Speculation about Lionel Messi’s next destination has grown increasingly frenzied over the last few days, after Paris St Germain suspended him for taking an unauthorised trip to Saudi Arabia and the AFP news agency reported on Tuesday that a move to a club in the country was a “done deal”.
PSG’s contract with the 35-year-old Argentinian legend, who lifted the Qatar World Cup in December, is set to run out at the end of this season.
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While his father and agent Jorge Messi released a statement later on Tuesday saying that nothing will be decided before PSG’s season finishes on June 3, Saudi club Al Hilal are eager to sign him and other moves have also been mooted in the media with Barcelona reportedly keen on his return and Inter Miami in Major League Soccer also a possible destination.
Here’s what we know so far.
Is Messi leaving PSG?
Messi’s contract with Paris Saint-Germain runs until the end of June. He joined PSG on a two-year deal after tearfully leaving financially stricken Barcelona against his will in 2021, with an option for an extra year if both parties agreed.
But talks about extending the contract reportedly broke down, making Messi’s exit seem inevitable.
A PSG source told AFP that the Qatari-owned French club had not offered Messi a new deal.
“If the club had wanted to renew his contract, it would have been done earlier,” that source said.
PSG does not seem like a happy place at the moment, with fans calling for the board to resign and targeting some of the club’s star players.
Last week, the fans protested outside the home of Brazilian striker Neymar, calling for him to leave the club. Messi has also been the subject of fan frustration, with supporters also chanting for him to quit the club after reports in the media of negotiations with other clubs.
Messi never seemed hugely thrilled at leaving Barcelona for PSG, and has cut a despondent figure on the pitch at times.
Meanwhile, although PSG are currently five points clear at the top of the French league, they have yet to win a much-coveted Champions League title – with the club crashing out to Bayern Munich this season in the last 16.
Marco Kirdemir, a football agent, told Al Jazeera that it is clear Messi wants a change of scene.
“He could go with Al Hilal, or Inter Miami or Barcelona … but what is certain is that Messi will not be with PSG next year because there is already a rupture, including one with the fans,” he said.
Where will he go?
A sentimental return to Barcelona could also be possible, although the massively indebted club might struggle to afford his wages or to remain in compliance with La Liga’s financial rules if they signed him.
However, Messi could be open to a drastic salary cut to make the move, and reports in the Spanish media suggested Barcelona Joan Laporta has promised fans that Messi will return to the club.
The Athletic reported in April that Messi had not received an official offer from Barca yet but that he wanted to keep playing in Europe.
However, a source close to the World Cup-winning captain told the Reuters news agency on Thursday that Messi has received a formal offer to join Riyadh-based Al Hilal next season and that it is the only offer he has Messi has received. Argentinian media have reported that the move could be worth about $400m a year.
Last week, Messi missed PSG training to visit Saudi Arabia on what was reportedly a promotional trip. Messi is a tourism ambassador for the Gulf kingdom.
He said he thought the team had the day off training and apologised to teammates.
Then on Tuesday, AFP quoted an unnamed source saying that Messi will sign a “huge” deal with an unnamed Saudi club for next season.
“The contract is exceptional. It’s huge. We are just finalising some small details,” the source said.
That seemingly prompted his father to issue a statement saying that no deal had been reached.
“There are always rumours and many use the name of Lionel to gain notoriety but there’s only one truth and we can assure you that there is nothing with anyone,” Jorge Messi posted on his Instagram account. “Neither verbal, nor signed, nor agreed, and there won’t be anything until the end of the season.”
Meanwhile, a close friend of the Messi family with ties to Saudi Arabia told Al Jazeera that there “are many who want him in the United States”.
However, Messi may crave a stature or salary bigger than an MLS club can offer.
And a romantic return to Argentina – his hometown club Newell’s Old Boys in Rosario could even be more sentimentally attractive.
But it would be no surprise if Saudi Arabia’s money, ambition and clout prove to be decisive.
What would a move to Saudi mean?
As part of Saudi’s 2023 globalisation and tourism plan, the oil-rich nation is heavily investing in sport among other sectors. Messi’s great rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, joined Riyadh-based Al Nassr earlier this year.
Messi played against Ronaldo in January in an exhibition game in Riyadh, with the Qatari-owned PSG facing a combined team from Al Nassr and Al Hilal.
Having Messi playing against Ronaldo in competitive games would do even more to boost the country’s football profile as Saudi Arabia prepares to stage the Club World Cup for the first time in December and to bid as joint hosts for the 2030 World Cup – although some media reports have suggested Ronaldo is already less-than-happy at Al Nassr.
Kirdemir also says that Al Hilal aims to become “the best team in the Middle East.
“This year, Al Hilal wants to bring all the stars … and besides, it is the king’s team,” he said.
“And [Saudi Arabia] want to show [the world] a super league with big stars, and prepare to be a candidate for the World Cup.”