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On Lionel Messi and Transfer Rumours

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A meandering narrative on the absurdity of rumours linking Lionel Messi with a summer transfer away from FC Barcelona


In the wake of FC Barcelona’s simultaneously gradual and sudden fall from grace, the media have been having a field day, speculating on the future of virtually everyone involved at the club. From the incumbent Barcelona president, Josep Maria Bartomeu to the club’s Sporting Director, former club legend, Andoni Zubizarreta and the Blaugrana head coach, Gerardo Martino, it appears as though no-one is safe from these malicious rumours.

Not even Barça’s star player, Lionel Messi.

Following a few low-key performances, both in the UEFA Champions League against Atletico Madrid, in La Liga against Granada CF, and most recently in the Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid, Lionel Messi has been the subject of criticism, from fans and journalists alike. His work ethic has declined ever since Pep Guardiola left the club in 2012, while his goalscoring form has also taken a hit – at least by his absurdly high standards.

By all accounts, this is not the same Lionel Messi that tortured defenses and set all manner of records in 2011 and 2012. Heck, this isn’t even the same Messi that we saw last season, or even a short month ago. Something isn’t right, and despite concurrently pointing the finger at Gerardo Martino for his tactical naivety, the media seem convinced that Messi’s problems are all of his own doing.

That’s not to say that I solely blame Martino for the problems that we as a club, and Messi as an individual is experiencing on the field – but let’s be honest, he’s certainly been a major contributing factor. Unlike Guardiola, and even unlike Vilanova, Martino’s regime has not been able to get the best out of Lionel Messi.

For a club that has attempted to delicately traverse the thin line between messidependencia and extracting the very best from the greatest player of all time, this season could have been a rousing success. The signing of Neymar looked to alleviate the pressure on Messi, and in a sense, it has done just that – but without tangible success (trophies) to point to, one might argue that this club, at least at the moment, is better when totally reliant upon Lionel Messi.

For example, who can legitimately argue that this season has been more successful than the previous?

Even if Tito’s Barcelona were dependent upon Messi, their reliance on the Argentine superstar carried them to the La Liga title and to the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League. It wasn’t always pretty, and it was rarely convincing, particularly after the turn of the year, but it was at least successful.

And so, facing a season of disappointment, it was predictable that the media would turn on someone, and that the fans would follow suit. But who could have ever expected that Lionel Messi would be in the firing line?

Yet, within these rumours and this criticism lies a certain irony. Subtle, yet present with every column inch and every tweet. The flaws in the logic are numerous, obvious, and yet somehow hidden to some Culés. I might not be a journalist and heck, I might not even be a particularly good blogger, but I have learnt a few things about this "world" and how it works.

Transfer rumours sell; it’s a simple premise, one that plays on the most a few of the most basic human emotions: hope, anger and curiosity. Hope that your club will sign that player, anger that your club might sell this player and thanks to well-written headlines, oftentimes curiosity: just who have my club been linked with? Who are my club looking to sell? Our primitive desire to learn has us clicking the links, fuelling a business that, ironically, rarely teaches anyone anything.

Just think of the number of central defenders that Barcelona has been linked with in the past few seasons. Now compare that astronomical figure to the number of actual signings – while there may have been legitimate interest in a few of those players, the bulk of those rumours were mere fabrications. But, thanks to the behaviour of the general public, these rumours will have probably been amongst the most popular pages on that publication’s website.

The same premise applies to the dying art of newspaper publication – a front page emblazoned with a teasing headline and well-written lede on the latest transfer rumour is far more likely to sell than another front page that promises an in-depth tactical analysis. It’s the nature of the beast – quick and cheap always defeats long and informative, simply because the latter will always be a niche area in this world.

Whether it’s amongst friends at school, or around the proverbial water-cooler at work; there’s going to be more conversation about unsubstantiated transfer gossip than there is about the relative merits and demerits of adopting a 4-3-3 in today’s footballing world.

And with transfer rumours firmly embedded in our culture, it’s no longer enough for outlets to simply publish any old rumour. In fact, the most legitimate of stories will be prominent in all media outlets; last summer for instance, you could have read about Barcelona’s pursuit of Neymar in any one of thousands of newspapers or websites. So how does Diario Sport for example, differentiate itself from, let’s say, Marca?

To their credit I suppose, the large outlets are relatively well-connected. The very best journalists in this field are enchufado – plugged in. They know what’s exactly what’s going on, and if there’s a semblance of truth in the story, they can provide genuinely informative articles. But what if you aren’t enchufado? What happens when you’re a smaller outlet, trying to gain ground and stay afloat in this ruthless business?

Why you stand up and fight of course.

Shock and awe as a military doctrine was created in the 1990’s by the National Defense University in the Unites States. Borrowing a few key concepts from the decidedly German tactic of Blitzkreig, infamous for its usage throughout World War II, shock and awe has been used to great effect by the US military in countless scenarios – basing its success on the use of spectacular displays of force to paralyze the enemy’s perception of the battlefield.

Amazingly, all four key characteristics of establishing what the US military defined as rapid dominance can be applied to the world of journalism, and transfer rumours in particular.

With near total or absolute knowledge and understanding of themselves, other media outlets and the publishing environment, underlined by the rapidity, timeliness and operational brilliance in execution coupled with near or total control of the entire environment, any outlet can establish rapid dominance in their field thanks to these shock and awe tactics.

And just think to yourself, doesn’t this sound a little familiar?

The best journalists understand the environment in which they work. Moving quickly to capitalise on Messi’s recent poor form, an individual will have started this rumour after the Real Madrid defeat, timing it perfectly to coincide with Culés growing dissatisfaction and continuing distrust with the current board, executing the story well, before publishing ahead of all other competitors, thereby establishing control in the environment.

When faced with this rumour, Culés and neutrals everywhere couldn’t help but buy in. He has looked disinterested, the board does seem that stupid and Paris Saint-Germain have both the money and the interest in pulling this deal off. Their perception has been compromised, despite the fact that this rumour is manifestly absurd.

Think about it for a second.

Not once in his Barcelona career has Lionel Messi even suggested that he would consider a move away from Catalunya.

Just recently, Messi declared his interest in ending his career at the club.

The thought of Lionel Messi seriously contemplating a move away from FC Barcelona is both implausible in general, and entirely ludicrous given the context. This is a player who is constantly looking forward to the next game. This is a player who cannot wait for the next training session, and this is a player who has placed great importance on the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

The idea that he is sitting at home and planning a move to Paris or Manchester severely juxtaposes that very characteristic; the one that Messi has continuously displayed from the moment he first kicked a football as a child.

Especially given the barriers to such a move.

Lionel Messi is Argentine; he speaks Spanish, and almost certainly learnt to speak Catalan having moved to Barcelona over a decade ago. His grasp of English is limited at very best, while his knowledge of French is probably non-existent. Moving to another country, and moving to either Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain would necessitate learning an entirely new language.

Given that a supposed key reason behind his departure would be the disconnect he feels with the club and the fans, it’s difficult to imagine Messi feeling any different in Paris or in England. At least initially anyway. And again, the concept of learning a new language is an unnecessary and entirely uncharacteristic distraction ahead of the World Cup.

So too is the prospect of uprooting his entire family. His father, his girlfriend, his child; all live in Barcelona with him. How would they feel about moving to a decidedly different culture? The prospect is unlikely to be appealing to say the very least – which is especially true where Manchester is concerned.

I don’t doubt his ability to socialise and fit in anywhere, but Messi is widely regarded as a shy individual; leaving his lifelong friends and teammates again seems out of character. For a believable rumour, it seems slightly odd that we have to disregard practically everything we know, or think we know about Lionel Messi.

After all, the onus would be on Messi to force the move, particularly with Barcelona currently facing a transfer ban. Assuming the Blaugrana can still sell players, it’s malicious and baseless to even hint that the board would consider a sale without an opportunity to purchase a replacement.

But, once the rumour starts, the other outlets will become aware, and to stay competitive, they too must report on the story. It’s either that, or run the risk that readers will look elsewhere – and in doing so, the rumour ironically gains momentum. With each new report, each rewritten article, the rumour supposedly gains credibility – it’s a self-sustaining cycle.

Unfortunately, there are no signs that change is on its way. Informative, value-add journalism will remain a niche area; even if it gains ground, it will remain buried beneath the theatre of mainstream journalism, suffocated by meaningless gossip and denigrated by association.

Until change does come, do yourself a favour. Be smart: don’t believe everything you read.