The Lionel Messi Destination Saga Just Took Another Controversial Turn

Where in the world will international football's greatest son end up playing next year?

Lionel Messi of Paris Saint-Germain in action during the French Ligue 1 between Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique de Lyon at Parc des Princes on April 2, 2023 in Paris, France.
Where will soccer's greatest son end up playing club football next season?
Christian Liewig - Corbis / Corbis via Getty

Shortly after leading his home country, Argentina, to a long-anticipated World Cup championship last December, Lionel Messi reportedly agreed to remain with the French League 1 club for which he’s played since 2021, Paris Saint-Germain FC. But when you’re the greatest player of all time in the globe’s most popular sport, decisions like these over expiring contracts tend not to be made so quickly — or without relentless reports of twists and turns.

Where Messi will end up playing club football this coming 2023-24 season is a saga reaching biblical proportions. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that it might end in the region where the Holy Bible’s stories take place: the Middle East.

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Messi’s December agreement to stay put in Paris was only made with the club on a verbal basis. Yesterday, reports emerged that legitimate contract talks have fallen apart after Paris Saint-Germain asked Messi to take a 25% pay cut next season.

Just a few weeks prior to his verbal pact with PSG, there were also reports that Messi and the MLS Club owned by David Beckham, Inter Miami, were close to reaching a contract agreement that would make him the highest-paid player in league history — something that would be an absolute must if the U.S.-based organization wanted to lure him away from other, more cash-rich and popular leagues abroad.

But just one day after the Inter Miami story leaked, another that countered it completely made the rounds. And throughout there have been dream scenarios bandied about that have Messi returning to Barcelona — à la Michael Jordan’s “Last Dance” with the Chicago Bulls in the late 1990s — to once again play for the Catalonian club where he became a legend.

FC Barcelona was not able to retain Messi’s services after the 2020-21 season due to financial constraints — which to an extent remain in place. Messi may have loved the club, but he’s also been described as a man who’s very well aware of the value he brings to a football organization, and he wasn’t exactly going to play for a pittance. His father and agent, Jorge Messi, also fought to ensure his son would be able to leave the club without a potential new one having to pay an exorbitant transfer fee, which would’ve limited Lionel’s options.

So it’s not like the Messis aren’t ready to throw down when it comes to business. Considering where we stand today, they appear ready to make a very “business” decision.

According to ESPN, there is “now an increasing likelihood” that the 35-year-old Messi, who’s a pitchman for the Visit Saudi tourism campaign, will move to the Saudi Pro League. One ESPN source said the probability is as high as “50-50”; another said that Messi received an offer from Saudi Arabia last week. Forbes says the Saudi deal is worth $438 million.

A Messi move to the Saudi Pro League club Al Hilal, where he’ll be pitted against longtime competition nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo, who recently left the European club to play for Al Hilal’s arch-rival Al Nassr, would disappoint many — including this columnist who’s admired Messi since his awe-inspiring 2006 World Cup debut.

“If he wants to go to Saudi Arabia and take a gazillion dollars, that’s his prerogative,” football analyst Craig Burley of ESPN FC said last night. “But he’s just saying, ‘I don’t care. My career’s finished. I’ll just go over there and play where nobody cares and I’ll take all the dough’…That’s not a football decision; it’s just a money decision.”

To see Messi go the way of Ronaldo, who as Burley pointed out only left Europe because “nobody wanted him,” due to his problematic behavior and deteriorated skill set, would disrupt a potential feel-good narrative. If Messi could somehow make an FC Barcelona contract work, it would appear as though he was following his heart. If he played for Inter Miami he would help to grow football in America, a worthwhile endeavor he’s said in the past he’d like to take on. And even if he took at least a lot of dough from another European club in, say, the Premier League, he’d remain in a competitive space where he can show, as Burley said, that “he’s still got something to offer” on the pitch, “for sure.”

Though Messi has struggled since the tournament concluded three and a half months ago, like many other club football players, the dude just won the World Cup. So, yeah, “for sure.”

What’s still unclear is which nation of fans will have the privilege of seeing Messi provide some of his final thrills on the pitch. Only time — and, to some extent, money — will tell.

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