As you might have heard, Spanish treble winner Barcelona is in Los Angeles preparing for the first game of its International Champions Cup tour across the USA against Major League Soccer champ LA Galaxy. The game, which will be held at the Rose Bowl on Tuesday night, is sold out -- in fact, according to some reports, it’s expected to break the 2015 attendance record for men’s soccer on U.S. soil.
However, as you may or may not have heard, Barcelona’s two biggest stars, Lionel Messi and Neymar, who also happen to be two of the world’s very best players, will not be present. In fact, they will both miss the entire three-game tour. Also sitting out are Javier Mascherano, Dani Alves and Claudio Bravo.
While many soccer fans in this country -- particularly casual ones -- will be disappointed by this news, Barca’s omission of Messi, Neymar, et al is not really a surprise. After all, the ICC is a pre-season tournament for participating European clubs, and though it would be nice to win, its main function for coaches is to get a better look at recently signed and/or young players trying to break into the first team in a competitive environment. As the Washington Post’s Steve Goff points out, there are no guarantees that first-team players will even take the field, let alone play more than half of any game.
Moreover, many of these players actually need the rest. In Barca’s case, each of its missing players recently appeared for their respective countries at the 2015 Copa America, South America’s confederation championship, which was held in Chile. That tournament’s final, in which Chile beat Argentina on penalties, was little more than two weeks ago.
While American fans will certainly be disappointed by the absence of stars like Messi and Neymar, they should understand that giving exhausted players the time off they need is important, because the European soccer season is long.
So, just what were Barca’s superstars up to while their teammates were getting ready for tonight’s ICC clash against the Galaxy
As it turns out, Neymar was in nearby Las Vegas, hanging out with NBA legend Michael Jordan and various other celebrities at the World Series of Poker, which took place the weekend of July 11 and 12. Apparently, poker is a huge passion of the Brazilian’s. Judging by his Twitter page, the trip looks like a lot of fun.
Of course, Southern Californians will note that Vegas is only about four hours northeast of the Rose Bowl. Surely, the Brazilian could take a timeout from partying to head down to Pasadena and wave to the 90,000 or so fans that probably bought tickets to the game thinking he would -- at the very least -- be there.
After all, Neymar has been on vacation for longer than the rest of Barca’s missing players. You might recall that his Copa America effectively ended on June 17 when he was red-carded at the end of Brazil’s 1-0 loss to Colombia. After finding out a few days later that he was banned from the rest of the tournament, the Brazil captain promptly left the squad in Chile and headed out on vacation.
Neymar was initially supposed to play in the ICC, but he was later granted an extended leave by coach Luis Enrique until early August. In response to critics of his extended vacation, the Brazilian claimed via social media that this was his first real break from soccer since 2010: “I was born to be happy, not to be perfect,” he declared.
To be sure, of the two, Messi, whose Copa America ended at the hand of Chile on penalties on July 4, was certainly the more deserving of his current break from the game.
As Neymar continued to live it up in Vegas, the world’s best soccer player decided to spend his weekend in the tiny West African nation of Gabon. Humanitarian work, you ask?
Well, no -- officially, Messi was visiting his friend, President Ali Bongo Ondimba. The Barca superstar would be pictured laying cement for the foundation of a new soccer stadium in Port-Gentil, in addition to helping Ondimba open a new a family restaurant, among other things.
“When I was in Barcelona a few years ago, I met Messi who had told me that he would come to visit me in Libreville,” Ondimba is quoted by the Daily Mail as saying. “It's a promise he made me. He is a man of honor who just kept his word.”
According to France Football (via the Daily Mail), Messi pocketed a tidy 3.5 million-euros ($3.8 million) in cash for “the little African trip.”
Regardless of whether or not he actually received $3.8 million, hobnobbing with African billionaire heads-of-state is not a good look for either the world’s best player or Barcelona, because the allegations of corruption against the Bongo family, which has presided over Gabon for some 50 years, are many, according to Mail reporter Peter Allen.
For starters, Ondimba, who took over the Gabonese presidency after his father Omar died in 2009, is regularly accused of plundering the country’s gross domestic product for his family’s personal use. He is also accused of having committed electoral fraud to remain in power. Many countries classify him as a dictator.
“The Bongo family is alleged to have skimmed off 25 percent of the oil-rich nation's gross domestic product over the years, and Omar was said to be one of the world's wealthiest heads of state,” research company PowerIndex said. In all, the family owns some 39 homes across France, not to mention fleets of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, limousines, etc.
Meanwhile, the World Bank claims that almost one-third of Gabonese live at or below the poverty line.
As one opposition source tells Allen: “People are outraged about [Messi’s visit]. Messi should do a bit of research into what Bongo represents.”
Let’s also not forget that back home in Barcelona, Messi and his father, Jorge Horacio Messi, are facing trial for tax evasion, where authorities believe the player’s image rights were sold using shell companies in Uruguay, Belize, Switzerland and the UK to avoid reporting earnings in Spain worth $4.7 million between 2007 and 2009.
It follows, then, that appearing alongside corrupt African dictators -- not to mention the reports about allegedly accepting cash -- won’t help improve his image back home.