How much is Leo Messi worth to Barcelona? For the best part of 15 years, the answer has, mostly, been measured in towering numbers of goals, assists, and in less countable virtues like the extent to which he defines a style, envied and admired across his sport.
This weekend, the value of Messi to a club in decline on the pitch and economic crisis off it, was detailed in very precise financial terms.
The publication of his current contract, signed in 2017 and valid until this coming June, in the Spanish newspaper, El Mundo, laid out his earnings from his employer to widespread surprise.
It was known Messi's salary exceeds any other footballer's; it was not generally known by how much. It is also very unusual for that sort of private document to be spread across newspaper pages. It had been leaked to El Mundo.
Messi would like to know from where, and his legal advisors are studying possible action against El Mundo and, should it be revealed, their source. Barcelona immediately distanced themselves as a club from any filtering of information, and have said they will sue the newspaper.
The contract was signed under a previous president, Josep Maria Bartomeu, who resigned last October partly because of a deteriorating relationship with Messi, the club captain, who had asked to leave last summer. He was prevented from doing so when the club held him to one important clause of his contract, the €700 million ($846m) buyout clause for any early release.
The sums detailed in El Mundo are staggering. All told, Barcelona committed to paying Messi €555m over a four-year deal, a total put into stark context by last week’s revelations that Barcelona are currently beset with €1.2 billion of debt.
The club’s global popularity means they have one of the highest levels of income in football, but revenue streams have been badly affected by the pandemic. Their 98,000 stadium, Camp Nou stands empty because of restrictions. Merchandising income is slumping.
Somewhere in the background to this gathering crisis, though, the team that Messi leads and views as inadequately equipped to compete for the sorts of titles that have peppered his career are sneaking into form.
The evening El Mundo published the contract details, Messi was scoring scoring the goal that ushered Barcelona to a 2-1 win over Athletic Bilbao and pushed them to second place in La Liga, continuing a run that has seen them take 26 points from the last possible 30.
Barca player ratings for win over Athletic Bilbao
How much is Messi worth to Barcelona? Well, picture the 20th minute of a dynamic first half against Athletic. Barcelona had a direct free-kick, one area of Messi’s game that certainly improved once he started being paid those vast wages.
Six Athletic players formed the wall, one lying down, five jumping. There were two more defending the goal-line. Messi found a way past all of them.
“Without Leo, there are many things we can’t aspire to,” said Ronald Koeman, a manager who on Monday reached the end of his second transfer window wearily aware of how the club’s debt is squeezing playing resources.
Koeman wanted a centre-half and a new striker. The interim board – a new president will only be elected next month – told him that money was too scarce.
Koeman had seen El Mundo's front page on Sunday announce 'The Messi contract that ruins Barca'. He said: "I don't understand how you can associate Messi with 'ruining' Barca. He has spent years and years showing his qualities and helped make this club great. I see bad intentions behind what's been published and a desire to cause damage."
It hardly needs stating that it takes two parties to sign a deal, club and player, and that, while the proportion of Barca’s budget funnelled towards one man is eye-catching, so are the funds that have been channelled into big transfers since 2017.
The fees paid for Ousmane Dembele, Philippe Coutinho and Antoine Griezmann add up to more than €400m. None of that trio have met expectations.
Messi misses the team-mates those players were supposed to replace, like Neymar, sold to Paris Saint-Germain, and Luis Suarez, all but given away to Atletico Madrid last September to save on his wages.
Suarez is the principal reason Messi’s last season of surreally high wages looks unlikely to end with his 11th league title. Suarez is the Spanish top division’s leading scorer and his 13th and 14th goals for his new club at Cadiz at the weekend put Atletico ten points clear at the top.