Details of Lionel Messi’s secret trip to Arabia: The megastar to earn $1.1 million per day if he play in Saudi league

Details of Lionel Messi’s secret trip to Arabia: The megastar to earn $1.1 million per day if he play in Saudi league


The “highlight” of Lionel Messi’s state-sponsored holiday in Riyadh, according to a gushing Saudi Tourism press release, was a guided tour of historic Diriyah, a Unesco World Heritage site dating back to the 15th century.

Accompanying marketing photographs show Messi and his family on a busy itinerary, also indulging in luxury at a nearby new five-star resort during a two-day stay this week.

As their VIP convoy swept northwest through Riyadh, it is safe to assume the public relations flunkies in tow failed to point out another local landmark – the horrors of “Chop-Chop Square”. Until recently, the Deera site, 15 miles southeast of Diriyah, was where locals gathered to watch executioners carry out public beheadings with a sword.

Now capital punishment takes place behind closed doors as the state’s Vision 2030 plan moves on apace. The country, in its race to diversify away from oil, is doing everything in its powers to divert the local population and its first tourism arrivals towards sporting ambitions.

Human rights campaigners, just as angry as Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain paymasters about his mid-season trip, allege sports-washing efforts are being carried out via pressure hose. It was revealed on Wednesday that the state is now in talks about bringing Messi to the Saudi Pro League, and criticism could mount.

However, in the corridors of another prominent Riyadh destination, the 1,263-foot Public Investment Fund (PIF) Tower skyscraper, there is growing conviction that the government plans are already paying off.

In negotiations led by the state, Messi’s whole package could be worth $400 million annually (£320 million), exceeding even the £165 million that Cristiano Ronaldo is being paid annually to play in Saudi until the summer of 2025.

That is by far the most lucrative potential playing deal in sport, but, in Riyadh, it would be dwarfed by the scale of their willingness to invest in other plans for world domination.

Bringing Messi to Saudi is just part of a grander, significantly more ambitious scheme that has at its heart an attempt to bring the World Cup to the Middle East again – at a cost that could exceed the £150 billion splurge in Qatar.

Well-placed sources say the country is prioritising a potential 2030 bid, having privately offered to pay for new sports stadiums in Greece and Egypt if they agreed to team up with the Kingdom.

However, a potential Spain, Portugal, Ukraine and Morocco bid is seen by some as a favourite. Saudi is understood to be willing to explore 2034 as a potential alternative.

Given Messi already receives tens of millions from the state as a tourism ambassador, there is little concern about meeting the 35-year-old’s contract demands. Saudi government sources insist the main priority for investing so heavily in sport is to engage the country’s disproportionately young population, 80 per cent of whom enjoy football.

“It would be a pretty safe bet to say Messi would be a success when you look at the impact Cristiano Ronaldo has already had,” one source said. Official figures, seen by our reporters, show Saudi Pro League attendances have almost doubled year on year, and “conversation” about the league among women and girls on social media is up 237 per cent.

The Kingdom has already become a leading destination for some of boxing’s biggest fights, including the Anthony Joshua rematch with Andy Ruiz Jnr in Diriyah.

“The impact of Ronaldo is similar to that of Anthony Joshua,” another source added. Joshua’s career has faltered but “boxing is up 300 per cent” across the state.

Messi’s connections with Saudi are well established. Messi played for Barcelona in Jeddah in January 2020 in the Spanish Super Cup, a three-year deal worth £102 million to the Spanish football federation. In November 2019, Riyadh hosted a friendly between Argentina and Brazil when Messi met Turki Al-Sheikh, the chairman of the country’s “general entertainment authority”.

Saudi’s fractious relationship with Qatar means the Doha-based owners of PSG will probably favour other potential destinations this summer. However, with the club now accepting privately that the World Cup winner is likely to leave, former Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook, who has been recruited by Saudi to run the SPL, will play a key role in discussions to secure Messi’s signature.

Regional experts say the signing of Messi would be a natural fit and critics are already too late to stop Saudi’s inexorable rise. The Newcastle United takeover was already facing fresh scrutiny after the LIV Golf Series legal case against the PGA Tour heard that Newcastle’s chairman, Yasir al-Rumayyan, is “a sitting member of the Saudi government” and the PIF is “a sovereign instrumentality of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”.

The UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights recently warned “executions are taking place almost daily” and the state-involved killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi still casts a cloud over the Crown Prince’s authoritarian regime.

However, there is little will at UK government level, at least, to stop the nation’s investments in sport. Emails obtained by The Athletic website last month suggest the UK government actively lobbied for Saudi’s Newcastle takeover in 2021.

Meanwhile, Saudi ambitions remain as lofty as they have ever been. Qatar might yet steal the show again after its World Cup success by buying Manchester United. But such plans have only hardened ambitions across the border to be even more ambitious, turbocharged by a £492 billion pot of cash – larger than the Qataris’ by £100 billion.

HRH Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al Faisal, the Saudi sports minister, recently revealed the country is also equipped to host the Olympics. In that context, Messi’s blockbuster arrival this summer could be just the latest warm-up act.

  • A Telegraph report
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