Fittingly, it began and ended with a napkin. Lionel Messi’s first Barcelona contract was signed hastily on a restaurant serviette. Now, as he sobbed his way through his farewell press conference, his wife, Antonella, stepped forward from the front row to hand him a tissue. “If the rule you followed brought you to this,” asks Anton Chigurh in Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, “of what use was the rule?”

Out in the world beyond, Messi’s choking tears were already being repackaged as content. The live stream on Barcelona’s YouTube channel was accompanied by numerous clickable links inviting viewers to purchase a BarcaTV subscription. The club’s online store was still happily selling Messi-branded leisurewear, fridge magnets, water bottles, baby clothes, even a Messi 2021-22 home kit at the wildly ambitious price of €160 (£135).

Were Messi a vindictive or vengeful man, he might have used this platform to settle a few scores: against the president, Joan Laporta, upon whose hollow assurances he had agreed a new contract; or against the previous regime, whose grotesque mismanagement had caused the financial crater that Messi was now required to fill. But even in his moment of greatest sadness, there would be no recrimination: just a respectful, regretful lament of the circumstances that had forced him to leave his boyhood club against his will, that would force his family to emigrate having seen their father cry on live television.

All the same, there has been a reluctance in many quarters to see Messi – or indeed wealthy footballers in general – as any sort of victim. If Messi was so upset about leaving Barcelona, the logic goes, why did he not offer to forgo his salary entirely instead of jetting to Paris Saint-Germain for a rumoured £21m a year? If he loved Barcelona so much, why not play for them for free?

Not only is this a curiously pitiless concept – an extension of the baseless idea that empathy is a kind of finite resource not to be wasted on the wrong people – but it misses the point entirely. Messi had already taken the club’s crud-encrusted finances into consideration by agreeing to a 50% pay cut. Now it has emerged that even with his entire wage off the books, Barcelona would still have been unable to register him under La Liga rules.

And in any case, the notion the world’s most gifted footballer should simply offer his services pro bono betrays a telling lack of perspective.

Does Laporta work as a partner at his law firm for free? Should Pepsi, Rakuten or Adidas – just a few of the companies who have derived untold brand value from their association with Messi over the years – start handing out their products for nothing? Alternatively, Barcelona’s creditors – among them the investment banks Goldman Sachs and Allianz – should write off the club’s enormous debts. You know, out of love for the game.

Lionel Messi could team up with Neymar (centre), at Paris St-Germain, after four years together at Barcelona.
Lionel Messi could team up with Neymar (centre), at Paris St-Germain, after four years together at Barcelona. Photograph: Siu Wu/AP

Instead, whenever belts need to be tightened it is invariably the players – the actual wealth creators – who are asked to shoulder the burden. The real lesson of Messi’s departure is of the ultimate powerlessness of the elite footballer in the jaws of unregulated capitalism, a reminder that even the very greatest are not immune to the game’s more malign and rapacious forces.

More often this struggle is fought and lost on a smaller scale: the armies of talented young players wasting their best years on the rosters of big clubs, dispatched on loan at the flick of a pen, stockpiled and mothballed like a bag of alfalfa in a warehouse. Yes, some are handsomely paid for the privilege. But what is money without power? The earning window of an elite player is vanishingly short, the value they generate for others – owners, sponsors, agents, broadcasters, private equity firms – immense. How is it possible that they enjoy only the most threadbare of labour protections?

How is it possible the greatest player of his generation – a man who has created more wealth, more content, more pure joy than any footballer who has ever lived – is denied basic agency over his career? Perhaps the reason all this seems so appalling is that there were times when watching Messi on the pitch when – as ridiculous as it sounds – he felt like a bulwark against all this, the one last good pure thing in a world of transactions and deceit.

The city could burn to the ground and the mob could gather outside the walls, and yet somehow as long as Messi was in Barcelona red and blue, with a ball at his feet, football felt like a navigable map. Maybe it was all nonsense, a shrewd Matrix simulation of a world that probably never existed. How else, after all, to explain the currents that washed Messi from Rosario to Barcelona in the first place?

But as Messi reluctantly packs his bags for Paris and one of the three clubs in the world who can still afford him, he’s not the only one being short-changed here. The game’s financial compact, its institutions, its labour market, its governance structures, its competitive balance: it’s all broken, all of it, and in saner times this absurd episode would be a moment to pause and reflect, maybe even to recoil and resist.

Instead, a photo opportunity by the Eiffel Tower and a narrative-rich reunion with Neymar await. As Messi put it at the lectern: “At first it will be weird. But people will get used to it, as we always do.”