Monday, February 15, 2016

How Messi Killed La Liga

Leo Messi hates playing Las Palmas. He hates their treacherous field, where ankles roll in divets once occupied by grass. He hates playing Rayo, where the crowd boos and curses his every touch, none of which will ever be viewed by a global audience. He hates playing Levante, where an ugly, mistimed challenge might end his career. This is a man whose diminutive size and subsequent growing pains made him a target on the pitch and a favorite of the training room - injuries almost destroyed his youth career. He knows his time is limited, and he knows he must soak up money and exposure where he can. Yes, Leo Messi hates playing the small clubs of Spain. But soon, the fulfillment of his master plan means he'll never have to play them and their insignificant revenue streams again.
While many saw the recent vote for Catalonian independence as a political measure of pride, Messi saw a chessboard, his piece pushing the opponent into check, with mate on the horizon.

Messi enjoys a great deal of influence at Barcelona FC, more than any other figure in sports. The club brought the lad from Argentina, agreeing to pay his medical bills if he stayed on with their academy. He repaid them with years of loyalty, a litany of goals and more championships than Florentine Perez can count. For several years, it seemed Messi owed the club a debt for their dedication to him. But in recent years, he realized he had contributed his fair share, and began assuming more and more influence over the team. Zlatan Ibrahimovic first brought this to the public eye in his book, I Am Zlatan, in a passage about positioning. Zlatan played striker, but Messi wanted to spearhead the attack from the false nine. He texted then-manager Pep Guadiola that, if the club no longer needed Messi, he'd leave. They sold Zlatan, who refused to criticize the Argentine despite his passive-aggressive instruction to Pep. Messi had spoken, and even Zlatan was afraid to call him out.

Messi's shadow continued to envelope the club, who began following his lead on all personnel decisions. When he realized he needed top status in the locker room, he ordered the sale of Victor Valdes and the retirement of Carlos Puyol, threatening a move to Man City otherwise. Alex Song fared even worse - after suggesting Messi not tattoo his arm, the smaller man launched a strike directly at Song's testicles in practice, leaving him temporarily infertile and permanently benched. These three stood up to Messi; others, wisely, backed down. Andres Iniesta privately declared his allegiance by leaving notes and trinkets in his locker, promising to never speak against Messi. Dani Alves promised him the World Cup trophy should their teams meet in the final; thankfully, this never occurred. The entire squad agreed to Messi's plan. But Xavi Hernandez went further than the rest, completing a vampire-like blood oath of unity with Messi. Xavi would soon shake out to be the most important ally to Messi.

Around 2011, Messi grew increasingly frustrated by the quality of La Liga and the enormous taxes the Spanish government forced him to play. He couldn't stand the sight of his paychecks draining into the pockets of a country he wasn't from, all the while losing out constantly on wider audiences due to the poor television deals La Liga signed. He knew he needed to play more high profile games, more often. But how? He realized that year, after a commanding Champions League final over Manchester United in the UK, that if only Barcelona could play more international fixtures, more often, his brand would grow to a Michael Jordan-esque level. And so he secretly supported the concept of the Champions League usurping La Liga, and becoming a regular league, rather than a tournament. Many in his side agreed, particularly Xavi, who began seeking a proper, international sponsor for the club. Using his Arabic contacts, he hatched an illegal deal with the Qatari Foundation - sponsor Barcelona for an exorbitant fee, and I'll play in Qatar for a few years. The move brought in more money, power and influence, and Messi utilized it to imbue the squad with his ethos of Champions League football only. Players who disagreed, like Puyol and Valdes, were kicked to the curb, and Team Messi was born. However, he still faced the problem of removing Barcelona from their TV contracts and other obligations to La Liga.

Messi had many sleepless nights over this issue. He had many drafts - dissolve Barcelona as a club, then rebuild a new club inside the coddling arms of the Champions League. Bribe Sepp Blatter. Stage a hold out. But after a conversation with Gerard Pique, Messi discovered his solution - Catalonian independence. Barcelona would not play in the Spanish Premier League without being a member of Spain. And so he seized upon the critical political point for many Catalonians - taxation.

The Catalonian region accounts for 24% of Spain's economy, and in many ways buoys the struggling country as a whole, and Messi decided to make a stand by intentionally getting caught for tax evasion. If the star of the area doesn't pay King Filipe, why should he? This became his MO for recruitment. Barcelona would only add players who agreed to also publicly evade their taxes. This, more than jersey sales and goals, was the primary rational for bringing on Neymar. Messi also enjoys Neymar and Suarez's servile nature towards him, but their tax evasion made them more important allies off the field than on it. Mascherano was caught for the same issue, and all the Barcelona players are being investigated for it. Pep Guardiola, who was becoming bigger than Messi anyway, didn't want his team behaving in such a manner. His striker threw him out. Messi is not hurting his brand in this way. The evasion looks to be a mistake, or a victimless, white collar crime. He's not riling up the Spanish public with political statements, but instead setting a quiet example for teammates and Catalonians as a whole. He also poured hundreds of millions of Euros into the campaign for independence - through a shell corporation, of course. And he succeeded - Catalonia voted to become its own nation-state earlier this year.

The next step, of course, has yet to come. The Champions League is not yet a weekly entity. But it will be soon. While it is generally assumed that the raid of FIFA was timed randomly, try telling this to Xavi, and watch the laughter it elicits. He is winding his career down in Qatar, and knows the elections for a new FIFA president are looming. And who would be a better candidate than the nice guy of football, Xavi Hernandez? He is expected to put his name into the election in the coming weeks, with ads funded by none other than his old buddy, Lionel Messi. And once elected? His first order of business will be to create the European First Division, a league where the best of each country compete for football world domination. Every club will face relegation to another team in their home nation, except the one with no competition in their newly created country: Barcelona, or as they are soon to be renamed, M.Catalonia FC. What's the M, you ask? That's Messi's. Messi's Catalonia Football Club.

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