Onside/Offside: Barcelona men, women’s success and Lionel Messi’s future

Each week, Luis Miguel Echegaray discusses the latest from the soccer world, including standout performances, games you might have missed and what to keep an eye on in the coming days.


ONSIDE

Barcelona winning on the pitch

There are issues off the pitch regarding corruption charges and financial turmoil, of course, but on the pitch, Barcelona are delivering. To begin with, Barcelona Femeni, who won a fourth straight Spanish women’s league title and won every single game, scoring 108 goals and conceding just five, are also back in the Champions League final after losing to Lyon last season. What’s more, their star and Ballon D’Or winner Alexia Putellas is back after a lengthy spell.

Then, there’s the men’s side. After their 1-0 victory against Osasuna, coupled with Real Madrid‘s loss to Real Sociedad on Tuesday, Barcelona are just two points away from winning the league title, which is a huge achievement and should bring some slight relief for their financial woes. They’ll face local foes Espanyol on Sunday, May 14 — watch LIVE on ESPN+ in the U.S. — and a win will seal the deal.

But not all is rosy as Mateu Alemany, the club’s director of football and Joan Laporta’s trusty right-hand man, will leave the club at the end of the season, and will reportedly move to Aston Villa. Deco, a Barcelona legend and former teammate of current Barcelona manager Xavi Hernandez, is scheduled to take on that role.

(Well, this is awkward, says the lifelong Villa fan. Here’s a thread I wrote about Alemany and what he can bring to Villa.)

Regardless, on the pitch, Xavi’s Barcelona will be champions and it’s a step in the right direction, whatever the bank statement says.

Real Madrid close in on Jude Bellingham

A few weeks ago, ESPN published a wonderful assessment of the best players under 21 or under, which included the likes of Erling Haaland, Vinicius Jr. and many more. In the video component, we discussed Jude Bellingham, the 19-year-old English prodigy from Borussia Dortmund.

The superlatives are justified when discussing this young man, who is reportedly on his way to Real Madrid next season and would become the next English player to join Los Blancos since David Beckham in 2007.

Bellingham, who began his trade at Birmingham City, is a force of nature, a silky, smart, mature midfielder who carries the ball with the same grace as an Olympic ice skater. At the World Cup, he didn’t just deliver, he commanded the stage and turned into England‘s best player and to me, Bellingham is the closest thing to Juan Roman Riquelme, one of my favorite players of all-time.

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Laurens: Real Madrid would suit Jude Bellingham

Gab & Juls discuss Jude Bellingham’s potential transfer from Borussia Dortmund to Real Madrid.

Madrid, in the midst of a midfield transition, are the perfect club for Bellingham and vice versa. To begin with, this is a club that doesn’t just put you in the spotlight; it throws you into it. Despite his young age, this won’t affect Bellingham and if anything, it will make him better. From a positional standpoint, as legendary players like Luka Modric (37) and Toni Kroos (33) near the end of their careers and the likes of the Aurelien Tchouameni (23) and Eduardo Camavinga (20) take over, the future of Real Madrid’s trifecta is in good hands.

Arsenal and women’s football

Earlier this week, Arsenal Women hosted a Champions League semifinal for the first time in 10 years when Wolfsburg came to town. The last time they played, the home attendance was less than 1,500 people. On Monday, it was slightly more as Emirates stadium packed in 60,063 fans, a record for a domestic women’s game in England. This is obviously scant consolation for Arsenal, who ended up losing to the German side on penalties, and their winless run against them stretches now to six matches.

Arsenal were not at full strength, which speaks highly of Jonas Eidevall’s side to fight until the very end. “We made it to the Champions League semi-final and lost by the tiniest of margins,” said the manager. “With all the injuries we have, with all the challenges we have, I am incredibly proud.”

Pride should continue at Arsenal, representative of the support that continues to grow within. This incredible spectacle — alongside the rest of women’s football across Europe — shows that there is a growing interest in the game, and the significance is monumental. Arsenal will be back and so will this crowd. If anything, they might need to build more seats.

Erik ten Hag and Alejandro Garnacho

Alejandro Garnacho is a wonderful talent and Manchester United know it, hence the newly-signed long term contract for the 18-year-old. But the main reason why he’s in this week’s “Onside/Offside” is because of this video, where his manager Ten Hag takes time to personally address his family at Carrington.

“I met your family, the most important people in your life,” said Ten Hag to Garnacho, before speaking to them. “It’s a big, big moment, so I [will say] some words. He is improving and he has improved a lot. That is why we are now here and he deserves this, a new contract. It is deserved by his performance and he has fought his way into the team.

“We have to do some celebrations and you have to do some celebrations with your family, they are the ones who are in your heart. This club needs players who can do incredible things. It is not only about ‘we want to win.’ Also, we want to win in a certain way. But winning is the most important and then we want to win in a certain way, because we are playing in the Theatre of Dreams.”

The words were special, but what I truly appreciate is Ten Hag’s initiative and for the club to promote it. I know it sounds trivial and it’s not as if this is the first and only time a manager has done this, but this is a good example of how the right head coach can also turn into a mentor, a teacher and a bridge of trust between player and club.

We focus so much on football productivity that we might forget that before the player, there is a human being.


Offside

Man United’s sale saga needs to end

I’m going to keep this one short (and how I wish United’s owners Glazers could do the same): This ongoing saga, in which Manchester United continues to tease its supporters over the possible sale and/or added investment for the club is not doing any good.

Presumably, the deadline for bids was last week, but who knows — maybe another deadline sneaks in. Qatar-backed Sheikh Jassim and British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe placed their offers with the former aiming for 100% control of the club, which would consequently cover all previous debt. Other offers are from Elliott Management, Ares Management Corporation, Sixth Street and Carlyle, with an intent to have a minority stake in the club, something dreaded by fans who want the Glazers out.

Then there’s the valuation headache. Here’s my colleague Rob Dawson: “The key stumbling block up until now has been the Glazers’ valuation of around £6 billion, despite financial experts valuing the club at closer to £3bn. The Glazers announced in November they would look at ‘strategic alternatives’ including a full sale or investment. Sources have told ESPN that club staff were told to expect “clarity” on the ownership situation by the end of the season, just over a month away.

“There are fears among supporters that the Glazers, who led a leveraged buyout of United in 2005, will accept minority investment and stay in control at Old Trafford.”

This never ending telenovela had better end with the Glazers saying goodbye, but I fear, more hiccuping and stumbling is on the way because in the end, the Glazers’ biggest priority is the Glazers themselves.

Lionel Messi‘s Saudi Arabian trip, PSG’s exit and a whole big mess

After losing 3-1 to 10th placed Lorient at Parc des Princes on Sunday, coupled with Marseille‘s win over Auxerre, PSG now only holds top spot in Ligue 1 by five points. What’s more, the French giants have now lost nine matches in all competitions this year, which included the loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League, thus continuing their trophyless adventures in the competition.

To add insult to injury, the loss also added complications for Messi. The Argentinian star and World Cup champion had previously arranged a trip to Saudi Arabia on Monday due to his sponsorship commitments as an ambassador. PSG head coach Christophe Galtier and the club’s sporting consultant Luis Campos had approved the trip, but only if PSG had won the game against Lorient. Even a draw would have been fine as the club wouldn’t have had training on the day of Messi’s departure.

But they did neither, meaning Galtier called for training on Monday. By then, however, Messi was already in the Middle East. Players were supposedly unhappy and Messi was given a two week suspension. Now, it’s all but confirmed. Lionel Messi will not renew his contract with the French club.

*INSERT MASSIVE EXHALE*

I have no idea what to say about PSG anymore. They are a reality TV show and, at this point, please keep going because it provides tremendous content.

As for Messi, this was always a possibility, especially after winning the World Cup. He will be 36 next season and perhaps one more attempt at European glory is in the cards, which is why I think Barcelona remains in pole position to re-sign him. Yes, Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal are throwing an obscene amount of money at the opportunity and Inter Miami offers a business possibility for the Argentinian.

But heart goes where the heart wants and I believe one last dance with Barcelona is the preferred choice. There are massive hurdles here, and from a financial fair play standpoint, it seems unrealistic for it to happen, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if LaLiga aids the cause. After all, a return to Spain is a win for them, as it helps their marketing value compared to the Goliath that is the Premier League.

Speaking of the Premier League, that’s where I want him. Yes, scream at me all you want, but the idea of Messi in the English game is incredibly enticing.

Just not Manchester City. Please.

Can Big Sam rescue Leeds United?

The best and worst thing that happened to Leeds was their former manager, Marcelo Bielsa. The man responsible for helping the club return to the Premier League, after a 16-year absence, manages the same way Martin Scorsese directs movies. There is a quintessential identity to his craft. It’s unconcerned with conventional wisdom and relentlessly obsessed with detail. It’s a stubborn philosophy. But at the core of it, is empathy.

Bielsa’s players must not only know their roles, they must know the club as a whole. There were stories of squad litter pickup around the training ground in order to appreciate the simple message that a football club is a community of people. Nobody is more important than the other. These factors translated to the pitch, and in victory and defeat, you saw a united front.

I am reflecting on these stories because the club’s current situation is the complete opposite. Off the pitch there seems to be a disconnect. After last weekend’s loss to Bournemouth, for example, a video went viral showing the players ignoring their fans, including a young supporter, as they were leaving their hotel. This forced an apology from the squad.

“Words can’t express how sorry we are that the youngster in the video wearing the Leeds kit is not shown more love from the squad. On a matchday we do an activation walk, before and after this we stop for photos and autographs to ensure we interact with fans, but also that we are on time when leaving for games. However, there is no excuse for not acknowledging fans and if the parents of the fan wearing the Leeds kit in the video could make themselves known to us, we would be grateful.”

The statement concluded with the need to keep fighting for their status in the Premier League, as they are currently out of the relegation zone on goal difference.

Now, after firing Javi Gracia (who took over from Jesse Marsch) following a three-month stint, Leeds have now turned to Sam Allardyce, football’s version of in-case-of-emergency-break-glass, the man who saved Sunderland in 2016 and Crystal Palace a year later from relegation. Leeds fans will still remember, however, how it was Big Sam’s Bolton that confirmed their club’s drop to the Championship in 2004. The most ironic part is that he’s pretty much the opposite of Marcelo Bielsa. Perhaps, this is exactly what Leeds need.

There are naturally more reasons for Leeds’ current demise. For one, Victor Orta — their director of football — was also fired due to a lack of proper recruitment and most importantly, not processing a detailed plan after Bielsa left. The internal preparations have been a mess and Elland Road has had enough. Leeds United didn’t realize just how difficult it would be to replace a man who essentially rebirthed their identity.

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Laurens: Boehly should let the people around him lead Chelsea

Julien Laurens believes Chelsea chairman Todd Boehly should let the right people at Chelsea lead the club as they have the experience to do it.

Chelsea, oh Chelsea

Sooner or later, the ludicrous state of an idea will eventually bring out the truth. You can paint this idea in shiny colors, put a ribbon on it and cover it with blind grandiosity, but in the end — if the idea is not applicable, if there is no substance and a meaningful concept or, most importantly, if you are not able to hold yourself accountable — then your shiny idea becomes your disaster.

In term’s of Chelsea’s project, there are lessons to be learned. The idea can be glitzy, but it must be meaningful. The intent to purchase star power as opposed to generating an identity has been the issue and on Tuesday, Arsenal — both a great project and a process — showed their London rivals just how bad things can get when the proper steps are not implemented.

Former Chelsea manager Graham Potter entered an alien world. Frank Lampard “caring about the club” is not enough. American billionaire and Blues’ owner Todd Boehly spent money, but he didn’t listen to what was truly needed. So now, Chelsea have a squad that can’t even fit in a dressing room and an interim manager who seems lost.

They have lost six straight matches in all competitions, something that hasn’t happened in 30 years, but most alarmingly, relegation is definitely part of the conversation. So you think it’s insane? Well, the only reason why it probably won’t happen is because there are teams in worst scenarios. The idea is not turning out to be what was promised.

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Infantino tells broadcasters to pay up for Women’s World Cup rights

Gianni Infantino warns broadcasters that FIFA won’t undersell the rights to this summer’s Women’s World Cup.

Infantino and Women’s World Cup

This week, FIFA President Gianni Infantino threatened a European blackout for this summer’s Women’s World Cup broadcasting inside the continent’s five major countries (UK, Spain, Italy, Germany and France) due to what he calls unacceptable offers of media rights.

“The offers from broadcasters, mainly in the ‘Big 5’ European countries, are still very disappointing and simply not acceptable based on four criteria,” said Infantino at a panel discussion at the World Trade Organization headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

“To be very clear, it is our moral and legal obligation not to undersell the FIFA Women’s World Cup, ” he added. “Therefore, should the offers continue not to be fair (towards women and women’s football), we will be forced not to broadcast the FIFA Women’s World Cup into the ‘Big 5’ European countries.”

He claimed broadcasters have offered FIFA between $1m and $10m for the rights, which is practically nothing compared to the men’s competition ($100m to $200m). He called the offers a slap in the face.

Let’s begin with the obvious. There is absolutely no doubt that the Women’s World Cup deserves all the financial, logistical and professional respect as the men’s tournament. This is not just the right thing to do, it’s a business no-brainer. The women’s game is full of promise. We have seen it with the previous tournament, the European competition and in Europe. There are still mountains to be climbed in South America and other regions, but when it comes to the biggest international competition, hosted by Australia and New Zealand this summer, there is a need to deliver big numbers for broadcasting rights.

But the football does the talking, the players and community of the women’s game are the brick builders who continue to shine a light on what’s necessary, less Infantino, who has reportedly not been seen in New Zealand or Australia since the hosting-vote event.

There is also this great point from former Australian international-turned lawyer Moya Dodd, as for the first time these tournaments are being sold separately as opposed to the men and women competitions coming in a bundle. For years, there was an overvaluing of the men’s tournament and an undervaluing of the women’s.

“Now that FIFA has decided to sell the rights separately, it’s no surprise that the buyers don’t want to pay the same big numbers twice,” Dodd said. “Effectively, the industry was trained to pay big money for the men’s World Cup and to treat the women’s equivalent as worthless. At the same time, the women were told they didn’t deserve prize money or equal pay because they didn’t bring the revenues.”

“Rather than scold the broadcasters, I’d like to see FIFA help shift these misconceptions by reviewing all of its bundled deals – broadcast, sponsorship, the lot – and attributing a fair proportion to the women’s game.”

So, again. I agree with Infantino. The numbers should be higher, but to act as the hero in shining armor, when for years the issues were coming from inside the house, is also the problem.

Tweet of the week

Wrexham’s parade to celebrate their league title gave us some wonderful footage and showed why this game remains undefeated. Approximately 40,000 people attended the event, to celebrate a double promotion. The men’s side, widely growing in popularity due to their story and Hollywood owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, returned to the English Football League while the women’s side clinched promotion to the genero Adran Premier in Wales by winning their play-off final.