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 one the move again this summer and his likely destination is causing plenty of controversy.
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.
Lionel Messi capped a stellar career by inspiring Argentina to World Cup glory last year
Now, after a fall-out with Paris Saint-Germain, Messi could be on his way to Saudi Arabia
Lionel Messi, wife Antonela Roccuzzo and sons Mateo and Ciro pose with horses during their visit to Saudi Arabia last week which led to the Argentine player being suspended by PSG
Messi’s stunning wife Antonela Roccuzzo has been by his side for every one of his major footballing triumphs – but moving to Saudi Arabia could prove a step too far
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.
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 £103.4m-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.
Messi poses with a falcon during his Saudi visit amid rumours he could play football there
The Argentine star already earns £25m-a-year working as a Saudi tourism ambassador
The £522m deal would see Messi move to Al-Hilal, the country’s most successful club
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 £175m-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.
Cristiano Ronaldo with his family in Saudi Arabia after he signed for Al-Nassr back in January
Ronaldo and his partner Georgina Rodriguez enjoy the sunshine in the Saudi capital
The Portuguese star, 38, is attempting to lead Al-Nassr to the Saudi Pro League title having signed for the club after his acrimonious departure from Manchester United
But how did it come to this point for Messi?
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 £25m-a-year.
Messi and his son try out the board game Carrom during the promotional trip to Riyadh
The Messi family learned the art of palm-weaving during their Middle East trip last week
The family visited an amusement park in Riyadh as part of Messi’s ambassadorial role
The Saudis are keen to make use of Messi’s global profile to promote tourism to the country
Messi and his wife pose for pictures during their visit to Diriyah earlier this week
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 achieved great success at Barcelona but a return is likely to be beyond the club’s reach
Messi’s hopes of winning another Champions League title were scuppered by Bayern Munich
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 £175m, 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’Equipe 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.
Lionel Messi’s wife Antonela Roccuzzo (left) is reportedly reluctant for the couple along with their three children to move to Saudi Arabia and would prefer they stay in Europe
Antonela Roccuzzo attends the Louis Vuitton Womenswear Fall Winter 2023-2024 show
Antonela and Messi are pictured with their three sons Thiago (L), Mateo (R) and Ciro (C)
Antonela is pictured with her three sons at the World Cup in Qatar last year, where her husband sealed his place in history guiding Argentina to glory
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.
Anthony Joshua fights Oleksandr Usyk in a heavyweight boxing fight in Jeddah back in 2022
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund bought an 80 per cent stake in Newcastle in 2021 – pictured is chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan and part-owner Amanda Staveley
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 £300m takeover back in 2021.
The buy-out 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.