What kind of Lionel Messi will PSG be signing - and is he worth the money?

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What kind of Lionel Messi will PSG be signing - and is he worth the money? - AFP
What kind of Lionel Messi will PSG be signing - and is he worth the money? - AFP

At 34, in October 1974, Pele had played his last game for Brazil three years earlier and the Santos goal machine was winding down in his last season before his knees were subjected to one last lucrative runout on the hard plastic turf of the North American Soccer League.

George Best hit 34 in May 1980 in what was arguably the last decent part of his career, also in the NASL, after which his list of clubs became much more numerous and much more tragic. Diego Maradona turned 34 in November 1994, banned for his World Cup finals positive cocaine test, and uncontracted to a club.

In the meantime, Lionel Messi, the greatest player of his age, arrives in Paris today less than two months after he turned 34 in June and takes his place at one of the most ambitious clubs in the European game. He has played at the top his whole career, and this latest move indicates he is not about to step off that throne just yet.

Lionel Messi and his wife, Antonela, on their flight to Paris
Lionel Messi and his wife, Antonela, on their flight to Paris

Messi has benefited from playing in an era that is much kinder to the kind of twinkling attacking stars who were brutalised in the past. No smashed ankle for him at Barcelona, as was the case for Maradona in 1983.

The vast resources poured into his PSG salary also mean that there is no need to chase dollars or yuan in one of the world’s less serious start-up leagues. The feeling is that he goes into Ligue 1 still a very serious footballer with serious objectives, not least a fifth Champions League title to win.

What kind of Messi will PSG inherit? One of the few footballers in history who have exposed the lie in the contention that no player is bigger than the club. Messi leaves Barcelona a completely different place to the one he captivated for 17 years, in terms of performance and brand.

On the pitch he remains an astonishingly effective footballer, who carried the team forward in the second half of last season to win the Copa del Rey and salvage third place in the league.

He scored 38 goals in all competitions, he was Liga’s top goalscorer with 30 - seven clear of his nearest rivals. It felt like he should be exhausted but even in a beleaguered Barcelona side he remained exceptional.

 Lionel Messi leaves FC Barcelona - Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain - August 10, 2021 An image of Lionel Messi is seen being taken down outside the Camp - REUTERS
Lionel Messi leaves FC Barcelona - Camp Nou, Barcelona, Spain - August 10, 2021 An image of Lionel Messi is seen being taken down outside the Camp - REUTERS

Of course, Messi played the way that Messi always played in recent years. Conserving himself for the handful of big moments in the game, a menace awaiting activation.

The Barcelona teams of the era have been tuned to the Messi way, sculpted around him to compensate in the moments when it was required - an approach that was astonishingly successful and then progressively much less so under the series of diminished coaches who followed Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique.

Ronald Koeman briefly felt bold enough to tell Messi last summer that his “privileges” were being withdrawn. But in the end Barcelona - and Koeman - were simply grateful that Messi kept extending the privileges of his match-winning goals.

A worker removes posters featuring Barcelona's departing Argentinian forward Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on August 10, 2021. - France is waiting impatiently for Lionel Messi with supporters gathering outside Paris Saint-Germain's ground hoping to see the Argentine who is expected to join the Qatar-owned club after his exit from Barcelona - AFP
A worker removes posters featuring Barcelona's departing Argentinian forward Lionel Messi at the Camp Nou stadium in Barcelona on August 10, 2021. - France is waiting impatiently for Lionel Messi with supporters gathering outside Paris Saint-Germain's ground hoping to see the Argentine who is expected to join the Qatar-owned club after his exit from Barcelona - AFP

From the turn of the year, Messi scored 28 goals, including both Barcelona managed over two legs against PSG in the Champions League. He scored two in the Copa del Rey final against Athletic Club of Bilbao. He scored in his last game for Barcelona, a forgettable 2-1 defeat at home to Celta Vigo.

The first half of his season was blighted by the failed attempt to trigger the release clause in his contract the previous summer, although he still scored 10 goals.

Then when he was ready, he took control once again. In the summer that followed he lead Argentina to victory in a Copa America staged in stadiums with no fans in a dark Brazilian Covid winter. It hardly feels like he is finished.

Lionel Messi leads Argentina to Copa del Rey glory - AP
Lionel Messi leads Argentina to Copa del Rey glory - AP

Of course, PSG are not Barcelona, where the whole club orbited around its star - from the marketing department, to the first-team squad, to the manager - but Messi is still Messi.

His new team-mates, including those with whom he has played before - Neymar, the sizeable Argentine contingent, and even those whose careers have been spent trying to stop him, like Sergio Ramos - know how this works. They are there to serve the master.

His most successful team-mates, like Luis Suarez, recognised that immediately, and in doing so were themselves elevated. Mauricio Pochettino, his new manager, comes from the same Argentine province of Santa Fe. There are no unknowns for him within the club.

Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez celebrate at Barcelona - AP
Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez celebrate at Barcelona - AP

Despite the startling goal return last season, Messi operated at times as more of a playmaker. As well as being top for goals in La Liga, he was fifth for assists, with nine overall. No-one else in the league got within 10 of his total of chances created, 68 for the season. He played a remarkable number of games too, 47.

His total senior club career, including Barca B in the Segunda Division B, totals 768 games. He has averaged 46 games for the last 16 seasons.

These are incredible levels of consistency for any player, let alone the most talented in the world. The challenge for PSG is simply to keep him close to that output.

He will be a great curiosity in Paris, the most expensive and exclusive bauble imported by the Qatari state for the delight of the city and the burnishing of the club’s owners’ reputation. The football has always come easy for Messi - game after game, each moment of excellence following the next.

His life on the Catalan coast outside of Barcelona was established before he was as famous as he is now and it suited him well - the family existence, the walks with his giant pet dog, a general sense of being left alone.

Now he steps out of that. The Parc des Princes and Ligue 1 holds few fears for him, and his team-mates will all know their place. He remains, at 34, in the top rank of player. The game is the same, it is just everything else that has changed.

Aged 34, in October 1971, Bobby Charlton was still turning out the games for Manchester United in a team locked in a grim decline. Johan Cruyff at 34, in April 1981, was enjoying a pleasant swansong back in the Eredivisie that would yield three league titles over three seasons with Ajax and Feyenoord.

Both great players who had achieved so much and conserved themselves well - if one was prepared to overlook their respective dedicated smoking habits. At the same stage, Messi, however, is the greatest 34-year-old the game has ever known.

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