Lionel Messi is approaching a decision that could change the balance of power in global football. He is a free agent with three clear options: Barcelona, MLS’ Inter Miami and Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal. According to just about everyone from logged-in reporters to Barca coach Xavi, Messi is expected to choose between the three this week.
And so, after Jorge Messi, Leo’s father and agent, meeting with Barca president Joan Laporta on Monday, cameras and microphone-wielding journalists swarmed him around, pressing for answers, clues, hints as to where the best player ever is leaning towards.
Jorge, protected by sunglasses and a stern expression, didn’t care much. He did say in Spanish that “Leo wants to return to Barca, and I would like him to return too.” And he confirmed that Barca is in fact an “option”.
The first part of Jorge’s statement, about Leo’s desires, is old news. However, the latter was called into question by reports and rumors last week. Barça, saddled with financial problems and constrained by La Liga rules, did not have permission from the Spanish league to sign Messi. The Catalan club therefore could not even have made a formal offer to their living legend.
The approval has now apparently come – “La Liga approved the plan,” transfer insider Fabrizio Romano tweeted Monday – presumably leading to the meeting between Jorge Messi and Laporta at Laporta’s home, and Jorge’s statement that a reunion is plausible, and a ” option”. “
But it is one of at least three options. By all accounts, Saudi Arabia and MLS remain in the mix – in part because Barca still have hurdles to clear.
Is Barcelona now the favourite?
There are several possible readings of the meeting between Messi and Laporta and the dialogue surrounding Leo’s possible return to the club he loves. One is that it has gone from impossible to possible in recent days, and therefore likely. After all, it would make perfect sense that Messi would want to stay in Europe, in the Champions League, at the highest level of the sport; and that he would like to resume his life in Barcelona, the city where he lived from the age of 13 to 34. If Barça can deliver it, it probably will.
Another reading, however, is that Messi’s camp wants the Spanish public to believe he has given Barca every chance to arrange a storybook return, when in reality his eyes are now elsewhere.
That was the handiest reading of a column Guillem Balague, a Spanish journalist close to Messi’s camp, wrote last week. It pushed back on stories that blamed anyone other than Barca for the regulatory complications hampering negotiations. It stated that Messi’s camp has “told Barcelona that the decision on his future is imminent and they can no longer wait for a proposal from [Barca] that didn’t arrive.”
Balague wrote bluntly that we would soon know “where [Messi] will play his football next season — [and] the only thing that seems certain is that it won’t be with Barcelona.”
Perhaps that view has changed in recent days. Maybe La Liga gave in to the ‘Financial Fair Play’ rules, or maybe Barca worked some magic. But time is running out. Laporta and Barca have still not submitted an official offer, Romano reported a few hours after Monday’s meeting.
The only real certainty is that Barca would still have to sell players to make way for Messi, and even then the GOAT would have to take a significant pay cut, especially given the money available in Saudi Arabia.
What about Saudi Arabia and Al Hilal?
The Saudi offer has been on the table for over a month now and it is lucrative. Messi reportedly earns around $400 million a year (or more), by far the highest annual salary in sports history.
He would play for Al Hilal, the Saudi Pro League’s most successful club, but the money would come from the government’s Public Investment Fund, a bottomless well of wealth that the ruling family intends to dive into to raise awareness of the competition (and, by extension, the kingdom).
As of last week, the Saudis seemed favored to bring in Messi. A May 9 report from AFP – which Jorge Messi denied – suggested it was already a “finished deal”. Saudi authorities are reportedly ready for Messi’s arrival, with all the logistics in order, pending word from the player himself.
So maybe it will indeed happen – or maybe this is also an achievement, an attempt to expedite a deal while Barca slows down time.
Are MLS and Inter Miami still an option?
Of the many parties involved in these multifaceted negotiations, the Americans were the calmest. That could be a sign of waning confidence. Or it can be strategic or natural.
What we know is that Inter Miami and MLS officials have been in contact with Messi’s camp. They have, according to Fabrizio Romano“presented their offer.”
Argentine journalist Veronica Brunati reported that the salary offered in Miami is 10% of what Messi would earn in Saudi Arabia. Balague reported that Apple and Adidas are indeed involved to “help close the deal,” but that “the first reaction from the Messi camp was that that offer was too complicated and they weren’t convinced.” (Here’s how and why a potential deal with Apple could work.)
The public noise would therefore indicate that Miami and MLS are in third place in this three-horse race. But at least they’re in the race.
Does Messi have other options?
reported Romano last week that “more European clubs [had been] is approaching” as Messi’s decision loomed. But none have been named – throughout this months-long saga, only the three horses and PSG have presented themselves as real options.
So now that PSG is officially off the table, it’s Barca, Saudi Arabia or Miami. And it seems that Messi’s indecisiveness is legitimate – that the process is well advanced, but no final choice has been made yet.
With microphones dancing in his face after the meeting with Laporta, between assurances that Leo would like
to return to Barcelona, Jorge Messi proclaimed: “I don’t know anything yet.”