ROB DRAPER: Only Saudi Arabia can afford Lionel Messi now

ROB DRAPER: Forget it, Barca… only oil-rich nation states can afford Lionel Messi’s £8m-a-week wages now as the World Cup winner departs the big time to provide celebrity cover for Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses

  • Lionel Messi has been offered £435m-a-year to sign for Al-Hilal in Saudi Arabia
  • There’s absolutely no way Barca or Inter Miami can match anywhere near that
  • Messi doesn’t need the money but all roads seem to lead to Riyadh now 

Back in 1996, some seasoned journalists blanched, muttered ‘the game’s gone’ and waxed lyrical about more innocent days when it became clear that £20,000 a week had become the expected weekly wage for a Premier League superstar. 

Obviously only for the likes of Alan Shearer, Roy Keane or Les Ferdinand, but still: where would this madness end?

The answer to that question seems to be in Saudi Arabia, with Lionel Messi set to become an £8million-a-week player. Yes, you read that correctly. 

If the figures in L’Equipe are to be believed, Messi is being offered £435m-a-year for two years at Al-Hilal, with an option of a third year. 

Given the fees LIV golfers command, this would seem entirely within what might be expected.

Lionel Messi’s value has only been enhanced by Argentina’s World Cup success last year

The 35-year-old star will depart Paris Saint-Germain in the summer with just one destination

Messi and his wife Antonela during their promotional visit to Saudi Arabia last week

Various adjectives have been used to describe the Al-Hilal offer to Messi. ‘Exceptional’ reported AFP, a reliable French news agency, which also reported a Saudi source saying the deal would be done. 

Not so, said an angry Jorge Messi, father of said player, insisting nothing had been decided.

And yet, even if the Saudis might have jumped the gun in briefing AFP, it’s hard not see how all roads don’t lead to Riyadh for Messi this month.

Messi was back in Paris Saint-Germain training at Camp Des Loges, but was on his own on Monday, still persona non grata despite having issued his apology to the club and team-mates for skipping last week’s post match inquest because he had a prior engagement to fulfil, namely his £25m-a-year contract promoting Saudi tourism.

With Messi suspended by the club, PSG won 3-1 at Troyes but it seems the mood at PSG has softened and he will be available for Ajaccio at Parc des Princes on Saturday night when, in theory, PSG could secure the title. (Their ninth in 11 years, yawn)

Quite what reception will be waiting for him there from the fan base that chanted ‘son of b****, Messi’ outside the club headquarters last week after his Saudi jaunt became public knowledge and who also turned up at Neymar’s house to demand he leaves, remains to be seen. 

It’s unlikely to mimic the fawning praise poured on him by Saudi executives persuading him that Al-Hilal would be a unique challenge for the man who was won everything.

Messi’s exit from PSG has been a spectacularly badly-managed PR exercise. His impact at the club will be a mere footnote, an afterthought in his career summary.

Al-Hilal is Messi’s likely next destination after an offer of £8million-a-week was tabled 

Messi is set to turn out in the blue of Al-Hilal next season as he turns his back on Europe

The star already earns £25m-a-year working as an ambassador for the Saudi tourism authority

His wife and three children may want to return to Barcelona, the city that was home. And Barcelona might desperately want him back. 

But it’s hard to see this being anything other than a make-believe narrative designed to make everyone feel better about themselves until reality bites and Messi heads off to Riyadh to provide celebrity cover for human rights abuses.

LaLiga’s financial fair play rules means Barca have to reduce their transfer costs and wage bill for next season by £175m and show extra income before they can register any new players. 

You might thinking that signing the most-expensive player in the world may not be commensurate with that goal.

However, many will now be accustomed to the levers or palancas that club president Joan Laporta managed to pull last season to sign the likes of Robert Lewandowski.

The basic premise was that if the club could raise extra income in the form of selling off future TV and marketing rights, they were eventually allowed to sign Lewandowski, Raphinha and Jules Koundé and register new players in Franck Kessie, Andreas Christensen and Marcos Alonso, though only after much negotiation.

Barcelona president Joan Laporta has no more levers to pull in order to afford Messi

Messi returning to Barcelona would be the romantic option but they can’t afford to pay him

Their new plan seems to be based on the palanca Messi. It goes roughly like this: if we can persuade Messi to accept £22m a year (and he seems open to the idea), then we can earn more than £200m in shirt sales, sponsorship deals and ticket sales (though Barca will be playing at Montjuic Olympic Stadium next season while the Camp Nou is refurbished) on the back of the Messi brand.

Of course, this is madness. Clubs don’t recoup the full profit on shirt sales anyway, as the brand manufacturer takes a large cut. And the maths assumes that they wouldn’t have sold those shirts anyway. 

Sponsors will certainly be willing to play more to be associated with Messi but normally Team Messi would just build that into their price, the prune juice effect, as Sir Alan Sugar memorably dubbed it: whatever extra income the club earns, goes straight out the other end to the players.

Messi is a wonderful footballer who has brought pleasure to billions but he and his team have never been noted for selling themselves short over the years. 

To accept £400,000 a week when the alternative is £8m a week would essentially be an act of charity. 

After inspiring Argentina to World Cup glory, Messi has everything his heart desires in football

Messi looks set to be playing just down the road from rival Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s at Al-Nassr 

He would really have to want to stay in Europe, be mad for just one more Champions League title. And LaLiga would have to approve this new financing. 

Whilst they would recognised the importance of bringing Messi back to LaLiga, this appears to be the kind of fantasy figures not seen since Liz Truss had a bright idea for a budget.

The reality is that Messi has grown too big for Barca. His fame, his brand, his monetary value is just beyond what anyone other than an oil-rich nation state can afford. 

At the age of 35, his athletic performance is diminishing but the World Cup win means he’s worth than at any time before and his value just goes up with age. 

That’s an economic formula no serious football club can indulge. 

Barca are losing Sergio Busquets (probably also to Al-Hilal) so will reduce their wage bill and they want to sell Ansu Fatu and Raphinha to the Premier League. 

Messi poses with a falcon during his Saudi visit amid rumours he could play football there

The forward flew to the Middle East with his family last week to pose for promotional pictures

But they also need signings other than Messi and to register Gavi’s new deal, which at present they don’t have the necessary budget. 

You might think that an 18-year-old midfield star should be the priority for the future over a 35-year-old legend. But that would be to ignore the politics.

Back when Peter Kenyon was chief executive of Manchester United and David Beckham was busy pushing his own personal brand, there was a view from the Manchester United boardroom that the player was seriously overplaying his hand. 

The club brand, Kenyon said, would always be bigger than the individual star.

But Beckham saw something that United weren’t reckoning on and effectively paved the way for Messi and, ironically, his replacement at United, Cristiano Ronaldo. 

Something gargantuan, bigger even than the Beckham brand, was coming. The truth is that Messi is bigger than anything in football, he has unique global appeal and, unless you’re a diehard Ronaldo fan, he is pretty much above tribal allegiance. 

He is probably more recognised and loved than The Pope. After all, he transcends religion. As such, the circle has been squared and the player is now bigger than the club. Even a club as big as Barcelona.

Spare a thought for Elye Wahi, Montpellier’s 20-year-old strike sensation, who scored four goals at Lyon last weekend to put his side 4-1 up. 

Job done, player of the match secured, match ball in the bag, you would think. 

Elye Wahi scored four times for Montpellier against Lyon – but ended up on the losing side

Only Alexandre Lacazette also went on to score four, Lyon winning 5-4, with the decisive goal coming in the seventh-minute of injury time after a contentious VAR penalty decision. 

That said, Wahi’s future looks only good and pedigree is impressive, his youth club alma mater being Suresnes, N’Golo Kante’s first club. Despite signing a new contract last year, a move to the Bundesliga beckons. 

James Maddison might have thought Leicester had it bad, with fans chanting ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’ at Fulham on Monday. 

But Italian ultras at Benevento, bottom of Serie B, took supporter anger to another level at the weekend after their team’s 3-1 defeat at Cittadella, chasing the team bus down on the motorway in minibuses, surrounding it and then smashing windows with metal bars, according to calciomercato. 

Thankfully the windows were re-enforced double glazed so no injuries were sustained. But it puts a few choice words from the terraces into perspective.

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