With Manchester City appearing to close the door on a move for Lionel Messi, Paris Saint-Germain may be the most likely next destination for the Argentinian superstar after Barcelona said they could not afford to give him a new contract.
Even a 50 per cent pay cut was not enough for Barca’s number crunchers as the Catalan giants pulled the plug on a planned five-year deal for Messi.
Even though he is now 34, in normal times there would be little shortage of suitors for a man who has won 10 league titles and four Champions League crowns with Barcelona while collecting an unmatched six Ballons d’Or.
But 18 months into a global pandemic, these are not normal times. Football has not proven immune as a season-and-a-half of empty stadiums has taken a huge financial toll.
Barcelona were living on the edge before the coronavirus struck. Obliged to slash their wage bill and tackle debts of some 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion), the club on Thursday sprung a shock by saying it was the time for a parting of the ways.
Messi is out of contract at the Camp Nou and is available on a free transfer but it is not clear what roads are open to him.
City could potentially afford his wages and Messi would likely be open to a reunion with Pep Guardiola, his former mentor in Catalonia who is now in charge of the Premier League champions.
However, Guardiola replied “absolutely not” when asked on Friday if the club would move for Messi. City have just added Jack Grealish, who plays in a similar position, for a reported 100 million pounds ($139 million) and, Guardiola said, they might pursue Harry Kane if Tottenham Hotspur drop their asking price.
Reunion with Neymar?
Other leading English clubs may also be able to afford a move for Messi now there is no transfer fee to worry about, but the timing so close to the start of the new season is an issue. Many clubs have already done their business in the transfer window.
Instead, PSG look to be the favourites, should they wish to give Messi the chance of a reunion with his former Barca teammate Neymar at the Parc des Princes.
Only last December, Neymar told ESPN he would love nothing more than to link up again with Messi.
“We know what has happened,” said PSG coach and fellow Argentinian Mauricio Pochettino on Friday as he fielded inevitable questions about whether Messi might be on his own shopping list.
But the former Spurs coach would only go as far as to say that the Parisians “are working on the market to improve the team as much as possible and reach our objectives” as the new season approaches.
“I am concentrating on the start of the season,” which PSG kick off on Saturday.
PSG have in the past been more than ready to pick up marquee names in the twilight of their career — such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Beckham, while veteran defender Sergio Ramos has just arrived from Real Madrid.
Messi “absolutely fits the strategy developed by the club over the past 10 years,” observed Christophe Lepetit of the Centre for Law and Sporting Economy (CDES) in the French city of Limoges to AFP.
Climb the last step
“In sporting terms he is a player who can help you climb the last step to win the Champions League,” an accolade which still eludes PSG, who lost 2020 final to Bayern Munich.
“He also allows the development of other income streams, notably commercial ones,” said Lepetit.
But Pochettino shrugged off questions on Friday, passing the ball to chairman Nasser al-Khelaifi.
“Our president is looking at ways of improving the team,” he said, while denying a British media report that he had spoken to Messi by telephone.
Asked if France star Kylian Mbappe, whose own contract runs out next summer and who is a longstanding Real Madrid target, might leave were Messi to join, Pochettino simply smiled and said “no.”
With French football in financial crisis following the recent collapse of broadcaster Mediapro, PSG have to tread a careful path.
According to French financial watchdog DNCG, the club ended the Covid-interrupted 2019/20 season with pre-tax losses of 124.9 million euros.
Even though UEFA has relaxed financial fair-play restrictions, PSG still need to make savings and yet they have already spent big this summer, signing Ramos, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Georginio Wijnaldum and Achraf Hakimi.