Lionel Messi is a name that transcends football. The Argentine is a household name all around the world after a fairytale career that peaked with last year’s World Cup triumph.
So when someone like Messi transfers between clubs, it’s never likely to be a quiet, straightforward switch. It looks like the 35-year-old will be on the move again this summer and his likely destination is causing plenty of controversy.
Even though Messi has the option of an extra year at his current club Paris Saint-Germain [PSG], he is set to leave after just two seasons with the French champions. The club where he made his name, Barcelona, are desperate to re-sign the player they let go in 2021, but they are crippled by financial problems and simply cannot afford him.
There has been interest from Inter Miami, a club in the North American Major League Soccer [MLS] but the most likely destination is cash-rich Saudi Arabia and the Riyadh-based Al-Hilal team.
When Messi lifted the glistening World Cup trophy into the night sky of Qatar back in December, after Argentina beat France on penalties after a thrilling 3-3 draw, it was the completion of a life’s work. Messi had now won everything his heart desired with the World Cup being the final piece of the puzzle.
Despite the fact he only has a few years left in his playing career, that triumph only served to raise the amount of money clubs must pay to sign him.
It’s why this week saw reports out of France that Al-Hilal are offering him a contract worth an eye-watering £522 million ($650 million) to come and play in Saudi Arabia. A source told the AFP news agency it was a ‘done deal’ that Messi would sign a two-year contract with the option of a third. If he sees that out, he will be 38.
Given he currently earns £103.4 million ($130 million) per season at PSG, that represents a mind-blowing final payday in his career. Messi’s father, Jorge, quickly shut down the AFP report and insisted no decision has yet been made about his son’s next move.
But it’s obvious the way the wind is blowing. The money on the table, Messi’s existing ties to Saudi Arabia, and the lack of clubs elsewhere who could afford him means all roads lead to Riyadh.
It raises the intriguing scenario of Messi playing at a rival club in the same league and the same city as Cristiano Ronaldo next season. The pair have spent most of their careers locked in a competition – who can score the most goals, win the most trophies, break the most records?
Now Messi could be with Al-Hilal and Ronaldo could play for Al-Nassr, who are their local rivals. They were last in direct competition when Messi was at Barcelona and Ronaldo at Real Madrid in Spain at the peak of their powers.
Ronaldo earns £175 million ($220 million)-a-year to play for Al-Nassr, so Messi would be on more money, not that either is exactly cash-strapped.
It would make Messi the world’s highest-paid athlete, moving back above Ronaldo as well as NBA stars such as Lebron James and Steph Curry.
His first season at PSG was a little slow by his standards but the current campaign has been very productive – Messi has scored 20 times and made 19 goals for team-mates.
PSG, who are bankrolled by a branch of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, are on course to win the league title but Messi’s hopes of winning the Champions League, the top European prize, ended with defeat to Germans Bayern Munich.
PSG have endured some shock defeats, however, and one came against Lorient on April 30. The following day was a scheduled rest day and Messi had arranged to travel to Saudi Arabia with his wife, the model, fashion designer and influencer Antonela Roccuzzo, and two of their three sons.
It was part of his work as a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia, a role which reportedly nets him £25 million ($31 million) per year.
But when PSG coach Christophe Galtier cancelled the day off and called the squad in for extra training, Messi was already en route to the Middle East and unable to turn back. During his visit, Messi and his family were shown around the Saudi capital Riyadh and the old mud-brick town of Diriyah, posing for promotional photographs.
Because the trip was unsanctioned, PSG suspended Messi for two weeks and docked his pay. It came at a sensitive point in negotiations over extending his contract there, with PSG offering him the same terms.
Messi had been unconvinced by PSG’s plans to win then major honours anyway, and the club knew of his intentions, but his suspension confirmed that he wanted to leave. Although the player apologised to the club and his team-mates in an Instagram video, and was quickly reintegrated into the squad having missed just one match, he is heading for a divorce from the club.
Barcelona have been in contact with Messi’s camp over what would be a romantic return to a club and a city that is very close to his heart. Messi would prefer to stay in Europe, where he can potentially win more prestigious honours, but the Spanish club are in enormous debt and will be again squeezed by the Spanish league’s financial rules this summer.
In order to register new players or even get existing ones onto new contracts, Barcelona must make savings of £175 million, so their chances of affording Messi are slim. Regardless of his affection for the club, Messi isn’t going to play for nothing.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia views the prospect of him playing in their league as a ‘unique opportunity which is impossible to pass up’ and the authorities there – both football and in government – have been preparing the groundwork for months.
But there could be one snag. The French newspaper L’Equipe reported last week that Messi’s wife Antonela is wary of moving the couple’s three young sons – Thiago, 10, Mateo, 7, and Ciro, 5 – to Saudi. L’Equiipe said she ‘can’t imagine’ family life in the Kingdom.
Antonela – who is the cousin of one of Messi’s childhood friends and team-mates, Lucas Scagilia, and hails from the same Argentine city of Rosario – was his childhood sweetheart.
Their relationship solicited in the late 2000s, when she gave up postgraduate studies in dentistry to join Messi in Barcelona.
Antonela, who boasts more than 37 million Instagram followers, is an active philanthropist and owns a children’s fashion label in Argentina, will surely have a say in the move.
There has already been a backlash from fans who adore Messi after the news of the Saudi deal emerged. Some believe it to be a disappointing end to an illustrious career when Messi can clearly still perform in Europe’s top leagues.
Others have a strong distaste of Saudi Arabia’s so-called ‘sportswashing’ project to cover up its shoddy record on human rights. They have already split the world of golf by launching the LIV tour, which enticed some of the best players with enormous sums of prize money.
High-profile boxing such as the Anthony Joshua vs Oleksandr Usyk fight was staged in Jeddah in 2022. And in football, the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) took a controlling 80 per cent stake in Premier League club Newcastle United in a £300 million ($374 million) takeover back in 2021.
The buyout was sanctioned after the Premier League said it received ‘legally binding assurances’ the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia itself would not control Newcastle.
Their next ambition is to host the 2030 football World Cup, becoming the second country in the Middle East after Qatar last year. Messi and Ronaldo could be drafted in as ambassadors during the bid process.
It remains to be seen if Riyadh is big enough for the two rivals.
- The Daily Mail report