way he did today in his final news conference.

The Spanish national team were a better football side than either finalist, England or Italy, and while the stats only showed them as having reached the semifinal of Euro 2020, they can rightly claim to be at or around the best footballing nation in Europe.

A hybrid Spain team (featuring several of the ultra-exhausted players who’d competed in the Euro and now need comprehensive holidays) won the Olympic Silver medal in Japan, while the Spain U21 side also lost a European Championship semifinal against a rival they comprehensively outplayed, but couldn’t puncture.

And on Wednesday, Villarreal will contest the UEFA Supercup against Chelsea. They do so as Europa League winners, meaning that a Spanish club has either won the Champions League or the Europa League, or both, in 11 of the last 13 seasons.

La Liga on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)
Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)

Considering Spanish football’s mix of brilliant, open, technical, exciting, creative and winning play, plus absolutely unrivalled feuding, insulting, soap opera-level daily drama, what will we see this season?

For a start, predicting a title winner feels harder than ever.

Sevilla profile as having a “dark horse” chance given the remarkable state of confusion and opprobrium at the two biggest clubs, plus the fact that Julen Lopetegui’s team wasn’t that far behind Atleti in confidence, squad or results last season. But the moment you think you’ve picked a credible outsider in Sevilla, their ultra-talented Director of Football, Monchi, throws you a curveball.

They’ve done well with a couple of signings: Erik Lamela (from Tottenham) looks interesting and Marko Dimitrovic (from Eibar) is an exceptional keeper. But they keenly require a real, hard-nosed goalscorer if they’re going to win the league for the first time since the second World War. And if they are letting their best defender, Jules Kounde, join Chelsea… who’s his replacement? I’m sure I don’t have to remind Monchi that La Liga kicks off on Friday… do I?



Rob Palmer talks through how Monchi has been able to develop and bring some of the biggest stars in world football to Sevilla.

Atleti, too, have been restrained in their purchases, although Diego Simeone is thrilled to have midfielder Rodrigo De Paul joining the ranks from Serie A. It’s rare to see him quite to tickled with a signing… well, not perhaps since landing Luis Suarez from the nitwits on Barcelona’s previous board who pushed him out the door, just like this board has done with Messi, and thus tied a ribbon on the Spanish title for Los Colchoneros.

And so, Atletico boast a squad that could quite feasibly win back-to-back Liga titles for the first time in (count ’em!) 70 long years!

But you asked for it, so here goes.

If Madrid somehow lure Mbappe from PSG, then they win the title. If they don’t, then Barcelona, with an astounding squad, should be favourites to do so. The top four will, I’m certain, include both of them, plus Atleti and Sevilla.

If you’re looking for sheer pleasure and aren’t as concerned with trophies, make sure you watch the thrilling, daring Celta Vigo, the suddenly mature and well-coached Real Betis and, as a side order, don’t ignore Real Sociedad who, if everyone stays fit, have a great chance this season to win back the Copa del Rey, which they only held for 14 days last May.

Villarreal’s verve, Valencia‘s “perma-crisis” — now in front of their volatile fans inside the Mestalla — Athletic Club, under the imperious Marcelino, trying to keep pace with their Basque country rivals, la Real… there will be thrills and spills, glorious technique, phenomenal goals and nine months of sweet entertainment.

How it can be as jaw-dropping, unpredictable and downright explosive as the weeks leading up to Valencia vs. Getafe in the 2021-22 season opener this Friday, I truly don’t know. But stay tuned just in case.

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