Argentine superstar Lionel Messi has ditched his beloved average-paying club, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), for a superrich Saudi Arabian club, and is likely to be seen passing the ball to his nemesis Cristiano Ronaldo as the kingdom opens the mouth of its cornucopia of petrodollars to buy the best players to lead the soccering world.
AFP quoted sources privy to the matter as saying that the World Cup-winning striker has sealed a blockbuster deal with an ‘unnamed’ club.
“Messi is a done deal. He will play in Saudi Arabia next season,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“The contract is exceptional. It’s huge. We are just finalising some small details,” added the source, who is not authorised to speak to the media.
There was no confirmation from Messi’s current club Paris Saint-Germain, which noted simply that he was under contract until June 30 when contacted by AFP.
A separate PSG source said: “If the club had wanted to renew his contract, it would have been done earlier.”
Just five years after allowing its first non-Muslim tourists to visit and letting women drive, Saudi Arabia is attempting to open up its conservative society and diversify its oil-reliant economy.
The world’s biggest oil exporter has thrown hundreds of millions at sports deals including Ronaldo’s signing, F1 in Jeddah and the divisive LIV Golf tour, drawing frequent claims it is “sportswashing” its human rights record.
Messi was suspended by Qatari-owned PSG last week for an unauthorised mid-season trip to Saudi, where he is a tourism ambassador.
‘Not a specific club’
His expected arrival follows in the footsteps of his long-time sparring partner Ronaldo, who joined Saudi Pro League club Al Nassr in a massive deal in January.
Ronaldo’s agreement to June 2025 is said to total more than 400 million euros ($439 million), making him the world’s highest-paid athlete according to Forbes.
Both deals — along with others including LIV Golf and the 2021 purchase of Newcastle United football club — are being bankrolled by the Public Investment Fund (PIF), one of the world’s biggest sovereign wealth funds, the source said.
“The negotiations didn’t take as much time as the ones with Ronaldo. As we now know the recipe to contract world-class players,” said the source.
“It’s Saudi Arabia that brought him not a specific club. The Money comes from one place — PIF.”
Despite several reports linking Messi with Al Hilal, one of the top Saudi teams, club sources told AFP they had not been in direct contact with the Argentine’s team.
“He is a player at the end of his career and he is not here only for football. He is here to secure international attraction for the kingdom,” said the source following the Messi negotiations.
“The plan is not only Messi and Ronaldo, the plan is to bring glorious players like these two and also upcoming youth players who have a promising future.
“We want people to visit Saudi Arabia to watch football stars,” the source added. “Who could imagine that local league matches would attract foreigners? It’s just the Ronaldo impact.”
Messi, who turns 36 in June, has had two lacklustre seasons in Paris after a glorious era at Barcelona where he won four Champions League and 10 La Liga titles and is still worshipped by the fans.
The record seven-time world player of the year, joining a mouth-watering attack featuring Kylian Mbappe and Neymar, scored just 11 goals in his first season as he helped PSG to a routine Ligue 1 title.
But PSG have got no closer to a coveted maiden Champions League victory, bowing out twice in the last 16 even with the illustrious Argentine in their line-up.
Frustrations boiled over last week when black-clad PSG protesters let off flares and sang hostile chants targeting the underperforming Messi, Neymar and Italian midfielder Marco Verratti.
The angry scenes contrasted with Messi’s career-crowning moment in December when he led Argentina to a breathless World Cup final victory over Mbappe and France in Doha to fill the biggest gap in his resume.
Saudi Arabia has held talks with Egypt and Greece about a joint World Cup bid, according to officials. In coming years it will hold the men’s Asian Cup football tournament, the Asian Games and even the Asian Winter Games on artificial snow.
On Tuesday, state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco announced quarterly profits of $31.9 billion — more than three-quarters of the incomes of oil majors BP, Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron and TotalEnergies combined.